"Well, what can you say after that?" Sen. Tom Udall asked after the screening of "The Act of Killing" at the Library of Congress' Mary Pickford Theater. The film by Joshua Oppenheimer, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, examines the lives of the perpetrators of Indonesia's mass killings of dissidents in 1965-1966, many of whom still occupy places of power and prestige in the world's fourth-largest country.
Udall, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has a connection to the filmmaker's family. Sam Oppenheimer, the director's brother, is a former Udall staffer and the Democratic senator is friends with the family. He heard the accolades about the documentary and took the opportunity to see the Feb. 12 screening. But New Mexico's senior senator went into that screening, like most people who watch the film, unprepared for what he was about to see: an examination of one of the 20th century's darkest acts, carried out with impunity by people still in power and re-enacted for Joshua Oppenheimer's film in a series of surreal episodes for the camera.
"Art sometimes tells us stories we don't want to hear, don't want to face," Udall said afterward.
The project that would eventually become "The Act of Killing" started for Oppenheimer in 2001, when he went to Indonesia to make "The Globalization Tapes" for the Geneva-based International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers. It was a project about plantation workers' efforts to unionize.
In that capacity, he worked with survivors and the families of survivors of the 1960s genocide who were discouraged from unionizing by military and paramilitary groups. The workers confided to Oppenheimer that their position in Indonesian society had been marginalized for decades, dating to the 1965 coup and its targeting of dissidents.
They encouraged him to return to make a film about the survivor community. When he did, in 2003, "quickly ... the army realized now we’re no longer simply talking about what’s going on in the plantation today, we’re actually looking at what happened in 1965, and the army started to warn every, all the survivors with whom I was living and close with, not to make the film."
The survivors' response, and Oppenheimer's, was relatively unique. "The survivors then said, 'OK, try and film the perpetrators.'"
Oppenheimer was skeptical, telling the audience at the Pickford Theater, "I didn't know if it was safe to approach them." But his project eventually took on epic proportions, as he spent the next several years interviewing perpetrators, almost all of whom were eager to discuss, sometimes gleefully, their roles. "It was if we visited Germany 40 years after the war, only to see that the Nazis were still in power," Oppenheimer said.
The documentary that resulted, with the backing of two of the genre's titans, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, is a mix of dispassionate confessional, re-enactments, surreal imagery and queasy dark humor. Some of the perpetrators are joined by a younger generation of paramilitary members from groups such as Pancasila Youth, which continue to aid in the intimidation of political or cultural dissenters.
Among the most compelling subjects are Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, executioners from the 1960s, and Herman Koto, a younger gangster and paramilitary member who just so happens to frequently be dressed in drag during many of the dream-like re-enactments. Koto, Oppenheimer explained, was in a paramilitary theater troupe and has a flair for the dramatic. "It is beautiful ... absurd, and I must leave it that way for you," Oppenheimer said of Koto.
The mix of the horrific and the surreal in the film certainly fits within the purview of one of its executive producers, Herzog. The landmark German filmmaker is known for his gonzo style and approach to both fiction and non-fiction films in his multi-decade career.
Reflecting on the time he told Herzog he was cutting a longer version of the film to make it more accessible for U.S. and television audiences, Herzog told him, "You mustn’t do that. It is a crime," as Oppenheimer related in his interview with CQ Roll Call.
When Oppenheimer explained that it would result in more people seeing the film, Oppenheimer relayed that "Werner said — he’s actually a quite pragmatic man despite what you might think — he says, 'OK, if you must do it, and if I can be of any assistance.' And so we did. We sent him three or four cuts of the shorter version, successive cuts of the shorter version of the film and he was just a wonderful, very, very generous with his creative sort of, above all, encouragement. And I think the main thing he did as we were shortening the film was he made sure we didn’t lose too much of the wildness, the wild exuberance and surrealness of the longer cut."
Oppenheimer knows each version has its strengths, and that the version most U.S. audiences will see is "more like a documentary about men making a film, and a little bit less of a kind of an apocalyptic nightmarish vision of what happens when you build your everyday reality on terror and lies, but nevertheless, it somehow, in spirit, is the same."
The film has been screened extensively in Indonesia and has contributed to an overall examination of the time period, something some of the perpetrators in the film acknowledge was likely to happen as their dark deeds came to light.
There were times, in fact, when Oppenheimer did fear for his safety. After so many years of filming and so many subjects being open about their crimes, there are two instances in the film in which subjects being filmed in re-enactment begin to question whether this is all a good idea.
"I would only really fear for my safety when the process started to break down and they would, somebody would, question what we were doing and above all warn the others not to participate in the film, and you see that twice in the film. You see it when Adi says, 'If we succeed in making this film, it’ll turn the history around 180 degrees, on its head,' and then he warns everybody we should stop making, they should stop making the film. And that was a moment of real danger for my crew, especially. And then of course there’s another time when the deputy minister of youth and sports is flown up from Jakarta to participate in the film ... then says 'Cut, this is going to make me look bad, bad for my image essentially. We should stop.' Those were the kind of moments we were frightened," he said.
But it was a broader horror that got in the heads of Oppenheimer and his crew that was more disturbing.
"I think generally what was more frightening, consistently frightening was just the darkness into which we descended as a crew with those men. ... It gave us nightmares, ... it was little bit traumatic at times," Oppenheimer said.
He'll return to the topic once more with a forthcoming follow-up, "The Look of Silence," that he plans on showing in festivals later this year. This time, the subjects are the ones he started with more than 10 years ago — the survivors. "It’s really the second film, a diptych or a pair with 'The Act of Killing,' and we have the same arrangement, executive produced by Errol and Werner and we’re looking to bring it out, at least in festivals this year and a theatrical run next year."