The Act of Killing review and Interview with director Joshua Oppenheimer

JulyMovie_TheActOfKilling

Before I review this film, I think it’s important to give a bit of background on how I came to know about this film. I first heard of it from an Indonesian friend of mine when I went back to Jakarta last December. At the time I hadn’t even heard of the film, but she said it was about the events in 1965, when the Indonesian government led by the first president Sukarno was overthrown in a military coup. Every Indonesian in my generation was subjected to brainwashing by the Suharto regime that the communist party (PKI) is evil and that they pose a mortal threat. Every year we had to watch a propaganda film that’s broadcasted in every single TV network so there’s no way we could’ve escaped it, whilst there’s not a single mention of this brutal massacre anywhere in our history books.

What this film exposes is that the new military dictatorship basically used any means at their disposal to get rid of anyone presumed to have any association with the communist movement. The killings resulted in one of the most brutal genocide in history, with nearly a million people slaughtered within a year. The Act of Killing is a documentary that challenges former Indonesian death squad leaders to reenact their real-life mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish. It’s obvious some of the scenes they re-enacted are inspired by Hollywood films, as the perpetrators of the killings themselves admitted that they’re big fans of violent Brando and Pacino movies. In fact, some of the perpetrators who were ‘premans’ (street-level gangsters) used to be ticket scalpers preying on fans of Hollywood movies at their local cinemas.

ActOfKilling_Stills

No doubt this is one of the most bizarre and frightening films I’ve ever seen, but also one of the most inventive. Most documentaries I’ve seen usually have talking heads or footage of the subject matter, but in this case, we not only get the first-hand account of the event, but the perpetrators themselves willingly re-enact the brutal events on camera. I enjoyed the fact that the dialog is in Indonesian, so that fact, along with the setting of film, gave me a sense of nostalgia. But the film is so disturbing I had to watch it in two parts. I’ve never felt so many conflicting emotions running through me as I’m watching it, and even days later, it’s all I could think about.

The documentary is so well-crafted as it really transported me to another realm. Director Joshua Oppenheimer spent nearly a decade working on this film, which grew out of another project he was working on in Indonesia [more on that in the interview below]. The Texas-born filmmaker [who currently resides in Copenhagen] had been fluent in Indonesian whilst filming this (you could hear him speaking Bahasa Indonesia to the actors in the film), and it’s apparent that he cares very deeply about the story. I’m amazed at how candid the former death squad leaders were in revealing the acts of killings they did four decades ago, down to the most gruesome details, both in words and in the form of the various re-enactments. It’s interesting that in some of the scenes they’re playing the ‘victim’ of the torture and execution. At one point Anwar said to Joshua that perhaps he could feel what his victims felt when they were subjected to such horrifying terror, but the director wisely but politely rebuked him. Obviously he could never felt what his victims felt, given that what Anwar took part in was only fiction, not the real deal.

The word ‘amusing’ perhaps isn’t what you’d expect in a documentary about mass killings… yet the re-enactments that were inspired by various Hollywood genres ranging from Cowboy movies, crime drama, and bizarre musical numbers where a member of Indonesian paramilitary Pemuda Pancasila was dressed in an ornate drag costume. Some of the scenes are actually funny, I guess maybe because they’re speaking in my native tongue I was able to pick up some of the gestures/jokes that might’ve been lost to non-Indo speakers. Yet I found myself feeling guilty when I laughed at some of the scenarios, because obviously it’s revolting that these guys are in such good spirits and joking around whilst filming such horrific acts. It’s one thing when an actor has to act out a fictional violent film, but every scenes they depicted here are based on true acts of killing that they themselves performed to hundreds of thousand innocent victims.

ActOfKilling_AnwarAdi
Adi (left) and Anwar being made-up for one of the re-enactment scenes

The film focuses mainly on two of the most notorious death squad leaders in North Sumatra, Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry. It’s interesting to note the different reactions between the two in how they cope with their past sins. Anwar seems somewhat remorseful and honest about being haunted by his past, in the form of nightmares and psychological torment, whilst Adi is more defiant and in denial about how his past doesn’t really affect him. There’s an absurd conversation between the two when they’re talking about seeing a shrink to help alleviate their psychological issues. Ahah yeah, as if THAT would help anyone escape their conscience! One of the most intriguing character in the film is Herman, who’s dressed in drag for a good part of the film. He wasn’t actually involved in the massacre at the time as he was only about 10 years old then, but he played a prominent part in this film. His evolution throughout the film is striking as he starts out as someone who greatly admires his friend Anwar. As the film progresses, it’s as if his eyes were opened to the reality of evil that he’s somehow being shielded from all his life.

