Film & TV

The Act of Killing Director Joshua Oppenheimer on What Violence Abroad Means for the U.S.

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Oppenheimer first set out to make a film about the survivors. When the Indonesian army began shutting down filming at every opportunity, the survivors suggested the filmmaker seek out the perpetrators of the killings, who were drafted off the street by the military. "Because the perpetrators will boast," he says they told him, "and then the audience will see the nature of the impunity and fear that defines this regime. They'll see the dark, rotten heart of the regime of contemporary Indonesia and this pseudo-democracy."

He said he filmed every killer he could find across the region with the help of a human rights group. He met a total of 41 killers and interviewed them all. "I found they were all boastful. They were all open," says Oppenheimer. "I found myself in Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, and the Nazis were still in power."

Scenes of abject poverty, shiny malls, and fascist-like rallies tie together the film's scenes. If that's not surreal enough, Oppenheimer asked some of the executioners to write movie scenes about the massacres and act them out with makeup, costumes, special effects, and sometimes even intricate sets.

Of all the perpetrators he met, Oppenheimer says the heart of the film came after he met the 41st: Anwar Congo. The director noticed something unique about him early on. "His pain was close to the surface, and maybe unconsciously I intuited that maybe through Anwar that the boasting of the perpetrators may not be a sign of the lack of guilt and the lack of remorse, but the opposite. It may be a desperate effort to try and convince themselves that what they did was right."

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Hans Morgenstern has contributed to Miami New Times for too many decades, but he's grown to love Miami's arts and culture scene because of it. He is the chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle, and most of his film criticism can be found on Independent Ethos (indieethos.com) if not in New Times.