‘Boasting and guilt are two sides of the same coin’: Confronting Indonesia’s genocide in ‘The Act of Killing’

February 27, 2014 at 6:47 PM EDT
In the documentary “The Act of Killing,” men who were recruited by the Indonesian government to help massacre more than a million people in a so-called anti-communist purge not only discuss their roles in the genocide, they garishly reenact their crimes as if they were Hollywood actors. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss how Indonesia might begin to come to terms with horrors of the past.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, with the Oscars this weekend, we look at a film nominated for best documentary. It’s centered in Medan, the capital of Northern Sumatra in Indonesia.

Jeff is back with a conversation he recorded recently.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a history that’s little known in the U.S., the slaughter of more than a million people in Indonesia after a military coup in 1965.

The victims were communist and those labeled as such, including intellectuals, ethnic Chinese, and anyone opposed to the new regime. The perpetrators were often members of paramilitary groups who carried out their executions with the approval of the military government.

And in the new documentary “The Act of Killing,” it is they, the killers, who speak up and show exactly how they did their work.

Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer joins us now.

Welcome to you.

JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER, director, “The Act of Killing”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is a group of men who operated openly, violently. They were self-described gangsters, right? And they modeled themselves on movie gangsters.


In the city of Medan, where we made this film, they recruited their killers from the ranks of gangsters who were hanging out in cinemas. They all had a love of Hollywood films. And when I met them, not only were they boastful about what they had done, because they had never been forced to admit it was wrong, but when they started suggesting that they dramatize it, they chose to suggest that they dramatize it in the style of their favorite Hollywood…

JEFFREY BROWN: So you made what is in essence a sort of film within the film, with their cooperation. I mean, they said, here, let us act it out for you.

JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: That’s exactly right.

I started this project in collaboration with survivors. And we were working very closely to try and document the horror that they had experienced and what it’s like for them to live today with the perpetrators still in power.

But when the army found out what we were doing, the army warned them, threatened them not to participate in the film. The survivors then said, OK, if you can’t film us, try and film the perpetrators. You might find out what happened to us.

When I approached the perpetrators, they were boastful, eager to show what they had done, eager to take me to the places where they killed and show how they killed, and then started to suggest stylizations, improvements. And I realized that, if we could let them do that, we would be able to expose the whole regime that the killers had built.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, the obvious question is, how did you get them to talk to you? But it sounds as though it wasn’t a problem at all.

JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: These men have never been removed from power — never been removed from power. They’re still in power.

They have never been forced to admit what they have done is wrong. And, therefore, they have been able to cling to the lie, namely the victor’s history, that they have told ever since 1965, justifying their actions, and imposing that version of the events on their whole society.

And, when they met me, as an American, knowing that the United States supported, participated in and ultimately helped to ignore and deny what had happened, they were open immediately.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to show one little clip here, and it is one of the main characters, Anwar Congo. Just tell us a little bit about him, by way of introducing this.

JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: Anwar Congo was, in fact, the 41st perpetrator whom I filmed.

He was more boastful than anyone else, but underpinning it was a shame, a pain, a trauma. And I recognized that the boasting and guilt are two sides of the same coin. I lingered on him. And he’s the one who started to propose these ever more elaborate dramatizations, almost as though he was trying to run away from what he knows is wrong about what he did.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let’s take a look at that short clip.

MAN (through interpreter): That’s me. I’m wearing a played shirt, camouflage pants, saddle shoes. See how elite I am?

MAN (through interpreter): That is what you should wear in the studio scene.

MAN (through interpreter): And for its killing scene, jeans.

MAN: Jeans.

MAN (through interpreter): I wore jeans for killing.

MAN (through interpreter): When you kill people, you should wear thick pants, like this.

MAN (through interpreter): How about a checkered pattern? That would be great, but small ones.

JEFFREY BROWN: As they casually, right, gleefully boast, as you say, describe these kinds of horror stories, one wonders what you were feeling.

JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: Well, I was astonished and horrified much of the time.

But I also forced myself not to make the leap from saying these men have done something monstrous to these men are monsters.

And I think so many of the stories we tell are based on dividing the world into good guys and bad guys, protagonists and antagonists. And these are — seem like they have done bad things, so they’re bad guys. So we interpret their boasting as a sign that they are monstrous.

But what if they are not? What if we looked — our task as nonfiction filmmakers is to see what is really there.

JEFFREY BROWN: You had an Indonesian co-director. You worked with many Indonesians. They, I gather, have chosen to remain anonymous out of fear of their safety. What has been the reaction to the film in Indonesia?

JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: The film has helped catalyze a transformation in how Indonesia talks about its past.

Ordinary Indonesians are now able to talk about the genocide as a genocide and relate it to the moral catastrophe of the present-day regime built by the killers, even as the Indonesian media also has started to report on the genocide as a genocide and investigate it in-depth.

Once the film was nominated for an Academy Award, the government finally broke its silence about it. A spokesman for the president of Indonesia said, yes, it was a crime about humanity, but we don’t need a film to tell us how to deal with this. We will deal with it in our own time.

Now, that is an inadequate response, but it is a sea change. It’s an about-face, because, until now, the government has maintained that what happened in 1965 was heroic. Finally, they have admitted that it was wrong. That’s enormous. And now, very recently, we have held a screening on Capitol Hill for members of Congress.

And the big discussion was, what can we do about this? If we want to have a constructive and ethical relationship with Indonesia moving forward, we need to acknowledge the crimes of the past and our collective role in supporting, participating in and ultimately ignoring those crimes.


“The Act of Killing” is the new film by Joshua Oppenheimer.

Thank you so much.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can find our other conversations with Oscar nominees for best documentary feature on our Web site.