Indonesia: Are Those Killers Really Real?

February 19, 2013

Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing depicts former members of a death squad as they proudly reenact their roles in Indonesia’s 1965-66 genocide. Here, artist Thierry Geoffroy asks director Joshua Oppenheimer about the stark contradictions in human behavior his film examines.

The Act of Killing movie trailer

Some estimate half a million; others place the figure as high as three million. Whatever the final tally, the targeted killings of alleged Communists and other groups, including ethnic Chinese, in Indonesia between the years 1965 and 1966 remains one of the 20th century’s most gruesome massacres. Triggered by a failed coup in the capital, the slaughter spread to several cities in the island nation.

The documentary The Act of Killing focuses on one particular death squad from the northern Sumatran town of Medan that operated during the genocide. The squad’s head executioner, Anwar Congo, was a small-time criminal responsible for selling movie tickets on the black market prior to assuming his vicious role in the massacres. In The Act of Killing, Congo and his comrades give detailed accounts of the genocide and reenact many of the murders they performed, with disquieting candor and even pride.

Before conceiving The Act of Killing in 2005, director Joshua Oppenheimer had already been living with and filming survivors of the 1965-66 massacres. It was during this time, Oppenheimer explained, that he and his team “faced the greatest danger.” They were threatened and nearly arrested by a village mayor, accompanied by a military escort, who told Oppenheimer and his team they had “no permission to film.”

“Not only did we feel unsafe filming the survivors, we worried for their safety,” said Oppenheimer. “And the survivors couldn’t answer the question of how the killings were perpetrated.”

Yet, when Oppenheimer turned his cameras on the killers he found an entirely different scenario. “When we filmed them boastfully describing their crimes against humanity, we met no resistance whatsoever,” he explained.

“All doors were open. Local police would offer to escort us to sites of mass killing, saluting or engaging the killers in jocular banter, depending on their relationship and the killer’s rank.”

This genuine openness inspired Oppenheimer to shift course. “In this, I saw an opportunity: if the perpetrators of Northern Sumatra were given the means to dramatize their memories of genocide in whatever ways they wished, they would probably seek to glorify it further, to transform it into a ‘beautiful family movie’ (as Anwar puts it) whose kaleidoscopic use of genres would reflect their multiple, conflicting emotions about their ‘glorious past.’”

For this dispatch, Netherlands-based artist and Creative Time Reports regular contributor Thierry Geoffroy sits down with Oppenheimer to ask him about the stark contradictions in human behavior and how people, including those featured in The Act of Killing, live with an inherently dichotomous nature, split between empathy and cruelty.

Our conversation began by considering how “we are at odds with ourselves,” in Oppenheimer’s words.


Here, I asked Oppenheimer if he regards himself as a kind of scientist, one who uses his camera like a microscope, as though he were studying human specimens in a laboratory.


I spoke with Oppenheimer about moments when we as humans act in contradiction to our personal beliefs and if he sees this film as an example of those instances.


And, finally, I inquired about the similarities between this documentary and Buena Vista Social Club (a 1999 documentary about music in Cuba, directed by Wim Wenders).