“Act of Killing” Director Hopes U.S. Will Admit Genocide Role

by Jasmin Ramsey

Watching former gangsters and paramilitary leaders proudly reenact scenes from Indonesia’s military-led mass killings of 1965-66 in the Oscar-nominated documentary, “The Act of Killing”, it’s easy to forget the role of outside countries.

“It was like I had wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust only to find the Nazis were still in power,” director Joshua Oppenheimer told IPS in an exclusive interview.

But while U.S. covert support for the deadly crackdown that killed at least half a million people is not the focus of his film, Oppenheimer hopes the powerful country will at least admit its role.

“There was lots of foreign support for the genocide and that is used as an excuse not to apologise,” he said during a recent visit to Washington.

“It’s my hope that the U.S. will also take responsibility for its part so the Indonesian government can come to terms with the past and we can move on to reconciliation and healing,” he added.

While the U.S. has not formally admitted to that part, declassified documents show the CIA directly assisted the Indonesian army in its quest to eliminate the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) — killing anyone accused of links in the process — after a failed coup attempt.

“The simplest way to put it is that in the month leading up to the events of Sep. 30, 1965 the U.S. sought through covert operations to provoke an armed clash between the Indonesian army and the communist movement in the hope that it would eliminate the PKI,” said Bradley Simpson, who heads a project at the National Security Archive that declassified key U.S. government documents concerning Indonesia and East Timor during the reign of General Suharto (1966-1998).

“Perhaps most important is the fact that the [Lyndon] Johnson administration sent clear signals that they enthusiastically supported an attempt to destroy the communists from the bottom up knowing full well that this would lead to mass violence,” he told IPS.

That violence may take centre-stage on Sunday, Mar. 2 when the winner for “Best Documentary Feature” is announced during the 86th annual Academy Awards.

But while Oppenheimer may have produced one of the most unique documentaries of all time, he had initially set out to film a different story in Indonesia.

While documenting a community of exploited plantation workers in 2001, Oppenheimer, then in his late twenties, witnessed how they were bullied by the “Pancasila Youth,” a gangster-led paramilitary organisation that used death squads and continues to repress the population to this day.

After victims of the genocide were intimidated into not talking to him by order of the military — the leaders of which proudly display their brute hold on the population and corruption on camera — some survivors urged Oppenheimer to interview the perpetrators instead.

“I was afraid at first, but after I got over that fear I realised that everyone I interviewed was boastful about even the most horrible details of the killings, which they described with smiles on their faces,” he said.

In the eight years that it took Oppenheimer to complete “The Act of Killing”, which was executive produced by internationally known directors Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, he only discovered his main character, Anwar Congo — the founder of a right-wing paramilitary organisation that grew out of the death squads — in the final year of filming.

Congo, who describes torturing and murdering suspected communists “like we were killing happily,” acts as though he is the director of the documentary as he collaborates with friends and colleagues to recreate scenes from his memory.

“I felt his pain was close to the surface, so I lingered on him,” said Oppenheimer.

But while Congo seems haunted by his past, especially by a recurring nightmare of a severed head with eyes he failed to close staring at him, he ultimately reverts to the excuse that he was just following orders.

“I don’t think Congo saw this as his redemption,” said Oppenheimer. “He doesn’t recognise in a cognizant way that what he did was wrong.”

After Congo watched the film “he was very moved and emotional and then he pulled himself together and said, ‘this film shows what it’s like to be me,’” Oppenheimer told IPS.

“His conscience was guiding the process and it sounds very complex but for him it was simply about showing me how he killed,” he said.

Adi Zulkadry, a fellow executioner who warns Congo that the material in the film could be used against them, seems to have a deeper understanding of the magnitude of his actions but also justifies them as a consequence of war.

Pressed to respond to the fact that what he did is described by the Geneva Conventions as “war crimes,” Zulkadry says he doesn’t “necessarily agree with those international laws”.

“War crimes are defined by the winners….Americans killed the Indians. Has anyone punished them for that? Punish them!” he proclaims.

But while Zulkadry denies the value of Indonesia coming to terms with its past by admitting that what happened was a genocide, Oppenheimer’s film may be aiding the process — it has been screened thousands of times in Indonesia, and is available for free online.

