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Inside the mind of a mass murderer, in drag

February 18th, 2014
09:27 AM ET

By Mick Krever, CNN

How do we know what is in the mind of a mass murderer? How about getting them to re-enact those crimes?

That is exactly what documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer did with several men who participated in mass killings in Indonesia decades ago.

Courtesy Drafthouse Films

“It’s tempting to look at them through the lens of sort of fiction storytelling, where you have good guys and bad guys, good guys and then cackling villains,” Oppenheimer told CNN’s Hala Gorani, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour, on Monday.

“When you're a non-fiction filmmaker, you have to look at the real people you meet.”

Few people outside of Indonesia have heard of the death squads operating there in 1965 and 1966. Human rights groups say these groups killed between 500,000 and a million accused communists.

Oppenheimer constructed a unique and strange narrative about this period in his new film, The Act of Killing. The film has just won a BAFTA for best documentary, and is nominated for an Academy Award.

He had originally sought to make a film about victims of the death squads, but says the Indonesian military forbade him from doing so. The victims’ families urged him to try to talk to the perpetrators.

To his surprise and horror, they were enthusiastic. They agreed to make a movie about how they killed and allowed him to film the process.

The result is a mind-bending movie within a documentary, by turns emotionally revolting, beautiful, and bizarre – one of the mass killers appears, as often as not, in drag. It is rarely entirely clear what is ‘acting’ and what is genuine.

“When you ask a killer initially just why did you kill these people, they will answer with ideology,” Oppenheimer said. “They'll say, ‘Oh, we were opposed to them because they were Communists or because they were Marxists.’”

When you dig further, you discover that “the ideology was always an excuse they told themselves afterwards to justify their crimes.”

Because the perpetrators have “remained in power,” and the U.S. and UK among others supported the Indonesian regime at the time, Oppenheimer said, the death squad leaders have never been forced to truly account for their sins.

It is astonishing to watch the protagonist of the film, Anwar Congo, who is rumored to have killed as many as 1,000 people, demonstrate with proud how he bloodlessly killed by wrapping a piece of piano wire around his victims’ neck.

“Rather than admit what they've done is wrong, and open themselves to the tormenting effects of guilt, I think they've clung to a victor's history that they've written celebrating what they've done as glorious.”

Nonetheless, he said, the perpetrators are and remain human, so they do know that what they did was wrong, and are “desperately trying to deny it.”

“Somehow their very humanity is involved in the mechanism of evil, because once they've won and tell themselves a lie, justifying their actions and cling[ing] to that lie, maintaining that lie, maintaining that excuse – that victor's history inevitably leads to further evil.”

In the film the perpetrators make about their killing – the film within the documentary – Anwar Congo plays one of the very victims he so mercilessly murdered.

“I think in some ways the reason he's participating in the film is because he's somehow trying to run away from the horror of what he's done by making a movie about it,” Oppenheimer said.

“It's as though if he can make, as he says at one point in the film, ‘If I can make a beautiful family movie about what I've done, I can’ – it's as though he's feeling he can put it right for himself. And of course he can't.”

By the end of the film, Congo has an intensely physical reaction, it seems to recounting the horror of his acts.

“Knowing Anwar, I don't think he has the capacity or the courage to day in and day out say to himself look what I did was wrong and to acknowledge the consequences of it.”

“But I think that – I think that Anwar regrets what he's done,” Oppenheimer said. “And when he leaves the film, the final scenes of the film, we see a man who's destroyed himself.”

Having spent so much time in the company of self-professed mass killers, Oppenheimer is better placed than most to know what drives someone to such horrors.

Mass killing of course continues to this day – whether in Syria or Central African Republic to name just two. What, Gorani asks, drives a person to commit these acts?

“I would hope, if I grew up in his family in 1950s Indonesia that come 1965, come the genocide, I would make different decisions,” Oppenheimer said. “I know that I'm extremely lucky never to have to find out.”

“Because they keep happening again, we have to deal with the reality directly – the unpleasant reality, the frightening reality – that it is human beings who do these things to each other.”

“And unless we look directly at that frightening fact, we have no chance of preventing these things from occurring in the future.”


Filed under:  Indonesia • Latest Episode
soundoff (49 Responses)
  1. RLTJ's

    Did they look at the angle of racial violence. It was said anti-insurgency in Malaysia and Indonesia killed insurgents, suspected supporters and sympathizers that were mostly of Chinese descent. Over a million was reported to have died.

    Racism might have complicated. It could have made violence of massive scale to occur that easy.

    February 18, 2014 at 11:57 am | Reply
  2. RLTJ's

    Anti insurgency-Ethnic cleansing.

