Interview: Joshua Oppenheimer
Since playing at Telluride and Toronto last fall, The Act of Killing has drawn admiration and shudders with its depiction of what Stuart Klawans calls “the genocidal imagination” in our July/August issue. Killers from the bloodiest days of Indonesia’s campaign of slaughter in the 1960s parade before us, thriving: chiefly, executioner Anwar Congo, portrayed as undergoing a stomach-churning recognition of his deeds, and two other perpetrators, buffoonish Herman Koto and cynically unrepentant Adi Zulkadry.
The Globalisation Tapes
Born in Texas, raised in New Mexico and Washington, D.C., Joshua Oppenheimer came to Indonesia through The Globalisation Tapes (03, co-directed with Christine Cynn), a film about unionization efforts in Sumatra. His experimentation with filmmaking was present already in two works made during his years as a Harvard undergraduate: the hybrid all-American tabloid apocalypse The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase (98) and These Places We've Learned to Call Home (96), for which Oppenheimer went undercover with American militia groups.
Based in Copenhagen and London, Oppenheimer is also artistic director of the Centre for Documentary and Experimental Film at the University of Westminster and has published extensively. He co-directed The Act of Killing over the course of nearly a decade with a Javanese collaborator who, like much of the film’s team, has chosen to remain anonymous. Last year at Toronto FILM COMMENT spoke at length with Oppenheimer, who was already talking about a contingency plan for distributing half a million DVDs of the film underground in Indonesia.
What are you hoping would happen if the film is shown in Indonesia?
For international viewers, I think the film is primarily about today. It’s about a kind of impunity that spills over into celebration. And in the celebration of atrocity, we find a really troubling allegory for the jingoistic celebration of torture that has been predominant in the neoconservative right in the United States since the War on Terror began and continues today with the polarization of American politics. For Indonesians, it’s an exposé of the extraordinary impunity which is structuring all of Indonesian politics today—impunity so extreme that when Herman runs for office he’s able to talk about how he’s planning to do what he does extorting the Chinese [shopkeepers] but on a bigger scale. The impunity for human-rights abuses of course didn’t stop in 1965 but continued throughout the Suharto dictatorship. They estimate that a third of the population of East Timor was killed or died of hunger or things related to the Indonesian invasion which happened in the mid-Seventies, and the repression there continued until East Timor became independent. Aceh, in the northern tip of Sumatra, suffered terribly at the hands of the military dictatorship and afterwards, until the tsunami, when the situation was reappraised because all these NGOs flooded in to deal with the damage.
Anwar has called me rather nervously because journalists have started visiting him in the last few days asking about the film. In making the film his motive changes, and he starts showing me a kind of brokenness that he suffers from having killed so many people. So he knows that the film is not ultimately a glorification of killing, but I’ve had to reassure him that he faces no arrest, that Indonesia has a criminal code rigged so that human-rights abusers never get punished: after 18 years all criminal cases including mass murder expire in Indonesia. The national human-rights commission, which does exist to investigate crimes, is part of the government, but all they can do is research and make findings available for educational purposes. People in different parts of Indonesia know what happened in 1965, particularly in North Sumatra where the film was made because there the killers were recruited from the ranks of gangsters and they’ve been in charge ever since, and they boast about what they did. So it’s been part of the public discourse in North Sumatra ever since—which is why they can have that talk show about it. In other parts of Indonesia, the killers weren’t recruited from gangsters; they were student groups, religious groups, sometimes it was the army themselves. Those groups have no interest in boasting about what they did.
Some people have said, Josh, you interviewed all these army generals and CIA agents to make this film, why isn’t that in the film? And the reason is that the film would inevitably become a historical film about the mechanics of what happened, and this is primarily a film about the miscarriage of the collective imagination that underpins this condition of impunity and open celebration. And it’s about these very thorny issues: what does it mean to take joy in reenacting mass murder? At the Q&A, I told a story about the first killer I met. I was working with survivors, and they wanted to tell the story of what happened to them but they were too scared because the perpetrators were living all around them.
The Act of Killing
And my neighbor turned out to be a person who’d killed a friend of mine. He tells the story of his grandchild much as Anwar invites his grandchild to watch the gangster scene at the end. The question was, what does he think I think when he tells me the story? What does he think his grandchildren think? What does he think his neighbors who are his victims think? What does he think the younger generations think? How does he see himself, is fundamentally the question, and how does he want to be seen? And those two issues are the issue of imagination. And this is primarily an intervention to open a space for a radical reimagining of the Indonesian present, and how the past is kept alive in the present in a very destructive and disturbing way.
The way you’re talking about imagination makes me wonder whether you had in mind particular thinkers or theorists as you approached this material.