“The Act of Killing” was also recently shown at the U.S. Library of Congress.

Senator Tom Udall of the foreign relations committee, who introduced the film to a group of senators, told US News and World Report that, “The United States government should be totally transparent on what it did and what it knew at the time, and they should be disclosing what happened here.”

But it remains to be seen whether Washington will change a policy of denial.

“Fifty years is long enough for both the U.S. and Indonesia not to call it a genocide,” said Oppenheimer.

Photo: Fellow executioners Anwar Congo (left) and Adi Zulkadry have their makeup done before reenacting a scene from the Indonesian genocide. Credit: Courtesy of Joshua Oppenheimer

*This article was first published on IPS News

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.



  1. Perhaps when the revisionists get around to it, they might give it a go. But one shouldn’t hold ones breath,in the hope that the U.S. will admit that it makes mistakes, just like everyone else does, even more so, when sticking its nose in other countries business, when it shouldn’t touch same with a ten foot pole. One can see this repeated since 9-11, with the never ending “war on terror”. After, the U.S. is engaged in 3 engagements that could blow up into another war adventure, if certain people get their way. Of course, where will the money to finance such come from, and do those advocating war think that the U.S.Military will just blindly go into same, after denying the Veterans/Military benefits that the Repuglicons just pulled off?

  2. If 50 years is long enough for the US politicians to confess to their role in the 1965 Genocide in Indonesia then we should also hear about their role in the 1964 military coup in Brazil, ousting a democratically elected government which, like the US engineered coup in Chile in 1973, left 1000s murdered, tortured, exiled and traumatized. To expect ‘transparency’ from the perpetrators of crime is naivety. It took half a century for the US to publicly admit the CIA had been the architect of the 1953 military coup in Iran but even more than a decade after the admission not all the facts have been disclosed, claiming some of the documents had been destroyed!

    What differentiates the native Indonesian players in this shocking ‘Act of Killing’ from their absent American counterparts is that for the Indonesians there was only one episode (real/artistic), whereas their American counterparts have had endless episodes, spanning over decades, and not just in one setting/country but across the globe. The other disparity being where the Indonesians claim to have acted on an order, the Americans have been the instigators of such orders since 1949, not just in Indonesia, Brazil and Chile but also in Argentine, Guatemala, Venezuela, Nicaragua, South Vietnam, Greece, as well as in the Muslim World: Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Turkey, Libya – not to mention the bloodshed in Iraq.

    What ‘the American People’ need to see is a Retrospective of America’s Democratizing Mission: a ‘series’ of ‘Acts of Killing’, so that the American public will understand the true nature of their political representatives, and the criminality of their foreign policies in which America’s manipulating MASS MEDIA has played a MAJOR ROLE often with immense IRRESPONSIBILITY! Unfortunately, instead of eye opener films like Costa Gavras’ Stage of Siege (1972) (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKm3-VgvQOo), exposing the truth of the liberating humanitarian CIA operatives in Uruguay, the American public receive a worthless escapism thriller such as Argo (2012)!

    As in this ‘Act of Killing’, every generation of gifted American right wing politicians have betrayed their fellow Americans by ‘skillfully’ manipulating and enacting their predecessors’ predatory role; in Reagan’s case it turned out to be the most entertaining performance of the century – like the actor John Wayne, Reagan could not see the borderline between role playing and his own identity – God knows how many 1000s destitute urban and peasant families paid with their lives in South America in the ’80s while the Western MEDIA continued to glorify Reagan!

    The main question is: Do we really need the US acknowledgement of its past and present crimes? Not really. The US Administration cannot manipulate and distort the world’s COLLECTIVE MEMORY; people are well informed; ironically the only people who think otherwise are the US politicians themselves.

    The point in making films such as ‘Act of Killing’ is not just to pose a moral question or push for America’s ADMISSION of GUILT, but to demand TERMINATION of America’s Genocidal Foreign Policies propagated by Western Mass Media every year, sanctified and executed in the name of DEMOCRACY and AMERICAN VALUES!

  3. Injustice has a shelf-life, and the expiration date on ours rapidly approaches.

Comments are closed.