Pushing the Boundaries of Documentary Storytelling

Caught in the Act

Co-director Christine Cynn’s new film about the 1965 Indonesian genocide pushes the boundaries of documentary storytelling.

This story originally published in KoreAm Journal July 2013.

As a curtain of flames burns behind them, men, women and children violently clash with uniformed men.  There are cries and indecipherable yells. You are seemingly in the center of a war zone.

Then, someone shouts, “Cut! Cut! Cut!” and the camera zooms out.

Oh, it’s just a movie—fiction. Or is it?

The scenes are from a trailer for The Act of Killing, an experimental documentary that follows several of the real-life killers involved in the 1965 Indonesian genocide, a “communist purge” that resulted in the indiscriminate murder of a million people, largely ethnic Chinese. But this film does not follow a traditional narrative approach. Instead, directors Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn asked the perpetrators of this mass killing not just to tell their stories, but to act out what they remembered in any way they chose.

The resulting film meets somewhere between reality and dreamscape; elements of documentary are interspersed with musical, noir and talk-show scenes, as envisioned by the killers. It is simultaneously stunning and grotesque, an unnerving visual exploration of memory, fantasy and violence.

Cynn, a second-generation Korean American who grew up in Philadelphia, and longtime collaborator, Oppenheimer, stumbled upon the idea to make The Act of Killing while working on another documentary in Indonesia in the early 2000s, The Globalization Tapes. The latter film focuses on the effects of globalization from the perspective of plantation workers in Sumatra. But while interviewing subjects for that documentary, the filmmakers encountered some survivors of the 1965 purge, who would matter-of-factly point out neighbors in their village who had killed their family members.

“They would point and say, ‘That person who lives three doors down had killed my aunt.’ And this was astounding, of course, for us,” recalled Cynn, during an interview over Skype last month. Cynn, who lives with her husband in England, was speaking from Australia, where she is working on another film.  “And … we said, ‘Do you want to film them? Do you want to question them about what happened?’ And they said, ‘Well, they’ll never talk to us about what happened. … But they will talk to you because you are from the United States, and they will probably even be boastful about it because they’re actually proud of it.’”

A scene from The Act of Killing, an unsettling new film that attempts to document the imagination.

The filmmakers would go on to film the first perpetrator and found that these survivors were right. “This man was incredibly open, incredibly boastful about extremely violent acts that he had done himself, but very much as part of an organized effort,” said Cynn. “It was very chilling and very confusing for us.”

She and Oppenheimer (plus another co-director, an Indonesian who remains anonymous for safety reasons) would go on to investigate: “Why are they so boastful? What do they think we are thinking when they talk to us this way? And what are the conditions that make it possible for them to think this way? And also do they really feel this way?” Here’s more from KoreAm’s conversation with Cynn about this unique and powerful film, which has earned more than two dozen awards, most recently winning the Aung San Suu Kyi Award at the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival. It is set for a July 19 nationwide release.

Where did the idea come from to have [the killers] act out these scenes?
Josh [Oppenheimer] started this process where he would meet with [executioner] Anwar Congo, and Josh would do the regular things—he interviewed him, took him back to the location where he was doing the killing, and it was apparent very early on that the kind of film Anwar and his friends wanted to be in was not a documentary film. In The Act of Killing, you see [Anwar] looking at himself, reenacting at the actual location, and immediately he starts to say, ‘I should be dressing [differently], I should have dyed my hair. I’m not behaving—I’m not acting, essentially—in an authentic way.’ And it was very clear that he actually wanted to do much more elaborate reenactments.

They always understood that the film was a documentary and that, although we essentially wanted to document their imaginations, they never actually thought they were making another film—even though they fantasized, obviously, about making their own actual fiction film.

As co-director, what specific role did you play?
I worked with Josh on the dramatic reenactments, so anything that had to do with the set or costumes, anything that had to do with that whole methodological approach. … So, really documenting the imagination and extending what we did to catalyze people to project themselves in different ways. In many ways, it’s impossible to be the same person in front of the lens that you are [when] not in front of the lens. We decided to use the camera for the qualities that it actually catalyzes things to happen that don’t normally happen.

