Documenting “The Act of Killing”


Veverka Bros. interviews director Joshua Oppenheimer regarding his shocking documentary, The Act of Killing, about the mass genocide committed in the 1960s by Anwar Congo on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

What is The Act of Killing about?

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taok_medWhen the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965, Anwar and his friends were promoted from small-time gangsters who sold movie theatre tickets on the black market to death squad leaders. They helped the army kill more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals in less than a year. As the executioner for the most notorious death squad in his city, Anwar himself killed hundreds of people with his own hands.

Today, Anwar is revered as a founding father of a right-wing paramilitary organization that grew out of the death squads. The organization is so powerful that its leaders include government ministers, and they are happy to boast about everything from corruption and election rigging to acts of genocide.

The Act of Killing is about killers who have won, and the sort of society they have built.

How did you find this story and get your characters to discuss their crimes so openly?

I first went to Indonesia in 2002 to make The Globalization Tapes, a film about plantation workers struggling to organize a trade union. The main obstacle the workers faced in organizing a new union was fear: there had been a strong union until 1965, and its members (the parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents of my friends with whom we were filming The Globalization Tapes) were accused of being “communist”, and were either killed or imprisoned in the 1965-66 genocide. The story of the genocide, and the reign of terror that followed, was clearly the most important part of their story, but my collaborators on The Globalization Tapes were afraid even to speak on camera about it. They explained that the killers were living all around us, that my next-door neighbor had killed one of the main characters’ aunts, and it would be dangerous if the killers saw them speaking to me about what had happened. They suggested, however, that we could interview the killers. They would be happy – and proud – to speak to me. I was surprised, because normally criminals don’t boast of their crimes – unless, of course, nobody ever considered them crimes…

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Anwar Congo, center, shows where he used to kill “communists”
in Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia, during the mid-1960s.

And so we began to spend time filming daily life in the village, just outside the house of my neighbor, the man who killed my friend’s aunt. I felt I had been entrusted with a work of political and moral importance by the survivors and the broader Indonesian human rights community. The stories these men were telling me were of world historical importance: tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of people were killed in North Sumatra, and nobody had ever documented it. The perpetrators were growing old, and when they died the facts about what happened would be lost. At the same time, all of them were eager to show me what they did, to take me to the places where they had killed and re-enact what they had done.

This was the journey that led to The Act of Killing. I realized the story was not what happened in 1965, but rather what is happening now, in the present, that means these men feel comfortable boasting about their crimes. Obviously, nobody had ever said that they were criminals, and on the contrary crimes against humanity were being celebrated. I asked myself: how do these men see themselves? How do they want me to see them? How do they want to be seen? And most importantly, what happens to our humanity when we build our everyday reality on lies and terror?

The Act of Killing is my attempt to answer those questions.

How did you find your main character in the film, Anwar Congo, and what has been his reaction the film?

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Anwar Congo demonstrates they
Anwar Congo demonstrates they “humane” way he would execute suspected communists in the 1960s.

By the time I met Anwar, who was the 41st perpetrator with whom I filmed, and the 41st perpetrator who suggested we visit the places where he had killed and demonstrate for me how he had killed, I was explaining the point of the film very openly. I would say, “You have participated in one of the largest killings in human history. Your entire society is based on it. Your lives are shaped by it. You are eager to show me what you have done. Go ahead and show me what you have done, in any way you wish. I will document the process, and film your re-enactments in whatever ways you propose. We will combine the re-enactments with the discussions around their creation, and we will create a new form of documentary that shows what these events mean to you and to your society. I don’t know if it will work, but let’s try.”

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This is, in fact, what we did. So the men in The Act of Killing were not tricked into making the film. Anwar has seen the film and is very moved by it, and remains loyal to it.

What has been the reaction in Indonesia to The Act of Killing?

The reaction in Indonesia has been positive and transformative beyond our wildest dreams. Indeed, The Act of Killing has forever broken the silence on the 1965-66 genocide. It is the most talked about film in Indonesian history. Audiences are stunned. It is dinner table conversation around the country. It is like the child in Hans Christian Andersen’s “Emperor’s New Clothes”: everyone knew the king was naked, but no one dared say so. Everyone knew the country’s “democracy” was a corrupt charade built on genocide, that any given politician might be a gangster, and the man and that any given politician might be a mass-murderer-but no one dared say so. All that changed on International Human Rights Day, 10 December 2012, when The Act of Killing was released in Indonesia. Each day since, screenings have been held across the country, some public, mostly in secret. (Screening organizers risk attack by the paramilitaries and army.) Nevertheless, the largest secret screenings can have 500 people, and by now thousands of Indonesians have seen the film, written about it, and are discussing it in the media, in seminars, human rights circles, filmmaking circles, and so forth.

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So far, there have been over 300 screenings in 95 cities. We estimate tens of thousands of Indonesians have seen the film. The Act of Killing is fundamentally changing how Indonesians perceive their country.

Does The Act of Killing inform other acts of genocide around the world, outside of Indonesia?

20133913_2_IMG_FIX_700x700We assume that normally perpetrators are held to account, or at least defeated, like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge, the Hutu extremists. But perhaps those are unusual cases, the exception to the rule. Aren’t most societies built on violence celebrated as heroic? My own country, the United States, is built on the holocaust of slavery, over one hundred years of apartheid, and a continuing system of economic apartheid. We have a Hollywood genre dedicated to the celebration of genocide – the Western.

More importantly, the situations in The Act of Killing only seems shocking because they are part of our reality we usually try to ignore. We deceive ourselves into thinking it pertains only to far-away places like Indonesia, but in fact the situation we see in The Act of Killing is an integral part of our reality.

Virtually everything we depend on for our daily lives is produced in places that have histories of mass killing, places where the perpetrators have won and exploit terrifying memories of the past-and on-going repression-to keep workers too afraid to struggle effectively for basic control over their lives and destinies.

We outsource our suffering to places like Indonesia. We depend on men like Anwar and his friends to keep the human cost of our products out of the price tag.

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Trained as an aerospace engineer, writer/director Jesse Veverka was a financial analyst on Wall Street before co-founding his own media production company, Veverka Bros. Productions LLC, with his brother Jeremy. He has worked and lived throughout Asia, including Japan, Korea, Indonesia and China, where he has produced a number of award-winning films. His articles have appeared in various publications including CNN Travel, Japan’s Metropolis Magazine and China’s Global Times. He was born in Ithaca, NY. Jeremy Veverka is a media professional with specialties in documentary filmmaking, photojournalism, cinematography, sound design, and commercial work. His award-winning films, including the feature documentary China: The Rebirth of an Empire, cover a range of geopolitical issues and have been screened at dozens of film festivals worldwide. With a degree in English from Cornell University and extensive travel experience throughout Asia and the Middle East, Jeremy brings his background in storytelling and international journalism to each of his projects and strives to give a voice to historically underrepresented groups. To learn more, visit or follow Jeremy on Twitter: @JeremyVeverka.