Oppenheimer, an intense, compactly built man of 38, has come to Washington to talk about “The Act of Killing,” but the visit is also a homecoming: He grew up here, first on Capitol Hill, then in Takoma Park and finally in Chevy Chase, the son of a University of Maryland political science professor and labor lawyer. “This is home,” he says at the downtown office where he’s been doing interviews.
A few moments later, Oppenheimer has launched into a long, neatly organized chronology of how he came to make “The Act of Killing,” a film that recounts the mass murders of communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966 and documents the massacres’ pernicious aftermath. The film, which was given its premiere last year at the Telluride Film Festival, has been a sensation on the festival circuit for its artful fusing of cinematic artifice and truth at its rawest and most unnerving. Oppenheimer not only found a death squad leader and his followers who would speak candidly about the crimes they committed 50 years ago, but they also reenact those episodes, in lurid, amateurish improvisations derived from the Hollywood genre films they imitated during their most heinous actions.
The result is a chilling account of slaughters that still reverberate throughout Indonesia in the form of corruption, cynicism and fear. The film also operates as a surreal meta-meditation on the grammar of violence, the legacy of colonialism, self-deception and the possibility of remorse. For Oppenheimer, it all started with the simple question of what happened in Indonesia in the 1960s, which he started asking on his previous project, “The Globalization Tapes.”
Oppenheimer was living in London, having studied film at Harvard and as a Marshall Scholar, and he was working with former classmate Christine Cynn on developing experimental documentaries. Oppenheimer and Cynn were commissioned by the International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers to make a documentary in a country where workers were trying to form a union, and the team found itself in Indonesia, filming workers on an oil palm plantation. “I didn’t know Indonesian yet, I didn’t know about the killings,” Oppenheimer recalls. “And it turned out the biggest obstacle that these women had in organizing a union was fear.”
Oppenheimer discovered that many of the workers’ parents and grandparents had been in unions in the early 1960s and then were accused of being communist sympathizers when the military dictator Suharto came to power. “They were placed in concentration camps by the army in ’65, and then dispatched out to civilian death squads that would take them to riverbanks and kill them,” Oppenheimer said. “And [the people we interviewed] were afraid this could happen again.”