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.
I think what makes Indonesia special, in particular North Sumatra, is the shamelessness of the perpetrators. That of course is a consequence of the fact that unlike the Holocaust, the rest of the world was cheering them on while they were killing. During the Holocaust maybe the rest of the world didn’t intervene to stop it but they were opposed to it. Here, the world was cheering them on and so they’ve clung to that celebration so that they can live with what they’ve done ever since.
Q. Why were interviews of a retired US general and CIA officers not included in the film?
A. The film is not a historical documentary. The film is about the consequences of impunity. If I want to include the story of American involvement, there will be two problems. One is that by no decisive means can we demonstrate that America supported this. If you show and tell that story you would be drawn into a historical argument about how significant was that support. To do that you’ll inevitably be making a historical documentary about what happened in 1965. I bet even if I did an excellent job of it no one would care, including Indonesians. It was a decision to make a film about now, and about a regime now, and about corruption now, and the moral vacuum now.
Q. Was there a time in the filming process that you stopped seeing Anwar as a human to be able to maintain your own sense of humanity?
A. No, I made a rule to myself that I would never for a second stop seeing Anwar as a human. That was painful because when you make a film about another human being you actually have to get very close to the person. When you become close to someone you become vulnerable to them. That gave me pretty bad nightmares. That gave me intermittent insomnia. On the contrary when you decide, “OK, I’m going to see this man as inhuman, as a monster to retain my humanity,” the opposite is what happens. If I were to say, “This man has done something monstrous and therefore he’s a monster,” what I would be doing is simply reassuring myself that I’m not like him. I’d be closing off any possibility of understanding how human beings do this to each other, because in fact, every act of evil in our history has been committed only by human beings like us. When people ask, “How can you humanize Anwar?” The answer is extremely simple. It’s three words: He is human.
Q. How much has your cultural and family background as a descendant of people who escaped the Holocaust influenced you in the making of the film?
A. I think it’s probably the source of the large part of my commitment. When I had this feeling that I’m now in the equivalent of post-Holocaust Germany if the Nazis were still in power, I understood I have to give this as many years as it takes. Growing up, I very much was taught that the aim of all culture, certainly art, and the aim of all politics is to prevent these things from happening again. The tragedy, of course, is these things keep happening again. We have to look at how human beings do this, why they do it, and the effects of this kind of evil on ourselves, on each other, on our society, on our common humanity.
Q. Where did the idea of reenactments of the killings come from?
A. The form of the act of killing as a film was my idea. But, reenacting the killings were something they were doing from the moment I met them. The first perpetrator I filmed had a wife. He said, ‘Oh let me show you how I killed the Gerwani [The Communist Women’s Wing] members. He called his wife in and starts acting it out on her. And I was thinking, “What is going on here?” And in “The Act of Killing,” you see these very simple demonstrations evolve into more surreal and grotesque reenactments. That process happened organically. It happened in response to dissatisfaction with the first reenactments. When I met Anwar, he looked very disturbed when I showed that footage back to him, where he’s dancing on the roof that first shoot. I think he’s very disturbed about what he did, but he dares not say it because he’s never been forced to admit it was wrong and to say, “This makes me look bad, this is terrible.” So, he displaces that discomfort on to his clothes, he says, “I look like I’m dressed for a picnic and my acting is bad,” and so began this process of more and more surreal embellishment each time he’s trying to run away from the horror that’s evoked by the previous shoot.
Q. You interviewed 70 people, but in the end you as a director had to choose which characters to present to tell their story. What are your considerations in choosing whom to present in the film?
A. Well it’s not a casting process. I thought I cut a film out of the 40 men that I filmed before I met Anwar, plus Anwar (the 41st) and it would be a kind of horizontal film with lots of different people. But the way I work, I look for a theme, a location, a powerful metaphor. Boasting perpetrators was the powerful metaphor. The theme was about impunity. The location was North Sumatra. And then I looked for some methods and a few characters. When I lingered on Anwar, because his guilt was closer to the surface, he started bringing in his other friends for a collaborative process of essentially trying to cover his wounds with almost the cinematic scar tissue of more layers of performance. I was fascinated by it and I found myself going down that rabbit hole with him.