GALO: And so the threat of communism became part of their storytelling and the so-called “communists” their scapegoats?

JO: Adi says very concisely in the film that killing is the worst thing you can do, but if you can get away with it, and you’re paid well enough for it, you can go ahead and do it. But then you must make up an excuse, so that you can live with yourself. And you must cling to that excuse ever after — that is to say, you must lie to yourself. You must tell lies to justify your actions. These perpetrators collectively have told a lie justifying their actions in the form of a victor’s history.

One of the most painful, counterintuitive things that the film excavates and reveals is that once perpetrators commit acts they know are wrong — being human, they, of course, know they are wrong — and then make up a lie to justify their actions, that is to say to construct and insist upon a victor’s history in order to maintain those lies, they inevitably have to commit further evil, which leads to a downward spiral into corruption, further evil, and ultimately a total moral vacuum. Because in order to maintain the lie or the victor’s history — that the victims deserved to be killed — you now have to blame the victims and dehumanize them, because it’s much easier for the perpetrators to live with what they’ve done if they feel that their victims were not fully human. And, most criminally, you have to kill again.

If the army, for example, tells Anwar in 1967 to go out and torture those people or go and kill those people, or even go and kidnap those people for the same reason that you killed people in 1965, and Anwar refuses a second, third, fourth, fifth time, it’s tantamount to admitting it was wrong the first time, which he’s never been forced to do. And the irony is that the downward spiral into further evil and corruption stems not from the fact that Anwar and his friends are immoral monsters who don’t have morality. On the contrary, it stems from the fact that they’re human. Being human they know what they’ve done is wrong, and they’re vulnerable to the tormenting effects of guilt. They have to cling desperately and maintain at all costs the lies that they’ve told themselves and imposed on their society to justify their actions.

GALO: The term “gangsters” is used liberally by Anwar and his friends in reference to themselves and others who committed the genocidal killings. They even go so far as to define it with grand bravado as “freemen.” At a pivotal moment in your film, the theme song for the documentary, Born Free, plays. That film, based on the relationship between George and Joy Adamson and a lion cub named Elsa, is considered by many to have had a significant impact on how we view the relationship between humans and animals — and the hunt and be hunted mentality of African safaris. Did you choose to use the song? Or was that their choice?

JO: I know Anwar has seen the film, but I honestly don’t think he was aware [of the movie’s greater impact]. I think the song has taken on a life of its own for Anwar and the people of Sumatra. It’s one of his very favorite songs, and it’s become a kind of anthem to this myth of freedom that underpins the euphemism for “gangster.” When they say the word gangster comes from “freeman” in Indonesia, in fact it does. The word they’re using for “gangsters” is “preman,” which comes from the Dutch, “vrijman (freeman).” The Dutch colonial regime used a layered stratum of social outcasts, who were often collaborators with the Dutch colonialists, to do their dirty work. That system of using “freemen” — “preman” — on a parallel power structure to do the dirty work of the state went through a real renaissance in the fashioned dictatorship of General Suharto and in the genocide that led to it. And in that sense, it’s an accident of etymology that the word for gangster in Indonesia is “freeman.” In fact, it is used to euphemize and invalidate the whole parallel power structure, which allows the state to violate human rights and intimidate people, and function as a dictatorship off the record.

GALO: In many ways, America could be considered the silent co-star of your documentary. Since their youth, Anwar and his friends have been enamored with all things American — movies, music and clothing. They even adopted various methods of killing their victims directly from their favorite Hollywood movies. When given the opportunity to reenact their killing scenes, they often dress according to their favorite film actor or film genre — mobster films, westerns, etc. President Obama even makes a cameo appearance. As Anwar is getting ready, Obama is on television saying, “We are not enemies but friends. To those who will tear the world down, we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security we support you.” Did you intend to have America play such an important role?

JO: First of all, again, I want to say, your questions are so wonderful. I absolutely intended that the United States be a kind of character in the film through its cinema, through its politics, through the vacuous culture of consumerism, which we see in the shopping malls.

I would say I had a choice: I could make a historical documentary trying to tell a coherent story about how America and the west in general supported the 1965 genocide; or I could try to make a film where we expose the present day regime, and we see America through its kind of dark mirror image in the Indonesian killer-aristocracy. So I understood that my task — what I was charged to do with the survivors and what the human rights community demanded that I do — was to make a film exposing the present-day horror. I could not do that and make a coherent historical documentary about what happened in 1965 and, in particular, the American role in it.

When Adi and his family are drifting through the shopping mall, we hear in the voiceover this litany of biblical, almost Old Testament, ways of killing people through Adi’s recounting. And then there’s the “very, very limited crystal collection” and the collection of nearly extinct dead animals in a museum promoted by the owner as one of the main tourist attractions in North Sumatra, yet he neglects to tell visitors that all of the wildlife in his so-called wildlife gallery is dead — as though he didn’t realize that it even mattered that these nearly extinct animals are dead. This hollow, purely negative space is indeed really intentionally crafted as a character throughout the film, and I’m so glad that you noticed that.

GALO: You note at the beginning of your film that “in less than a year, with direct aid of Western governments, over one million “communists” were murdered.” This is sadly, a story few in America have read in history books. Has there been a different response to your film in America as compared to other countries?

JO: I think for Americans — for anyone seeing the film — the film holds a dark mirror up to America as much as it holds a dark mirror up to Anwar or Indonesia as a whole. Just as the film is an Indonesian film about Indonesia, I think that the film can also be seen as an American film by an American about America. And American audiences, in general, have recognized this in different ways.

A lot of people come out of the film wanting to know more about America’s involvement. They go onto the Internet, looking up what we did at the time. I think the film is getting Americans to ask: what did we do? How were we involved? How are we complicit? The moment viewers in the United States see even a small part of themselves in a man like Anwar, the whole façade, the whole moral paradigm — that the world is divided up between good guys and bad guys — inevitably collapses. And at that moment viewers are forced to say, “Look we’re all much closer to perpetrators than we’d like to be.” And it’s not just because our government was involved, but also because everything we buy is manufactured in places like Indonesia. That is what the shopping mall sequence was about in The Act of Killing. I would say that Americans, in general, like audiences all over the world are seeing themselves in the mirror and then are hungry for information…hungry for information.

(Interview continued on next page)