No, I think that one of the important influences for me, and I definitely stand on his shoulders, is Jean Rouch, whose documentaries involved creating conditions for exploring their characters' imaginations. You mentioned The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase [before the interview], and I think in a very different way I was already interested in these questions then. In a way, documentary is a misnomer because in documentary we say that we’re documenting something, right? We have the idea that we’re documenting and the presumption is that there’s a reality that we then fill. But as many, many, many people have said, the moment you introduce a camera you change the reality. When you’re working closely with people, inevitably they start staging themselves. And they start staging themselves in ways that reveal how they imagine themselves.
What observational documentarians do—especially of the American direct cinema variety—is to set up conditions that are quite different. I deliberately don’t use the word cinéma vérité because cinéma vérité was a term coined around Jean Rouch’s work. In direct cinema—the Maysles Brothers, Wiseman—the premise is to create a reality with characters which simulates a preexisting reality. You create a reality that looks as if there’s no camera filming it. And that in fact is a very complicated thing to do—and it’s a rather arbitrary thing to do, and not necessarily the most insightful thing to do, although there are masterworks of direct cinema. But it is a charade. We’re actually creating the illusion of documenting a reality. So if it’s the case that, if I start filming you now, you’re going to start thinking “how do I look,” then filmmaking is a fantastic opportunity to explore the conditions of imagination that underpin our behavior.
And there’s no real theoretical basis to this—it may sound abstract, but it’s extremely simple. There’s this other side to it, which is how I came to this method with Anwar and his friends. They talk about walking out of the cinema, in the mood of every movie that they saw. It’s not in the film but there’s a line where he says, “I felt just like a gangster walking off the screen,” or the line that is in the film that if we walked out of an Elvis movie, we’d be in the mood of the film, which is something we’ve all experienced. Being heady after a movie, performing in the afterglow of a film—and walking across the street and killing in that mode. It’s a mode of performance, it’s a mode of acting, and it’s a very useful one because you’re not present when you’re acting in the same way.
So there again there was this convergence where the moment I’m filming Anwar he’s acting, and he was acting at the time of the killings. So suddenly the filming of Anwar, and the asking him to reenact what he did for me, brought back the mode of Anwar’s way of being at the time of the killing. It is not exactly the same. But the past literally comes into the present in an unexpected way, for the audience and for me—and for Anwar in a very, very disturbing way.
But one thing I still don’t quite understand is why the movie limits its exploration of imagination to the imagination of the killers. Wouldn’t the imagination of the victims give the film another dimension? I’m not saying that just from an ethical standpoint.
No, I think it’s a really valid question. First I’ll just say I came to this movie from working with survivors, and I shot another movie which is a film focused on a family of survivors that I’ve been very close with since the beginning of this process. Their son was killed. And I was already close friends with them when I started filming close reenactments with perpetrators and found out that one man was telling me the story of how he killed my friend’s son. So I told them I filmed this, and they wanted to see it, and I said are you sure, and they said yes, they wanted to know what happened to their son. And it’s been seen in many other films, but there’s a terrible lack of closure when that happens. Then through the making of The Act of Killing they followed with great interest and followed closely, they became more and more upset at the conditions of impunity that the film was exposing.
The brother of the guy who was killed said, “You know, I’m trying to raise kids in this society, all around us live the people who did this, boasting to intimidate the rest of us. I want to meet them, and I want to ask them how they live with themselves knowing we’re all around them.” And then over the last year, over two shoots, he very bravely went with me to visit all the people involved with killing his brother. And that as you can see from The Act of Killing is a very, very brave thing to do, and he pulled it off with tremendous dignity and patience, and it’s beautiful. And it’s almost unprecedented outside the context of a truth and reconciliation commission. It’s very, very unusual for a victim to go meet the perpetrator in conditions where the perpetrators are still in power. It’s as if the Nazis had won and then someone visits the perpetrators—a Jew who is still living, in some condition of fear, or the family of someone who was killed. It’s a very, very fraught and dramatic and tough thing. And that’s the focus of a whole other movie.
I’d say a few things also about your question. To understand evil, to understand how human beings perpetrate evil, we have to actually look at the people who do evil. And that’s a big part of what The Act of Killing is about. And then to understand impunity we have to look at the way a regime of impunity is created. We thought a lot about bringing in some of the material that we had with survivors into this film. The problem is the moment you do that you set up this classic cinematic schism between the good and the bad, and Anwar and his friends immediately become bad against the victims with whom we immediately feel sympathy. And at that point our engagement with Anwar and the other perpetrators changes. We’re no longer walking this tightrope between repulsion and empathy. And in imagining how a human being does this, we are aligned psychically and emotionally with the victims, and we’re accusing. There are in fact victims in The Act of Killing, specifically there’s the neighbor who talks—
That scene is almost more difficult than any other, because you feel the weight of the force that has kept him silent, and even as he’s talking, the nervous laughter—I’ve never heard laughter that makes me feel worse.
