Wednesday, July 3, 2013


Friday, 21 June, 2013


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The Guardian: Joshua Oppenheimer: 'You Celebrate Mass Killing So You Don't Have to Look Yourself in The Mirror'

June 21, 2013

The Guardian

Anwar Congo is showing us how he killed people. Then he dances the
cha-cha-cha. He used to beat people to death, but there was too much
blood ("It smelt awful"). So he asks a pal to sit down, ties a wire to
a post, wraps the other end around his neck, and pulls. "This is how
to do it!"

Anwar still has nightmares about what he did. He tries to forget with
alcohol, marijuana, ecstasy. He dances and sings. His friend smiles.
"He's a happy man."

The year following Indonesia's 1965 coup saw the murder of more than a
million "communists" (in fact, enemies of the military, including
ethnic Chinese, intellectuals, union members). Anwar, head of a gang
of killers called the Frog Squad, dispatched about 1,000 himself. He
is the subject of The Act of Killing, a documentary that invites Anwar
and his friends to dramatise their crimes, to boast about their
starring roles in a genocide.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer began the film a decade ago by
interviewing survivors. But when, at the suggestion of one of them, he
turned his camera on the perpetrators, he found they were more than
eager to reveal the history themselves. The killers simply adapted a
story they had been telling each other for decades: that they were the
ruling class, so their acts were heroic.

For gangsters like Anwar, Oppenheimer was offering the chance to make
a "beautiful family film" – a celebration of their rise, inspired by
the Hollywood movies they loved.

"They're desperately trying to run away from the reality of what
they've done," says Oppenheimer, a 38-year-old Harvard graduate now
based in Copenhagen. "You celebrate mass killing so you don't have to
look yourself in the mirror in the morning and see a murderer. You
keep your victims oppressed so that they don't challenge your story.
When you put the justification – the celebration – under a
microscope, you don't necessarily see a lack of remorse, but you start
to see an unravelling of the killers' conscience. So what appears to
be the symptom of a lack of remorse is in fact the opposite. It's a
sign of their humanity."

The Act of Killing is as much Anwar's film as Oppenheimer's. The
killer's taste in movies stretches from westerns to gangster thrillers
to Elvis Presley musicals: apple-pie imports that were restricted when
the communists were in power. The reconstructions are terrifying in
their flamboyance, their bizarre camp. One scene imagines the daughter
of one of Anwar's victims force-feeding him his own liver. Anwar plays
himself; the daughter is played by his best friend, Herman, a portly
am-dram fan dressed in a sparkling red and gold belly top, with thick
eyeliner and giant headdress ("The makeup artist and costume designer
loved Divine," says Oppenheimer). Herman cackles and screams as he
pushes the meat into Anwar's mouth. Oppenheimer watches quietly from
the sidelines, giving the gangsters all the rope they need. It's this
unsettling montage of re-enactment, confessional and political exposé
that grabbed the attention of doco-godfathers Werner Herzog and Errol
Morris – both executive producers – as well as awestruck critics
the world over.

As Anwar had nightmares about his past, so did Oppenheimer ("A family
reunion transforming gradually into a scene where somebody I loved was
being tortured or killed"). And after all that time with Anwar, he
couldn't help but move into his world. The monster who had caused
misery for thousands was the dapper gent serving him sweet tea,
playing Cliff Richard records and teaching his grandchildren to care
for injured animals.

It's this dissonance that makes the film so disturbing. It forces you
to relate to a mass murderer.

"If we have any hope of learning how these things happen and thereby
preventing them from happening again we have to discard this fantasy
that there are monsters out there," says Oppenheimer, "that we just
have to be vigilant and lock them up and maybe kill them or put them
in camps.

"In calling someone a bad guy I reassure myself that I'm good. I
elevate myself. I call it the 'Star Wars morality'. And unfortunately
it underpins most of the stories we tell."

Oppenheimer stays in touch with Anwar. The two speak via Skype once a

"I care about him," he says. "It's hard to call our relationship a
friendship. I was trying to expose a regime of impunity on behalf of a
community of survivors, while Anwar was trying to run away from his
pain, to build up a cinematic psychic scar tissue around his trauma. I
may not exactly like him, but I have love for him as another human

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