In a country where killers are celebrated as heroes, the filmmakers challenge unrepentant death squad leader Anwar Congo and his friends to dramatise their role in genocide. But their idea of being in a movie is not to provide testimony for a documentary: they want to be stars in their favourite film genres—gangster, western, musical. They write the scripts. They play themselves. And they play their victims. This is a cinematic fever dream, an unsettling journey deep into the imaginations of mass-murderers and the shockingly banal regime of corruption and impunity they inhabit.
The tradition of cinema is dominated by films about good versus evil, “good guys” fighting “bad guys”. But good guys and bad guys only exist in stories. In reality, every act of evil in history has been committed by human beings like us. When we make the leap from “a human being who commits evil” to “an evil human being”, we denounce an entire life, a whole person. I think we take pleasure in denouncing people. Perhaps because, in doing so, in feeling entitled to make the denunciation, we reassure ourselves that we are different, that we are good. In The Act of KIlling, I ask you to see a part of yourself in Anwar, a man who has killed perhaps 1000 people. Empathizing with a killer does not mean we empathize any less with the victims. In fact, the contrary is true. Empathy is not a zero-sum game. Empathy is the beginning of love – and I think we can never have too much of it. The moment you identify, however fleetingly, with Anwar, you will feel, viscerally, that the world is not divided into good guys and bad guys—and, more troublingly, that we are all much closer to perpetrators than we like to believe. My film holds a dark mirror up to Anwar, and to contemporary Indonesia. It also holds a dark mirror up to all of us, for all of us rely on men like Anwar and his friends for our survival. The reality you see in The Act of Killing is not a distant, crazy world, where black is white and white is black. On the contrary, it is the dark underbelly of our reality: we all depend on the suffering of others to feed and clothe ourselves. Everything that touches my body, including the computer on which I type this letter, is haunted by the suffering of the people who made it. Every sweatshop in the world is located in a place where there has been political violence, where the perpetrators have won and are still in power, and where a terrifying past keeps people so afraid that the human cost of everything we buy is not included in the price tag. We, too, are perpetrators. I began this journey nearly a decade ago, filming with survivors of the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide. We became close. They became my second family. I learned Indonesian. But every time we would film together, the military would stop us. It was frightening for the survivors, who were still subject to a regime of political apartheid that designated them as “unclean”, denying them and their children education, jobs, even the right to marry who they choose. One of the survivors suggested I film the perpetrators. “They will boast,” she explained. “Film their boasting, and viewers will see why we are so afraid.” For several years, I filmed every perpetrator I could find, working my way across North Sumatra’s oil palm and rubber plantations, and up the chain of command to the city of Medan, and beyond to army generals in Jakarta. Anwar, the protagonist of The Act of Killing, was the 41st death squad leader I filmed. Without exception, the perpetrators were open, eager to tell me what they had done. Usually, they would insist I film them in the places where they had killed, and they would launch into spontaneous re-enactments of the killings. After showing me how they’d killed, they’d often lament that they had neglected to bring machetes to use as props, or friends to play victims. I knew their openness was a consequence of, indeed a performance of impunity. But why were they boasting? How did they want me to see them? How did they really see themselves Perpetrators in film normally deny their atrocities (or else apologise for them), because by the time filmmakers reach them, they have been removed from power, and their actions condemned. Here, I was filming perpetrators of genocide who won, who built a regime of terror founded on the celebration of genocide, and who remain in power. They have not been forced to admit what they did was wrong. At first, I took their boasting at face value: they feel no remorse, they are proud of what they did, they have no conscience. I came to understand, however, that this first interpretation may have been too hasty, that the killers’ boasting may betray their awareness that what they did was wrong, and may be their desperate effort to escape that fact… If you or I had killed, and still had open to us the possibility of justifying it to ourselves, I am certain that most of us would. Otherwise, we would have to look in the mirror every morning and see a murderer. The men in The Act of Killing can still justify what they’ve done, because nobody has condemned them—they remain in power. And because they don’t believe their own justification, they become more strident, and justification slips into desperate celebration—not because they lack humanity, but rather because they know what they did was wrong. The celebration of mass murder may, then, be a sign of humanity. That’s probably the central paradox in The Act of Killing. The tragedy, however, is that the celebration of killing requires that you commit further evil. It requires that you oppress your victims, and it even requires that you kill again. Having corrupted yourself by killing one person, if you are now asked to kill another, for more-or-less the same reason, you cannot refuse, because if you refuse it’s tantamount to admitting it was wrong the first time. The Act of Killing asks hard questions about what it means to be a human being. What does it mean to have a past? How do we make our reality through storytelling? And how, as a crucial part of this, do we use storytelling to escape from our most bitter and indigestible truths. The Act of Killing has transformed the way Indonesians are talking about its past—and its present. In response to the film, the mainstream Indonesian media now publishes, for the first time in 47 years, serious investigative pieces about the genocide, and about the role of gangsters in politics. According to a member of Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission, perpetrators no longer boast about crimes against humanity. The film is the most talked about work of culture in modern Indonesia. It has has arrived like the child in The 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 fear, that any given politician might be a gangster or killer—but no one dared say so. But once it’s been shown so forcefully, so emotionally—and by the perpetrators themselves—there is no denying it, and no going back. The Act of Killing would not be possible without many anonymous Indonesians, including my Indonesian co-director, who risked their lives for eight years to bring you this film. All the while, they knew it would be too dangerous for them to publicly take credit for this work. They are the most brave, inspired, dedicated, and loving people I have ever known. They have been my best friends and my family over these eight years. They supported me throughout the dark journey, and brightened the path with laughter. And above all, we owe our deepest gratitude to the families of the victims, the survivors who first told me their stories, and who inspired me to make this film. Finally, this letter would not be complete if I didn’t say a word about the giant goldfish. A former seafood restaurant that went bust, the fish is perched on the precipice of the most important event in human history. I mean that quite literally, for it sits above Lake Toba, a crater lake formed when a super volcano exploded some 50-75,000 years ago. The explosion plunged the earth into a volcanic winter so severe that humanity was wiped out, our population reduced from many millions to a single band of one thousand people, from which geneticists have determined that all modern human beings have evolved. This is called the Toba bottleneck. So when Anwar and his friends are dancing at the fish, under a gathering thunderstorm, it is a danse macabre at the edge of the abyss. It is a great privilege to share with you a decade of my work, this documentary of the imagination, this fever dream, The Act of Killing.