Despite all the grisly depictions, the most affecting scenes to me are surprisingly those when no words are spoken. Whether it’s a scene of Herman playing drums while wailing and screaming uncontrollably, or the deafeningly quiet moment when Anwar simply stops at the stairway as he’s going down from the rooftop where a lot of the killings happened. Both scenes rendered me speechless. But really, there are too many breathtaking moments to mention in this film. It’s truly a film one must experience, I don’t think my review does it justice as it barely scratch the surface of the depth of what’s being depicted on screen. Harrowing, shocking, and at times unbearable to watch… but it’s also surprisingly poetic and beautiful. There are few films out there that I’d call essential viewing, but I think this documentary is one of them. I’m not just saying that because it pertains the darkest history of my homeland, but as Joshua told me during the interview, this incident isn’t just about Indonesia, but it speaks volumes about our humanity and what we humans are capable of.

I hope you’d check it out when it’s out in your area or available to rent. Be sure to seek out the 159-min director cut whenever possible. I’m sincerely hoping that The Act of Killing would get a nod for Best Documentary at the Oscars, as well as other kudos come award season.

FCInterview

Below is my interview with Joshua Oppenheimer. He was so gracious when we met at the lobby of W Hotel, and when I greeted him in Indonesian, he immediately started speaking Bahasa Indonesia to me so he’s obviously still quite fluent in my native language. As we sat down, he told me that I was the very first English-language interviewer who’s Indonesian. What an honor that is indeed!

Josh, if you’re reading this, THANK YOU so much for taking the time in speaking with me. Terima kasih seribu! 😀

JoshOppenheimer_MPRphoto
Photo courtesy of MPR

Please note that I had to break up the interview clips to make it more ‘digestible,’ but I did not edit anything that was being said. Click on the arrow to take a listen.

What makes you interested in this story about Indonesian history as an American?

This is not a story about Indonesian… this is a story about all of us. It’s how we as human beings commit evil, how we tell stories to justify… to lie to ourselves … So it’s not some distant reality. It’s the underbelly of our reality.

My father’s family and my step-mother’s family narrowly escaped the Holocaust. I grew up with the slogan, in the name of all culture, to prevent these things from happening.

How the film of The Act of Killing come about… which is a direct result from making ‘The Globalization Tapes’ documentary in 2001/2002:

Please come back and make a film about what happened in 1965… and about the oppression, fear, corruption, and impunity that was based on that.

The challenges in getting this film made:

The killing was the most important thing they [the perpetrators] have ever done in their whole life… and the basis for any career they’d ever have … What the perpetrators were boasting and telling things that was far more incriminating than anything the survivors could’ve said.

I felt like I’ve wandered into Germany, forty years after the Holocaust and somehow the Nazi’s still in power. And yet I recognize it’s a horrible situation, an important situation, but it’s not an unusual situation.

How did the re-enactments in the film come to be? Was it the perpetrators’ idea?

It grew organically… the whole method was a response to their openness.

When the audience see the perpetrators’ boasting, they’ll understand why we’re so afraid and the nature of this whole regime.

Photo courtesy of the AV Club
Photo courtesy of the AV Club

Filming the perpetrators… and their reaction about being the subjects of this film

Anwar was the 41st death squad member that I filmed. All of them were open and boastful, and they wanted to take me to the places they killed and show me how they did it. I was trying to understand what is the function of this openness… why and for whom are they so open?

What do you want people to get out of seeing this film?

I want the audience to see for one second… I want them to recognize a small part of themselves in Anwar. Because the moment you do that, the whole fantasy that the world is divided up between good guys and bad guys has to collapse… in that moment you can recognize that we’re much closer to these perpetrators than we’d like to think.

* The t-shirt Josh is referring to here is the $6 t-shirt he got from H&M that was made in Bangladesh, where the factory collapse that killed more than 1,100 workers made news back in April.

How did Werner Herzog become exec producer of this film?

Werner saw the director’s cut and said ‘do not cut this.’ But I’d be happy to watch cuts of the film, make sure you didn’t remove any ‘vital organs’ of the film.

It turns out that Joshua knew Herzog through one of the exec producers, British producer Andre Singer, has produced Herzog’s films in the past.

Did you get nightmares from filming… which part affects you the most?

It’s so irreversible what he’s done… Life is one way. That’s why we have to treat it with such care as something so precious, as we have only one chance.