    February 18, 2014 at 12:00 pm | Reply
  3. colleen

    Its happening right now in North Korea and no one wants to do anything about that either. We say that what we ignore in history will repeat itself, but why is this being allowed to happen......

    February 18, 2014 at 12:24 pm | Reply
    • Valveone

      Because China has veto power and we are economical dependent on China's cheap labor. Keep in mind South Korea doesn't want the millions of uneducated North Korean's that would storm the border. Per a Chinese student and a South Korean student they both say the same thing, they simple don't have the resources in their respective country's to handle such a massive welfare population. It would drain every public resource and devastate their economy.

      February 19, 2014 at 4:06 pm | Reply
  4. Walter

    CNN, you don't need to go all the way to Indonesia, to find proud people of their killings. Try some Vietnam US veterans that spread napalm over Vietnam ... It is indeed terrible but judgemental America is so cynical!

    February 18, 2014 at 1:06 pm | Reply
    • 11bangbang

      Spread napalm over vietnam? You are an idiot. They where fighting a enemy that entrenched itself with civilians. War is an ugly thing, I served as an 11b in iraq. Accidents in war are often fatal. Do not speak on things you know nothing about.

      February 18, 2014 at 7:31 pm | Reply
      • SlyFox

        come on man,go watch oliver stone's untold history of america,,the US is the number one country in killing the highest number of people in the world (millions more than nazi germany),,u cant dispute historical facts

        February 18, 2014 at 8:14 pm |
    • maria

      Boy! you sounds very American do you? get the facts in before you write nonsense. I bet you are in food stamps .using and abusing the system, living in your mama basement drinking alcohol ,smoking pot ,only a person like you with a iota of mentality can said that stupid remark really! you are very Anti-American indeed!

      February 18, 2014 at 10:22 pm | Reply
    • pablo1550

      I served in Viet Nam. My main objective was to stay alive and help my fellow servicemen stay alive. I doubt very much you have served in the armed forces and much less experienced what being in a combat zone is truly like.

      February 18, 2014 at 11:11 pm | Reply
      • Zoe

        Pablo if you ever get to read this,
        THank you so much for your service , I'm Australian and in my early fifties and I know a few men who served there,the horrors they faced and they come back and try to get back into civilian,life is harder than being in the actual war.
        I really am grateful for you and all the people who served.Thank you again!

        February 19, 2014 at 5:28 pm |
  5. Asmodeus Belial

    Do you really think Indonesia would have been better off under the Communists? Look to Cambodia to see how Communists in this part of the world behaved themselves. In terms of lives lost, Indonesia got off LIGHTLY as things are, and those men who kept the Communists from power should be congratulated. Poisonous enemies should be dealt with in the same way one deals with poisonous snakes.

    February 18, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Reply
    • maomao

      same way as china stopping the muslim insurgence in xinjiang by killing them.You correct,killing is the only solution against your enemy

      February 18, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Reply
    • Really?

      So you think killing people is ok

      If someone wants to kill you, would you also be ok with that?

      If someone disagrees with your oppinions are you ok with them killing you?

      February 18, 2014 at 5:16 pm | Reply
      • Sam Malone

        My friend, pacifism means only the 'bad' guys end up with the guns. You cannot live as a pacifist for very long until the tyrants take over. Yes, you need to use force with ethical foundations to deter those who would decimate your home, rape your wife and daughter and ruthlessly kill everything.

        February 19, 2014 at 11:38 pm |
  6. lean6

    This is pretty sick and barbaric, but I think civility is a house of cards anyway...especially here in the good ol' US of A. If the winds of tolerance for barbaric behavior continue to increase, as they have with abominations like "stand your ground" and other precedences of putting deceased victims on trial, there will be no turning back.

    February 18, 2014 at 1:39 pm | Reply
  7. Jeb

    CNN to me looks desperate by putting the drag queen part of the story in the headline. Not that i care, I have watched about 10 mins total of CNN on TV the last few years. Just come to the website to see if there's anything interesting to see. Which is about 1% of the time. This is part of the 1%.

    February 18, 2014 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  8. Mihan B. Ram

    I am 100% sure that these things would only be horror stories in the future. IF and IF we start educating our children from very young age (2 / 3) to love HUMANITY and Fellow men and women. We need only to abolish seeing others different from us. HOW CAN WE NAME OURSELVES HUMAN WHILE EVEN THE ANIMALS DO NOT KILL EACH OTHERs, ONLY BECAUSE THEY ARE DIFFERENT. THEY KILL OHER ANIMALS ONLY TO SATISFY THEIR HUNGER. This is very important subject and those responsible for the world should work on it, I am happy and ready to work with them for bringing about at least the preamble of it, withe my 4 grand children who are the lovers of mankind.