How did the idea of memory and trauma play into this film?
It’s definitely something I’m very interested in, this question about memory in relationship to fantasy and in relationship to nightmare, fear. It’s certainly something that I think is important. Whether or not we choose how we remember something, which is the way [perpetrator] Adi [Zulkadry] really projects himself in the film, as being someone who doesn’t feel guilty, or doesn’t feel psychological trauma because he’s convinced himself this was war and therefore appropriate. That’s quite a scary position; whether or not I think that to be true about him, it’s really unclear. Part of me actually thinks there is no way you can witness and take part in that kind of terror and brutality and not be changed by that, and not be on some level troubled by it.

The fact that every person had a different defense—even Adi has a defense mechanism—I think indicates that he must have struggled with this question. If they were really sociopathic and had no compassion or empathy for anyone, or the damage they did to other people, I don’t think they would bother to have a defense. But they all did have defenses, and they argued about them, as you can see in the film. Even the boastfulness suggests a gesture and indicates, actually, that there is an internal struggle actually happening. I think it’s an indicator that they understand that there needs to be some kind of transcendent reason for them to have done that. I think this kind of boastfulness is another way to deal with potential trauma and self-doubt, and to become the adverse of that and just become very arrogant.

What do you want people to take away from the film?
I think as a filmmaker, I’d like to make films that actually make people reflect personally and undergo some emotional experience that is not escaping their own lives, their own world, but actually comes back to them. … I wanted people really to question themselves, and to understand that collectively we can convince ourselves that even the most terrible things are necessary and even good. And that it’s important to understand the way that kind of collective meaning propagates, even when it’s at odds with how we feel and the implication of those kinds of contradictions.

Films play to people’s desire to want to identify with a clear kind of good guy versus a bad guy, or to empathize or feel compassion for victims of violence. But the truth is that, in very many countries and in very many places, people are actually closer to perpetrators than to victims themselves, but they don’t realize it, or they don’t want to realize it. Even our computers and phones and various other things are marked very much by the suffering and exploitation of other people—and we know it.  It’s not a secret, and it hasn’t been for a very long time, and yet we live like that. These are the kind of questions I think are very important to ask.

The Act of Killing directors Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn.

Do you see yourself as a journalist?
No, I don’t. I understand that when we’re dealing with this material, there’s a responsibility to this material, there’s historical responsibility with this because it’s a story that’s really out there for anyone to pick up—but they weren’t doing it, or there were very few people that were investigating this.  I think, as a filmmaker, it was very difficult to separate myself from journalistic impulse. On the one hand, yes, there is an exposé element of film. But what was funny is that it’s an exposé on something that was actually very much in the open.

Do you believe filmmaking is effective in creating change?
Film, of course, has the potential to make change. I think very much that they can be powerful experiences for people; they can provide very important sign posts or can catalyze reflection in people or discussion between people, and all of that is very important.

The film has done a lot in Indonesia; there’s been over 500 screenings. One of the major national magazines made a whole issue dedicated to 1965, catalyzed by the film, and that’s a very important discussion that they have to have. And I think that the film has created an opening and a kind of provocation, and certain people have really taken that up and are really using the film to open up debate, which I think is really amazing and probably the most satisfying part of this whole process.

Can you tell me about the current project you are working on?
The next project is called scienceFUTURE: The Cloud Life of X, and it focuses on how we imagine the future, so in that sense, it is like The Act of Killing, working in this area of documenting the imagination. But this time it’s about projecting forward, rather than reflecting backwards historically. And I am interested in how, collectively, we can imagine the future and to use a narrative technique to do this.

How do you choose the films that you work on?
I really think I have a privilege as a filmmaker following my own curiosities and questions about the world and, if I’m interested in a person or a phenomenon or in a dynamic that’s happening in a community, filmmaking is a way of life. It’s a way in which you have an excuse to go and talk to people and spend time with people who—if you chose another line of work—you would have no reason, you would have no excuse to spend time with them. And filming for me really does that.  … I’ve been very fortunate, actually, to be able to use film as a way to move through life, a way to follow my own passions or interests in the world. Too few people are allowed to do that.

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