The day after the interview, I attended a masterclass at Walker Art Center where Joshua did a 2-hour Q&A session about the film. I wish the recording had been available for me to link to, but I learned a bit more about the filmmaking process and how the film’s received in Indonesia, both by the perpetrators and the survivors of the victims of the massacre. If you see the end credits of the documentary, you’ll see that many of the names are listed as ‘anonymous.’ That’s because this film is such a controversial and risky endeavor for the people involved in making it. Even Joshua himself admitted that if he were to go back to Indonesia, he’s probably allowed in but not sure if he could get out safely. There are still powerful people who aren’t too keen that he made this film, nor did they ever thought this film would get such an International attention. I for one am thankful that Joshua made The Act of Killing and exposes the injustice and indescribable cruelty the perpetrators did. Even if they’d never get persecuted for war crimes, I sure hope some kind of justice will come out because of this.

Lastly, in response to my question about how the victims’ survivors respond to the film, Joshua revealed that a follow-up film is in the works on that topic. No details are available yet but for sure I’ll be on the lookout for that.


Thoughts on The Act of Killing, either the review and the interview? If you’ve seen the film, I’d love to hear what you think.

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71 thoughts on “The Act of Killing review and Interview with director Joshua Oppenheimer

  1. Bill Cooper

    Ruth,
    Thanks for sharing this. I had the chance see the film , meet Josh and do the Q&A at the screening at the Lagoon. You are correct. This film is a “must see” for a variety of reasons and hard to explain.

    1. Hi Bill! Glad to hear you were the moderator at the Lagoon, you’re surely much better at that than I ever would. It was such a privilege to interview Josh, and at the time I had only seen the theatrical cut. I hope more people would give this film a shot. Thanks for the comment 😀

    1. Riveting is the word, Keith. I realize not many Americans are aware of the film as they probably aren’t aware of the actual event that happened, but it definitely has a message for people all over the world that’s really quite chilling.

  2. Wow Ruth, this is such an impressive post. Looks like a lot of work went into it. So fascinating! Can’t wait to see this film now, sounds so different than what you usually see at the cinema.

    Nice interview as well, next thing you know you’ll be the next Oprah.

    1. Thanks Chris! It took a bit of work but it’s sooo worth it! It’s fascinating and harrowing, some parts are REALLY difficult to watch. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, so I hope you’ll seek this out.

      Ahah, I doubt I’ll be famous for my interviewing skills! 😀 THANKS btw for putting this on Reddit, I really appreciate it!!

  3. Ted S.

    Great work Ruth! I’ll definitely see this doc once it’s available to the masses.

    From the sound of it, the movie reminds me of another great doc, Shoah: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0090015/?ref_=sr_1

    I highly recommend seeing that doc, it’s quite long though, 9 hours! But the filmmakers went through quite a bit to get it made, which sounds like Josh went through the same thing in order to get this movie made.

    1. Thanks Ted, you absolutely should check this one out.

      Oh I haven’t even heard of Shoah but I’ll see if I can watch it somehow. That’s got to be so harrowing to watch. Joshua mentioned about his family narrowly escaping the Holocaust and that certainly impacted how he viewed the world. I’m glad films like this get made and THANKS to people like Josh for making it happen.

  4. First of all I want to thank Joshua and the doc itself for opening my eyes about this incident. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that even I myself had not known about the genocide of communists (and the alleged ones) until I saw the doc. I’ve heard about it, but never thought the number was *that* big. They never put it in the textbooks (at least when I was in school, don’t know about now). The most shocking part of this doc is how proud and boastful these perpetrators when telling the things that they’ve done. They all act as if they are national heroes, when actually they are all products of a propaganda.

    This is a great review and interview, Ruth. Joshua sounds really sincere and concern about this matter, not just about Indonesia but also about the morality of a human being. It is interesting to learn about how this film got made and how Joshua literally risking his life making this kind of film. We need more filmmakers like him and Werner Herzog.

    But actually, while this film is an important and excellent documentary, I keep wondering about the impact it will bring to Indonesia itself. Indonesia is not really a land of freedom. Communists are pretty much still seen as enemies here. Just like people in the doc kept saying, Indonesia is a country led by ‘preman’. People with different kinds of religions are being bullied by extremists on a daily basis, and the government have never really done anything substantial to control this situation. The exposure of this doc could lead to several things. Whether these perpetrators will be tried for their actions…. or even more oppression for the victims’ families. But in the end, this doc is really an eye-opener for me, and I hope also for lots of people who are still have no idea such things occurred.

    This doc is not the one my country wants, but surely the one it needs.