    February 18, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Reply
    • Allan

      You're right, we should only kill to feed ourselves. Those 500,000 to 1 million killed could have fed all of Africa!

      February 18, 2014 at 8:30 pm | Reply
    • Bruce Allen

      Oh, so naive. Many animals kill for territory and to establish themselves as the alpha of the herd, or school, etc. So too do humans and we will continue to do so in a world of limited resources. Utopia does not exist people, never has, never will. Do just a little research on say, gorillas, chimpanzees, orcas, aka killer whales, dolphins, lions, wolves, even domesticated dogs will kill to protect their own owners from perceived threats of harm. You anti-war believers and folks who have never served in the military, or think it is not a necessary part of securing a free state, may want to watch the movie "The Big Red 1" with Lee Marvin portraying a military non-commissioned officer (nco) over the course of two wars. It might just give you some small insight into how a soldier must think and act to both do his job and support his country.

      February 18, 2014 at 11:26 pm | Reply
  9. Geronimo

    America the Beautiful clings to a victorious history – founded on the massacre of millions of men, women, children, babies.

    February 18, 2014 at 3:17 pm | Reply
    • Mihan B. Ram

      Dear Geronimo this is what I am taking about. We r not children any more. we r grown up, we as humanity cannot say ho ho yesterday you did that and now i do this. As mature grown ups do forget the past forgive the past and go on to be friends and allies we also as individuals and as the world should do the same to change the world for better and with lasting peace. Geronimo please read my message above and tell me if the idea is a good idea. with respect

      February 18, 2014 at 5:01 pm | Reply
  10. Whatthehell

    "demonstrate with proud"

    You suck.

    February 18, 2014 at 4:39 pm | Reply
  11. JKR1979

    If you have not seen this movie I highly recommend it. It is one of, if not, the most disturbing film I have ever seen. Even more disturbing than the worst horror fiction. It is will leave you equal parts sad, repulsed and infuriated. It does not have a happy ending, but is important for everyone to see.

    February 18, 2014 at 5:18 pm | Reply
  12. kobe

    As Miham B. Ram says, ALL CHILDREN SHOULD BE TAUGHT LOVE, RESPECT, MORALS AND ETHICS, in the first years of life. Spend as much QUALITY time with family and neighbors. I've also come to understand the negative impact on a person's psyche, killing has. Regardless of justification. I am impressing on us to discourage pro-creation with anyone, who has taken a life in any manner. These person's are marked for judgement that will pass on to your children. As a veteran, my actions were indirect in killing other humans, however I carry a judgement for supporting the war machine. Now older, I've come to experience first hand how it comes back to you. I've had to do some soul searching and ask for forgiveness to a higher being, and myself. Now at peace, I speak these truths to you, so you may also find peace within yourselves and stop being a pawn in someone else sick agenda. It's time we all run our own destiny's of peace.

    February 18, 2014 at 5:50 pm | Reply
  13. David Justian

    Free will can have terrible results. Once a decision is made that its alright to murder a person and his/her children because of racial, religious, political, philosophical or other reasons the sin of evil wins. I think that a War is different somehow than civilian 'death gangs' rampaging through neighborhoods.

    February 18, 2014 at 6:09 pm | Reply
    • kobe

      Correct David. However war should only be fought for the right of self preservation! The moment we justify it with reasons as you listed, then we violate the first two sacred commandments. If we want to reach that Christ like personification, then fearing no death, and showing love towards your enemy has an everlasting positive effect, which only a few have attained. Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, MLK, etc... Funny, how people always remember the non-violent saints throughout history. Maybe that's what Jesus meant, "those that are willing to lose their life will gain it. Those that seek to preserve their lives will lose it"!

      February 18, 2014 at 6:39 pm | Reply
  14. Dan

    That first picture is hot.

    February 18, 2014 at 6:21 pm | Reply
    • ug

      Only a pervert would say or think that...

      February 18, 2014 at 7:04 pm | Reply
      • Dan

        Your brain doesn't process sarcasm very well, does it?

        February 19, 2014 at 2:10 am |
  15. achepotle

    Exactly what the right-wing kooks stateside want to happen when you hear them talking about "socialism" and guns.

    February 18, 2014 at 6:57 pm | Reply
  16. ug

    And this is what the libs call normal...perverts who dress like a**holes and think it is a good thing...

