'The Act of Killing' Re-Staging War Crimes with Indonesian Gangsters

A documentary at the Berlinale that portrays aging Indonesian war criminals reenacting their crimes is being praised as surreal and frightening. Director Joshua Oppenheimer says the film may also answer questions about how war criminals excuse their actions.
Von Cathrin Schaer

How did the Nazis commit the atrocities they did, then go home and calmly have dinner? How are those currently committing mass killings in Syria able to do the same? And how were the leaders of Indonesian death squads, responsible for the deaths of at least half a million people in the mid-1960s, able to live with their own violent histories?

"The Act of Killing," a documentary by US director Joshua Oppenheimer screening at the Berlin International Film Festival this week, goes a long way toward answering the latter. And in doing so, it also touches on how and why people can justify such acts.

Filmed over about seven years in Indonesia, the documentary follows former leaders of Indonesian death squads as they recount how they committed murder, torture and rape. The film focuses on a handful of now-elderly men who ran illegal activities out of local cinemas in Medan in northern Sumatra, but who, after the 1965 military coup that eventually saw dictator General Suharto come to power, began helping to rid the area of the Indonesian Communist Party (or PKI), which allegedly threatened Indonesia's stability.

In reality, as a July 2012 report by Indonesia's National Commission on Human Rights concluded, the "Communists" included anyone opposed to the new military-backed Indonesian government, as well as ethnic Chinese and many ordinary citizens with no political affiliation. Driven by promises of power and money as well as personal vendettas, the men in the film were among those who acted as proxies for the Indonesian military, which was allegedly backed by the CIA at the time. One man tells the camera how he stabbed his Chinese girlfriend's father to death just because he could.

In "The Act of Killing," the subjects don't just boast about their crimes, though. Oppenheimer persuades them to act them out too. And because they're fascinated by the glamorous Hollywood movies they used to scalp tickets to, the result is a series of strange and shocking tableaus and behind-the-scenes incidents, with reenactments of murder and violence inspired by traditional gangster films, Westerns and even a musical or two, featuring the paunchy, elderly men dressed in colourful costumes and makeup.

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Two Big Backers

The movie has stunned Berlinale  audiences this week. Aside from various reviewers who've been moved to swearing and superlatives, fans include two of the world's most-respected documentary makers, American Errol Morris and German director Werner Herzog. Oppenheimer says the pair first saw the film through his film school mentor and then through the film's UK producers.

Morris is currently writing an essay "on the film and its significance in understanding US policy during the Vietnam War," Oppenheimer says, and Herzog helped with editing and promoting the film.

The film's website includes statements from Herzog such as: "I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade. Unprecedented in the history of cinema." And from Morris: "an amazing and impressive film." Both men liked the film so much they eventually became executive producers.

Indonesia's National Commission on Human Rights has also praised the documentary, saying that if the country is to transform into a true democracy, then "The Act of Killing … is essential viewing for us all."

Part of the film's appeal is that its larger theme reaches beyond Indonesia -- it also addresses the question of how humans can continue to be so inhumane to one another.

"I think we as human beings can only benefit from understanding that even the people who do the worst things are still human beings," explains 38-year-old Texas native Oppenheimer, whose German-Jewish grandparents, originally from Frankfurt and Berlin, immigrated to the US to escape the Holocaust.

"How can we stop these things from ever happening again?" he continues. "That was the big moral and political question while I was growing up. If we really are going to rise to that challenge we have to understand that the people who do these things are not monsters. We can't just reassure ourselves that there are some bad people out there and all we have to do is find them and stop them. That's dangerous," he argues. "Because first of all, we deny the possibility we might do those things ourselves. And secondly, we don't recognize ourselves when we begin to do those things."

'War Crimes Are Defined by the Winners'

Despite his family background, Oppenheimer doesn't think he could make a similar kind of film in Germany. "One critical and extraordinary thing allowed this (film) to happen," he explains. "The killers won. They were never thrown out of power like the Nazis, or the Khmer Rouge, or the Hutu extremists. The Indonesian killers became the state. And these killers are not testifying about what they did, they're showing off. The film is about how they show off, why they show off and for whom. It's about the stories we tell ourselves when we kill. The act of killing is always some kind of act," he concludes, "because otherwise you couldn't do it."

Oppenheimer agrees that, although he's no expert on European history or German culture, the difference is that the Germans feel guilty. As one of the Indonesian gangsters notes during the film: "War crimes  are defined by the winners. I am a winner so I can make my own definition."

"Imagine if the Nazis had won and then they finished the Holocaust and they went back to ordinary business, doing business with the rest of the world that they were unable to conquer," Oppenheimer suggests. "That's what Indonesia is like."

Since dictator Suharto's death in 2008, however, there have been challenges to the official Indonesian view of the events of 1965. The Indonesian Commission on Human Rights concluded in 2012 that the state was responsible for massacres, mass rape and torture during the purge. Indonesia's Security Affairs Minister Djoko Suyanto responded that the mass killings were justified, though. His position indicates that, although several thousand Indonesians have seen the film in small screenings, "The Act of Killing" is unlikely to see a general release there any time soon.

Oppenheimer also won't be making any appearances in Indonesia. Several politicians and a major paramilitary group feature in the documentary, and they were likely unaware of how the final project would turn out. The director is also working on another film with survivors of the 1965 purge, making a return too dangerous.

"I cannot safely go to Indonesia now," he says. "And that's sad because I love Indonesia and in a way, this film is my love letter to the country."