    1. Hi Fariz! Well you must be close to me in age as Indonesians in my generations were definitely brainwashed to think PKI is super evil and of course we didn’t see this massacre in our history books under Suharto era. Yeah, it’s shocking and revolting that the perpetrators are so boastful, clearly they didn’t fear being persecuted so they could say whatever they wanted.

      Yes I agree we need filmmakers like Joshua who have the courage to expose atrocities despite the risk. It must’ve been tough for him to work on this film for so long and naturally he even became ‘friends’ with Anwar, etc. but he’s constantly reminded of the grave evil that they did in their past.

      I’m curious what’ll come out of it in Indo, sounds like it’s very well-received by the general public given the guerrilla/underground screenings all over the place, there’s even an open screening in Bali on Hari Kemerdekaan 17 Agustus. I think Joshua said there’s a petition going to somehow bring the leaders of these massacres to justice, not at Anwar’s level but the higher up who are still powerful in Indo. Interesting you mentioned about the bullying thing, it’s so true. My hubby and I are *minorities* in our own country because we’re not Muslims, and he certainly felt the ‘bullying’ part growing up in his neighborhood.

      In any case, I LOVE what you said in the last line. So true!!

  5. Ruth, great interview. I remember seeing the trailer for this a while ago, and it was pretty disturbing. It’s really good to get some insight from people that are very familiar with Indonesia, and I can’t say I am looking forward to seeing this… but I will check it out in the future.

    1. Thanks Shane! If you think the trailer is disturbing, wait ’til you see the film 🙂 I understand the subject matter might not interest some people but if you’re in the mood for some riveting & inventive documentary, give this one a shot.

  6. PrairieGirl

    It sure sounds like the perpetrators will never have to pay for their actions, unlike many Nazi’s in WWII. It astounds me that governments and leaders treat life as disposable and subject to their every whim. Not sure I’ll ever see this film. And if I’ve never heard about this atrocity, how many others might there be? This post is a real wake up call and I think Joshua is a very brave man.

    1. Yeah, sadly that’s the case Becky, but I believe NOBODY escapes God’s judgment, so they certainly have lots to answer to when their time’s come. Certainly there are other genocides in other parts of the world that never got broadcasted by the media. I think in the US especially, Indo isn’t a country that got a lot of attention. Yes indeed, Joshua is a VERY courageous man of principle!

    1. Hi Mike, thanks, I really appreciate you reading it. To say this is thought-provoking is putting it mildly, I can’t fathom how they could kill soooo many people and be so nonchalant about it.

  7. Fantastic and very interesting post, Ruth! I’m really looking forward to seeing this doc, even though I know it won’t be a comfortable watch. Although I can imagine I must’ve been ten times harder for you. This looks on its way to becoming the documentary of the year, and possibly a genre classic.

    1. Hey thanks Fernando! Yeah some of the scenes are really, really painful to watch, I mean considering that these things actually happened. Sometimes what’s being said are as harrowing as what’s being depicted on screen, too. It’s definitely Oscar worthy!

  8. I finally have some sparetime to read this…this is an awesome post Ruth! I will totally link your post to mine when I have watched the movie. I might write the review on my Indonesia Banget post (unfortunately, it’s 17 August so I have other movie fits more to our Independence Day).

    I love the way you describe the history a bit to make it clear to other people. and Yaiii for Joshua interview, he sounds like a great man. Amazing dedication…10 years of documentary…wow.

    thank you for this awesome post Ruth 🙂

    1. Hi Nov thanks for taking the time to read n listen to this. I hope u’ll highlight this in ur Indonesia Banget. It’s ok if its not this month. So hv u seen it yet?

      Yeah i figure i needed to provide a bit of background as most ppl arent familiar with Indo, let alone about this specific event.

      Yeah it was a privilege to have chatted with him, bahasa Indonya masih lancar lg tp dia bilang udah berkarat, ahah.

      1. No yet. Still busy with lebaran 🙂

        Hahaha I can understand his rusty Indonesian, it’s like me and Sundanese. I can’t speak Sundanese anymore but I still can understand it.

        1. Oh iya, enak dong libur panjang 😀

          Ah, kumaha iye? 😀 I went to elementary school in Cipanas so I used to understand a teeny bit of Sundanese, ahah.

  9. Superb post Ruth, really insightful review and then a great interview. To be honest I had no idea about any of this until this film came around and I’ve learned a bit about it. Truly horrendous stuff that more people should be made aware of. Hopefully this film can do that a bit more. I think the Blu-ray comes out in November over here so I will be straight onto that, I need to see this.

