There are few cinematic experiences from the last few years as harrowing as the first time you watch Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. Decorated with the BAFTA for Best Documentary as recently as Sunday, the film is a marvel of surrealistic grotesquery, and its erudite director is extremely forthcoming with his views on it various meanings and subtleties. It was a great pity, then, that such a wonderful picture was hamstrung on Monday night by the Union’s screening, with a mis-aligned projector draining all colours but green from each frame, losing much of the ridiculous vibrancy of its images, and poor speaker quality hampering moments of great tension. Oppenheimer himself observed the “foetid” conditions, but this did not affect the enlightening Q&A session which followed, however, in which Oppenheimer, tired from his BAFTA win, pushed through to illuminate what he saw as the most important questions the film raised – from those of “impunity, and how it’s asserted”, and “false moral paradigms”, to the realities of the “documentarian as a character” in their own films.
Joshua (it’s hard to call the director anything else after viewing the film multiple times) clearly had no interest in fielding the few repeated criticisms the film has already faced, and quickly explained that his filming of the Indonesian “death squad veterans” was in no way manipulative or deceitful – that they knew the whole time that “they were filming scenes for The Act of Killing, not for their own film”. This clarified, he answered each question in great detail, almost always using the query as a springboard onto a bigger topic. Repeated attention was given to the role the US and UK played in the 1965 genocide – organised by an Army “conceived of and largely funded by the US”. His first mini-speech, though, was a thorough explanation of how the film actually came to be made, with “Anwar Congo [the film’s primary character] the 41st perpetrator I filmed”, many years into a long and gruelling process. Oppenheimer had gone to Indonesia repeatedly, to try to make a film about survivors of the massacres, but had been denied access, and so, with survivors’ advice, set out “to film the perpetrators”, as they “openly boasted about the grizzly details” of what they had done. Anwar’s “absurd, grotesque” dance of the Cha-Cha on the rooftop where he had personally killed hundreds of people was a signal to Josh that he should follow this man. That Anwar opened up in this way on “the first day I’d met him” is remarkable.
The issue of “false moral paradigms”, of “good versus evil”, was one Oppenheimer wanted to circumvent, in order to not peg inauthentic simplicity onto the stories told. One of the key struggles he faced was to render the “mass murderers” he was filming empathetic and sympathetic. This, he explained, required a removal of all survivors from the film, leaving only the perpetrators – a difficult decision, but one which did not change the fact that “my loyalty was always 100% with the survivors”. The film walks a “a tightrope between empathy and repulsion” (as any viewer will agree), and the men portrayed, in particular Anwar and Herman, are often very pitiable. However, they are ultimately “monsters”, said Joshua; but monsters of the sort “we depend on every day”. Oppenheimer has nothing to hide in terms of agendas – he is openly against globalisation because of its “human cost”, and did not shy away from accusing “the underbelly of Oxford University” from being as complicit as the rest of the developed world. A particularly apt criticism when made in the Union, to so many an embodiment of problematic ideology. When he said that “everything we buy from across the global south is haunted by the suffering of those who made it”, it carried a force similar to that which The Act of Killing itself bears.
Another lengthy topic was that of documentary as a form, and the responsibility borne by its directors. Oppenheimer was happy to label the old-school, “fly-on-the-wall style” a form of “simulation” which disguises itself, an “arbitrary”, and “inherently self-conscious” deception, in which audiences buy into the myth of the invisible cameraman. In The Act of Killing, Joshua talks regularly, and sometimes bitingly, and this is a hint at his self-conception, as “a catalyst”, an agent trying to “make visible the fictions through which” we see ourselves. And if he, within the film, is a catalyst for the characters portrayed, he is also visibly proud of the film itself, which he says has acted as its own sort of catalyst, to start “a transformation in how Indonesia discusses its past”, and begin to end a “fifty year silence on the Genocide”. The film has been made available to download free of charge from Indonesian IP addresses, and is on YouTube in full (without English subtitles), so is spreading in ways it might not have done had it been marketed with profit alone in mind.
As is human, this information about the film’s growth lead many to wonder what has happened to Anwar Congo since its release – but Josh was happy to placate; the ex-killer might have “lost his swagger”, and might be “lonely”, and indeed may “never be okay”, but “as okay as he can be, that’s how he is”. “The media have focussed on Anwar not as a scapegoat for the genocide, but as one of thousands like him”, which has been a blessing for which both Anwar himself and Joshua are thankful. One of the biggest surprises Oppenheimer dropped was a small, related fact – that Herman, the overweight, at many times foul companion, has rejected the paramilitary Pancasila Youth, and is “brave enough” to be screening The Act of Killing for free as often as he can, without minding repercussions come his way. This bravery is the sort which Joshua surely hopes his film will inspire in others – “my hope is that anyone who watches this film… will be forced to acknowledge the rotten heart of the regime in Indonesia”. With a BAFTA in hand and an Oscar hopefully to follow, his hopes may not be vain at all.