In Oscar-nominated ‘The Act of Killing,’ mass murderers boastfully reenact their war crimes

BY Victoria Fleischer  February 20, 2014 at 1:10 PM EST


The Oscar-nominated documentary “The Act of Killing” challenges Anwar Congo, a death squad leader during the mass killings in 1965 Indonesia, to re-enact the horrors of his past. Director Joshua Oppenheimer spoke to the NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown about why Anwar and his friends were so boastful about their actions and what it was like to get a glimpse into the minds of killers.

When Joshua Oppenheimer started working on his film eight years ago about the 1965 mass killings in Indonesia, he had a different vision in mind. He spent two years working with survivors before the army threatened them.

“The survivors then said ‘well if you can’t film us, try and film the perpetrators. You might find out what happened to us,’” Oppenheimer told chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown.

So the filmmaker sought out the people in charge of the killings and he found a characteristic rarely seen among those charged with war crimes.

“They were boastful, eager to show what they’ve done, eager to take me to the places where they killed and show how they killed,” said Oppenheimer.

Anwar Congo (right) has his makeup done for a scene in

Anwar Congo, right, has his makeup done. Courtesy: Drafthouse Films

“Normally perpetrators in documentary, by the time you meet, they’ve already been identified as perpetrators, that is to say they have been removed from power and so they deny what they’ve done or they apologize for it. But these men have never been removed from power. They are still in power, they’ve never been forced to admit what they did is wrong.”

Before his new subjects became the leaders of death squads, they were “thugs” who hung out in front of movie theaters. Their love of American cinema is observable throughout the documentary. When Oppenheimer turned the camera on the perpetrators, they wanted to recreate scenes from their past through “The Act of Killing.” Those re-enactments came with a bit of a twist.

“They chose to suggest to dramatize it in the style of their favorite Hollywood films.”

According to the filmmaker, no one suggested to “enhance” the scenes more than the main character, Anwar Congo, who Oppenheimer says was “more boastful than anyone else.”

“I lingered on him because I saw that underpinning his boastfulness … was a shame, a pain, a trauma. I recognized that boasting and guilt are two sides of same coin.”


After acting out a torture scene, Congo and his friends discuss the potential consequences of the film being made public.

While he was filming these former killers as they talked openly about and reenacted the horrors of their past, Oppenheimer forced himself to keep an open mind.

Anwar Congo sings 'Born Free" in "The Act of Killing." Courtesy: Drafthouse Films

Anwar Congo sings “Born Free” in “The Act of Killing.” Courtesy: Drafthouse Films

“So many of the stories we tell are based on dividing the world into good guys and bad guys, protagonists and antagonists. These seem like they’ve done bad things so they are bad guys, so we interpret their boasting as sign that monstrous. But what if they are not? Our task as nonfiction filmmakers is to see what’s really there,” Oppenheimer explained.

“I refused to label them as monsters because I felt in doing so I would make it impossible to understand what really happened.”

“The Act of Killing” is nominated for Best Documentary at the 2014 Academy Awards. The film is currently streaming on Netflix. Tune in on March 2 to see how the film fairs.