    1. Thanks Chris, i hope this doc would make it to ur area, it’s been going around all over the country. This event was swept under the rug so not surprising u haven’t heard of it. I’m grateful that this film got made after all these years.

  10. Excellent post, Ruth. This definitely sounds like a must-see, and it’s great to hear the director is working on a follow-up. Hopefully, I’ll get to see the director’s cut when I watch it.

    1. I think the Bluray would be the complete version so yeah i hope u would check that out. I will keep an eye on his follow up film, the survivors’ story ought to be told. Thanks Josh!

  11. Ruth, this is so excellent! I don’t know what to say except that I need to see this documentary and that the this amazing interview was handled professionally!

    1. Hi Iba! Yeah the reception has been great about this film, deservedly so. I REALLY hope this would be nominated for an Oscar. I hope you do make an exception with this one.

  12. Outstanding piece here Ruth. I had heard of the film but knew little of the details or history involved. This is something ill definitely be checking out.
    Great interview as well. Man, I’d be be having nightmares just running shoulders with these guys. Here’s hoping that this film gets a more widespread release. I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for it. Well done on this one Ruth.

    1. Hello Mark! Thanks so much for taking the time to read/listen to this. I know it’s playing at various theaters in London, not sure about Scotland. But once it’s available to rent, I hope you’d seek it out 😀

  13. This is amazing, Ruth. I will take the time to listen to the rest of the interview. I listened to the first part. So impressive and I am glad there are people willing to make a film such as this to give history a voice.

    thank you, Ruth and thank you, Josh.

  14. filmplicity

    I missed a chance to see at the last Belfast Film Festival but after your post I really want to see it so I hope it comes back to my local Indy theatre. The trailer alone is terrifying. I’m impressed you got a one-to-one interview with the director, nice work!

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  16. Ruth, I made sure to first see this documentary before reading your review and the interview about it. I just finished it and I am really speechless. I never seen such a shocking and surrealistic documentary in a while. Really surprising to see the openness of everyone involved, even the paramilitary guys. It really shows some big problems in Indonesian culture that you else would not know about. So many shocking things are said, like the one guy telling how he killed the father of his girlfriend or the one guy during the filming in the village talking about rape….it really is unbelievable. That TV interview as well…really weird how that took place.

    Great interview, nice to hear some background from the director.

    1. Hi Nostra. Glad to hear you finally got around to seeing this. Yes it left me speechless too, the surrealism aspect makes it all the more fascinating as well. Yeah, the stories are as shocking as the re-enactments, esp. when told in such a nonchalant way! Thanks for reading the interview, hearing the background of this film made me appreciate it even more. I’ll be rooting for this at the Oscars 😀

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  22. Just watched this on Netflix. Came over to read your review and listen to the interview. Finally.

    Wow.

    I think that is the only word I have for this one. Wow.

    I almost don’t even want to review it, because it so good, so powerful, so horrifying, so impacting that nothing I write could quite describe it. Now … I will review it, but …

    In my review of Stories We Tell, I said Paulsen’s documentary was one of two best I had ever seen. So I came into Act of Killing looking for reasons to say Stories is better. I can’t find any. Oppenheimer’s is the best documentary I’ve seen. Ever.

    One question for you: can I assume you have the director’s cut DVD?

    1. Hi James! Thank you for letting me know your reaction after seeing it. Seems that we have the exact same sentiment after seeing this, I too was flabbergasted and speechless. It’s so surreal but also harrowing as the horrible things the people described in the film actually happened. The reenactments are really tough to get off your mind, very haunting.

      I still need to see Stories We Tell, I’ve heard so many great things about it. I am rooting for Joshua Oppenheimer to win Best Doc for sure!

      Oh yes, I have the director’s cut from Joshua himself. It’s 165 min long. I’ll bring it next weekend 🙂

      1. That was going to be my next question. 🙂

        And yes. We’re having the same reaction, I think, something that is all the more amazing given the disparity in our emotional distance from the content. You are Indonesian and, to use your own term, were brainwashed to believe the genocide’s lies. That makes this personal for you.

        So I would have expected it to be more emotionally disturbing for you . . . but it isn’t. Which I guess is a testament to Oppenheimer’s brilliance.

      2. Had to split it into two sittings this time, but I have now finished the Director’s Cut. Those thirty-ish minutes make a huge difference. Gets so much more intimate with both Anwar and Herman. (Herman’s run for parliament stands out as such a period.)

        And is thereby even more disturbing. Such a powerful film.

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