    February 18, 2014 at 7:03 pm | Reply
  17. jeng

    They are living free right now after committing genocide due to 3 main reasons: 1) US was supporting this, financial, equipment and logistics, and up to this moment, the world pretty much controlled by US still. 2) The victims are not white/western people, they are mainly native Indonesian and Chinese, which US, UK and its western allies mostly close one eyes. 3) These guys such as Anwar Congo were the foot soldiers, the real force behind this killing is Indonesia army and moslem organisation, both are the 2 main political forces in Indonesia right now, they of course will not ruin their own reputation or punish their own people. That is why Oppenheimer said he can't go back to Indonesia because it is no longer safe for him, the Indoensia military will probably kill him.

    February 18, 2014 at 8:21 pm | Reply
  18. Shorn

    Why on earth would these people feel remorse? They think they're heroes! The U.S. Army soldiers who helped wipe out the native populations in America thought of themselves as heroes. Nixon bombing Cambodia killed 150,000 civilians and I'm sure he went to his death thinking he was a great guy. They still aren't sure how many civilians Bush killed with his pointless war in Iraq. Bush clearly thinks he's neat! I'll bet he would re-enact how he gave the order. Why not? He's a hero!

    February 18, 2014 at 8:35 pm | Reply
  19. doabitofhomework

    No other creature needs to be taught morals, ethics, respect and love. They behave the way their kind was meant to behave, and they do no appreciable harm to the world, to other species, or to one another.

    Only humans do those things. Teaching "good" things has never yet guaranteed that a person would grow up to be truly civilized. Many, who grew up with all those things, have indulged in horrific acts and even called them good.

    It is in the nature of the human being to be violent, hateful, even fanatic, and to indulge in brutalities in extreme ways and on a grand scale.

    We are a non-viable species. Nature has indeed noticed, because it has its ways of recognizing a non-viable species in order to get rid of it, so it can't do more harm. Nature's goal is balance. We've violated natural balance in too many ways to count, and we're getting worse, rather than better.

    There's nothing we can really do about it, because this brutality is in our own genes. Was it always so? Who can say? But it surely is there in us now, and has been for a VERY long time. Genes evolve, and they evolve in the direction of the attributes we make the most use of. We've made use of brutality, and thus have strengthened that attribute in ourselves. The more we've done it, the stronger the attribute becomes.

    Human acts of brutality are not limited to one nationality, culture or religion; they're in all of us. We can either choose to go along with it, as most do in one fashion or another, or we can choose to stand up against a majority of people who think brutality is sometimes justified. Standing up against it can easily bring brutality down upon ourselves, so it's an uphill battle, no matter what we teach our children.

    Nobody can say that people taught love, respect, ethics and morals as a child have NEVER committed any form of brutality. Which tells us that such teaching can only have a small impact. Peace is defined by the individual as a condition of society which doesn't offend or stress him in any way. That usually means certain people have "got to go." It is defining peace to suit our own inclinations to do harm.

    It's an ugly truth, but brutality is in us all – the attribute is in our genes. That doesn't mean everyone has to cave in to it, but it does mean that most people will, in one way or another. And those who don't are often victims themselves. It doesn't pay to oppose brutality today. But to indulge in it pays very well indeed.

    Nature has all the time in the world, and it will correct this problem.

    February 18, 2014 at 8:42 pm | Reply
    • hvest

      What the hell are you on about? I'm not a brutal person, nor is anyone I've ever known. If you're saying our fight or flight response is innately brutal, I could disagree with your word choice. If that's not what you mean, this is utter rubbish.

      February 19, 2014 at 11:26 am | Reply
  20. gstlab3

    ho hum..,just more death due to human beings and their insane geopolitics and those pesky big banks and corporations that rule the outcomes and who cares as long as they allways maintain a good percentage and margin on the investments in war making and population control.

    February 18, 2014 at 8:47 pm | Reply
  21. jtool

    The name of this story was very misleading. The guy dressed in drag – for a part of the "movie within a movie" where they depict killing a woman – was not one of the mass murderers from the 1960s. He is too young. He is a modern day gangster/thug who seems part of the actual murderers' gang – but he wasn't the mass murderer. Did the author see the movie? I thought this was pretty clear from watching the movie. The guy in drag then runs for government office and is excited about how much money he can extort from citizens if he can get on the right committee. He's a pig. But too young to have murdered "Communists" in the early 1960s.

    February 18, 2014 at 9:01 pm | Reply
  22. jeng

    This is the world largest genocide that the victims remain hidden and unknown, and the murderers walk free and the entire world know about it. There is no justice in this world.

