Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing explores the experience of tragedy and horror of genocide in Indonesia through imaginative recreations made with the killers themselves.
Originally hailing from Texas, Joshua Oppenheimer now makes his home in Copenhagen, Denmark. This is where I encountered the director in November, the day after his latest film called The Act of Killing took the big prize at this year’s tenth edition of CPH:DOX, the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival.
Oppenheimer’s haunting and surreal film tells the story of Anwar Congo and his friends. With the director’s help, they make their first film, an autobiography of sorts, about their time as mass murderers. When the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965, these men were promoted from small-time gangsters who sold movie theater tickets on the black market, to death squad leaders who helped the Indonesian army kill more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals in less than a year, making it one of the most horrific—and woefully underreported—genocides in recent history. These days, Anwar is revered as a founding father of a right-wing paramilitary organization, and is a celebrity, of sorts, in Jakarta.
Oppenheimer challenged Anwar and his friends to develop fictional scenes about their experiences of the killings, adapted to their favorite film genres, which encompass gangster films—naturally—but also Westerns and musicals. Playing both themselves and their victims, the filmmaking process catalyzes a severe emotional and psychic journey for Anwar in one of the most extraordinary performances seen in documentary, at least in my recent memory. Oppenheimer has been producing films in Indonesia for close to a decade, his work focusing on the victims of the mass genocide and their families, using what he calls “documentary of the imagination” to traverse and push the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction storytelling.
In a nod to the film’s surreality, I was sitting next to three young Indonesian men at the awards ceremony in Copenhagen the night before. These same three men were filming an interview with Oppenheimer at a café called Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus, where I met the director. I couldn’t make this stuff up. After expressing some suspicion about what they wanted from him, Oppenheimer realized they were simply young filmmakers and journalists wanting to talk to him, not representatives of the Indonesian government there to cause him trouble.