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‘If a film about genocide isn’t tough, there’s something wrong with it’

The Act of Killing: A documentary in which former Indonesian death squad leaders reenact their real-life mass-killings in various cinematic genres.

The Toronto International Film Festival has shown many disturbing, controversial and/or shocking films in its nearly five decades, but probably none as unnerving as The Act of Killing. Imagine, if you can (or dare), a postwar get-together of Reinhard Heydrich, Martin Bormann, several former Gestapo functionaries, a few ex-Auschwitz guards and three or four retired Einsatzgruppen grunts on a Munich soundstage where, cameras rolling under the gaze of Claude Lanzmann, they re-enact some of their most heinous deeds.

That's sort of what director Joshua Oppenheimer accomplishes in The Act of Killing. Except that here the mass murderers are former members of the Indonesian paramilitary death squads that, with CIA sanction, killed more than one million communists, ethnic Chinese, intellectuals and trade unionists in the wake of the 1965 coup that effectively deposed President Sukarno. Almost a decade in the making, with its world premiere at TIFF 2012, the film begins its commercial run Friday in Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton and Vancouver. The Globe spoke with the Texas-born, Harvard-educated Oppenheimer, 38, during TIFF.

What are the origins of the film?

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I went to Indonesia with the plan of making a documentary about a group of plantation workers trying to form a union after Suharto's resignation [as president in 2003]. But they were really scared not least because before the 1965-66 genocide there had been quite a strong union in the area, their relatives had been members of it and many had been killed as a result. Now they were reluctant to talk because they didn't want these killers, who were still around, living in the neighbourhood, to see them talking to a filmmaker. So they said, 'But, Josh, you can tell the story of what happened to our relatives by simply going and speaking to the killers. They'll talk to you.'… One said, 'Our next-door neighbour is the person who killed our aunt,' and someone else said, 'Two houses down, there's the guy who killed my father.'" So I went outside those houses [near the city of Medan, in North Sumatra] and hung outside, quite scared at first, pretending to be filming village life … and the first man I filmed almost immediately started to tell me how he had killed hundreds of plantation workers and unionists in the 1960s by beating them up, drowning them, then dumping them in a river. And he told this in front of his 10-year-old granddaughter who looked kind of bored, as if she had heard it 100 times! And with that, I asked him to introduce me to every other death-squad member he knew who was still living and from there I just went up the chain of command.

Re-enactments are a staple of contemporary documentary filmmaking. But you really twist it to a hyper-surreal level when we see these gangsters – who've never spent a day in jail for what they did – making a film within your film, dramatizing, glorifying the atrocities they committed when they were young. Was the conceit of them being re-enactors in their own horror show there right from the beginning?

That came later. But the sort of conditions of possibility for it came from the beginning because I come in as an American moviemaker, they love American movies, in the city at least, and they loved Americans because they were working with the Americans during the genocide. Their thinking probably went something like: "An American filmmaker makes American films. We know American films. We know Elvis. We know cowboy movies. We know musicals. We know gangster movies. We know Fred Astaire. We can do this. This is what we want to do." Really, it all came very organically. The moment you put a camera in front of someone, inevitably there rushes into his or her head all the movies they've seen which have affected how they imagine themselves. Filming provides a stage and I was giving them the chance to stage themselves however they wished. So I felt like I was creating an observational documentary of the imagination rather than an observational documentary of real events.… All I had to do was withhold judgment.

I know there's no orthodoxy when it comes to settling on a format for a documentary. But were there times when you felt what you were doing here was just too tough for an audience?

No. I don't go to see a movie to make me feel more comfortable about the world I already live in, [that tells me] life is hard but we get on and muddle through it and things are okay. I'd rather take a walk with my mother! The film is tough, certainly, but for God's sake, if a film about genocide isn't tough, there's something wrong with it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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