    February 18, 2014 at 10:15 pm | Reply
  23. NoWar

    When the world knows beauty as beauty, ugliness arises
    When it knows good as good, evil arises
    Thus being and non-being produce each other
    Difficult and easy bring about each other
    Long and short reveal each other
    High and low support each other

    February 18, 2014 at 10:21 pm | Reply
  24. NoWar

    But I have to say this country loves to glories war figures. Genghis Khan for one as an example. He was the biggest mass killer but America loves/fascinated by him.

    February 18, 2014 at 10:23 pm | Reply
  25. rex

    This is horrendous. they even participated in the reenactments of their evil crimes. what are they thinking? have they lost their morality? are they really that evil to live everyday of their lives without a conscience? without repentance of having to murder hundreds of people?

    February 18, 2014 at 10:35 pm | Reply
    • Shorn

      What are you talking about? They are heroes! They saved their country from Communism. At least, that's what they believe. Like how Americans engaged in genocide against the native populations because they believed (or chose to believe) the land belonged to them by divine right (manifest destiny).

      February 19, 2014 at 7:38 pm | Reply
  26. simple simon

    90% of Indonesians are Muslim. Were the victims also 90% Muslim, or perhaps 90% "other"?

    February 18, 2014 at 10:41 pm | Reply
  27. Semper Cogitatus

    I think that's the last kind of mind I would want to see inside.

    February 18, 2014 at 11:16 pm | Reply
  28. Bernadette

    Milgram Studies

    February 19, 2014 at 12:08 am | Reply
  29. jane

    What a disgustingly TRANSPHOBIC example of click-bait. Shame on whoever wrote that headline.

    February 20, 2014 at 7:54 am | Reply
  30. Andrew

    Despite some of the bizarre posts, this is an excellent film, and I'm glad to see CNN covering it. Would be better to have more follow-up on the issues raised by the film, to see why the culture of impunity continues to thrive in Indonesia.

    February 20, 2014 at 9:16 am | Reply
  31. jaareshiah

    Cold-bloodied killing is not new, starting with Cain who murdered his brother Abel almost 6,000 years ago.(Gen 4:8) The ancient Assyrians were well known for being cruel, in which Insight on the Scriptures (Vol 1, pg 201, published by Jehovah's Witnesses) says that "reliefs often show their captives being led by cords attached to hooks that pierced the nose or the lips, or having their eyes put out at the point of a spear. Thus, sadistic torture was a frequent feature of Assyrian warfare, about which they shamelessly boasted and which they carefully recorded. The knowledge of their cruelty doubtless served them to an advantage militarily, striking terror into the hearts of those in their line of attack and often causing resistance to crumble. Assyria’s capital, Nineveh, was aptly described by the prophet Nahum as a “lair of lions” and as “the city of bloodshed.”(Nahum 2:11, 12; 3:1)

    One of their warrior kings, Ashurnasirpal II, boasted of his cruelty (reigned 884-859 B.C.E.), saying: "I made a pillar of the living, and another of heads, and I bound their heads to posts (tree trunks) round about the city. The young men and maidens I burned in the fire.....Twenty men I captured alive and immured (imprisoned) in the wall of his palace."(Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia, by D. D. Lukenbill, 1926, Vol 1)

    The atrocities by human governments over the millennia of their existence shows that they are indeed cruel, cold-bloodied in their desire for expansion or within their own borders. The Bible describes all earthly governments under the expression of a "wild beast" (Rev 13:1, 2), whereby each political sovereignty has performed wicked, murderous, cruel deeds to retain their position among world governments.

    The assassins of the Khmer Rouge regime are no different than the Assyrians, having no conscience, no love for people, but merely to establish and keep their power and control over the masses. Anwar Congo is a merciless, wicked murderer, just as was Ashurnasirpal II, who has passed out of existence, possibly to never see "the light of day" again, to not be among the billions of mankind that are to be resurrected by Jesus (John 5:27-29) during his "thousand year" reign that will begin in the near future.(Rev 20:6, 13; Luke 23:43)

    February 22, 2014 at 7:33 am | Reply
  32. Casimir Patrick

    It seems Mr. Oppenheimer has, deliberately or not, made a movie about original sin. I have not seen the movie yet, but I imagine that the most disturbing thing about it is that the men involved are not cartoons but real people, capable of real evil. The truth is that we are all capable of doing horrible things, and that's what original sin is. Mr. Oppenheimer says as much when he talks about liking to think that if he had grown up in Indonesia in the 50's and 60's, he would have made different choices from these men, but immediately afterwards says he's grateful not to have to find out! Very insightful.

    February 25, 2014 at 3:40 am | Reply

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