by director Joshua Oppenheimer
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 1,000 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.
Without exception, the perpetrators of the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide whom I filmed were open and 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 apologize for them), because by the time filmmakers reach them, they have been removed from power and their actions have been 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, and 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 were put in a situation where we could justify these actions 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 do 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?
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-shaped building 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 a great deal of 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 dance macabre at the edge of the abyss.