The incendiary and critically acclaimed new documentary, “The Act of Killing,” might at first seem to have little connection with the Jewish experience aside from the background of its director Joshua Oppenheimer: Its subjects are veterans of the 1965 massacres in Indonesia, during which 1,000,000 men, women and children were slaughtered over the course of one year following a United States-backed coup. To make the film, the 37-year-old Oppenheimer and his co-directors eschewed all pretenses of objective storytelling and instead encouraged and empowered their subjects to write, design and perform their bloodiest memories for the camera. His protagonists “directed” their mini-movies with enthusiasm, and Oppenheimer’s film reproduces both their final visions and the shocking process by which they distorted, romanticized and, on occasion, directly faced the horrors of the past.
The protagonists are not the massacres’ survivors, but the killers themselves — the former street thugs who escaped punishment and are now some of the richest and most feared men in the country. The film focuses primarily on Anwar Congo, a genial Nelson Mandela look-alike who slaughtered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocent civilians with machetes, garrotes and sometimes even his bare hands. Congo loves both the U.S. and the American gangster movies upon which he models his fearsome persona — hence his complete and perhaps misplaced trust in the young Jewish filmmaker from New Mexico.
The result is an often horrifying exploration of bad faith and the human capacity for denial, especially since Congo couches his past in terms that he’s learned from Hollywood movies and US propaganda. One critic has called the documentary “the most unsettling movie about mass killing since ‘Shoah.’” The comparison with Claude Lanzmann’s masterpiece is apt, and not only because it takes genocide and impunity as its subject. Oppenheimer is the son of political activists and academics and the grandson of several branches of victims and survivors. He spoke with the Forward about the fact that, though his movie is a statement on the impact of globalization, it can also be read as a “backdoor Holocaust movie.”
Sheerly Avni: “Act of Killing” grew out of your first film, “The Globalisation Tapes,” about workers on an Indonesian Palm Oil plantation. Many of these workers had lost family members to the genocides, but one does not hear their voices as victims in “Act of Killing.” Why did you choose to focus on the killers?
Joshua Oppenheimer: When I was first in Indonesia making “The Globalisation Tapes” with survivors of the genocide, of course I felt a real connection to them, and a responsibility to document their stories. But then when I encountered perpetrators who were so boastful and proud of their past deeds, I felt like theirs was the most important story I could follow. I think the tradition of documentary films is that we talk about victims to feel good about ourselves, and to deny the fact that we are much closer to perpetrators than we realize.