When director Joshua Oppenheimer set out in 2002 to make a documentary on a workers’ union in a Belgian plantation in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia, he found that his subjects were too afraid to speak. In 1965, some of them were relatives of those massacred in a nationwide anti-communist purge and the perpetrators bullied them into silence. So instead, Oppenheimer interviewed former leaders of the death squad members and found them more than happy to reenact the killings for the camera.
“The Act of Killing” is a powerful exploration of the effects of total impunity on genocide. On Oct. 5 at 7 p.m., a director’s cut of the film will be screened at the Harvard Film Archive and Oppenheimer, who graduated in 1997 from Harvard with a degree in filmmaking, will participate in a panel discussion beforehand starting at 6 p.m.
In his film, Oppenheimer follows Anwar Congo, an aging death squad leader, who danced the cha-cha on a roof just after he described how he garroted his victims using a wire. With his fellow militiamen Herman Koto and Adi Zulkadry, Anwar goes to surrealist theatrical means in reenacting the killings. The Globe spoke recently with Oppenheimer by phone about the film in advance of his Harvard talk.
Q. You have mentioned that talking to the perpetrators made you feel like you were in Nazi Germany 40 years after the Holocaust and the Nazis were still in power. Can you expand on that?
A. Two things happened in the early years when I was filming. First, the perpetrators were boasting. The other thing was that the survivors were no longer allowed to talk to us. The contrast between survivors who were forced into silence while the perpetrators were boasting was what made me feel this is something I’ve never seen before.
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