Yeah, it was, and when he tells the story at the beginning, he says, I want to tell you about a story I heard. And he doesn’t start by saying it’s his [own] stepfather. And he actually tells the story over 20 minutes talking about a story he heard, which is not the way it’s done in the film. By then I’d been filming in Indonesia for five years, I’d heard countless stories like this, and everybody was a little bit impatient with him to finish. We were in a big studio, we had a lot to film that day, why are we listening to a story about someone this guy has heard of? But there was this intensity to his laughter that kept us focused. Then, at the moment that both my Indonesian co-director and I were changing tapes in a camera, he admitted that this was his stepfather. And we actually missed that point while we were shooting.
Then the rest of the filming went on, they reenact with him as a victim, he cries. And we hadn’t used the shots of him crying, because we knew that, like Herman, he had been in a paramilitary-affiliated theater group. That’s also the back story for Herman being in women’s clothing: the group was like the globe theater in Elizabethan times, all the roles played by men, and Herman always played the women’s roles. But going back to this guy [who tells his story], I think he’s actually maybe not just the stepson of the guy who was killed. I actually have a feeling that maybe he was the son of the guy who was killed. He had diabetes and two years after filming he died.
So that reenactment scene in the studio was shot around ’09?
Yeah. And we had thought that was sort of melodramatic acting he’d picked up in this theater group. Then when we went back and really began editing and transcribed everything, we came across this confession that it was his stepfather, and that was very uncomfortable and very difficult. And we realized almost everything that happened afterwards: he plays the victim, he’s interrogated and tortured and breaks down there, then he’s in the massacre scene, he’s actually cheering along on the talk show. So it was a very uncomfortable realization, and if we’d heard that at the time, I would have absolutely taken him aside and said, you know, if this is your background maybe you don’t want to continue with this film.
But I felt that it was very, very important to assemble the film honestly and to show that he had in fact told them that he was the son of someone that was killed. He had told his story, and they’d rejected using his story, and instead put him in the position of playing the victim. And the first time I saw a rough cut of that I felt very, very exposed, because it’s not something that, had I understood the situation fully, I would have allowed to happen. But I also felt it was what happened, and it was really important to show honestly, as painful and almost embarrassing as it was for me.
It’s amazing how candid everyone is with you. How did you get these people to this comfort level with you?
It was actually surprisingly easy…
You know the language, for one thing.
I know the language—I learned it working with survivors, actually, beforehand. And maybe I could have worked through a translator if I was a more conventional documentarian and I was going to work hard to get everyone used to me so they would simply forget me (or pretend to forget me), and I would stand back and observe. But the way I work with people to explore their moment of being filmed, which is the core of my filmmaking, I can’t work through translation.
But it was very easy to gain these men’s trust. The United States supported the genocide—they knew that, they were consulting with the American consulate in Medan during the killings, they knew that America supported the military regime that was in power ever since, and they knew that I was an American filmmaker, and they loved American movies. And anybody who had enough money to actually fly into Indonesia and leave Indonesia in North Sumatra, it was just assumed that I was on the side of the people who had enough money to come and go—who are the people with some power, and so therefore I was on their side.
All I had to do was behave as I’m behaving with you, which was to be nice, to be open, treat them like a human being. And they sense that. The impunity in North Sumatra is so hermetic, but also the power of the regime, the power of the men running North Sumatra, is contingent upon them boasting about what they did to remain feared. Because the basis of a gangster’s power is to be feared. All sorts of words that reek of genocide have acquired a heroic and glorious connotation. So the word “extermination,” which to us evokes the Holocaust, to them it's like, “Yes! I was involved in the extermination of the communists.” As if that’s something great. So I could be very, very honest. I could say, “Tell me about the extermination of the communists.” And so long as I would repress the emotions and the feelings that would come as they were telling me these stories, which was hard…
I would like to hear a bit about that, if you could. What’s it like to be undercover, in a way, for so long? I mean, emotionally—you’re describing a certain repression.
Well, first I take a little issue with the term “undercover,” because of course at the beginning…
I mean that more as a figure of speech.
No, but it’s an insightful one, it’s one worth exploring because at the beginning many of these men had different goals. The general goal at first was to glorify what they did. That could never have been my goal: to glorify mass murder. So in that sense I was undercover. But people’s goals changed. Adi comes into this film acting as though he wants to use it as a vehicle for reconciliation, and to say sorry to the victims. And I thought, Oh, wow, this is an opportunity to go in a very interesting new direction. And very quickly the shallowness of that position made itself clear, and the depths of his hypocrisy became clear. And by the end he realizes that this film’s going to make him look bad, and I could be openly confrontational with him, as I am in the car, when I talk about going to The Hague, and that it would be good for the victims' families for the truth to come out. So by the end there with him, I’m not undercover.
With Anwar, he starts with this motive, but somehow around his nightmares, a second and very unconscious but almost physical motive comes out: to get in touch with his brokenness, the part of him that died from killing people. And working with him on that and the whole second half of the film, I was also not really undercover anymore. When he’s choking on the roof, the dishonest thing to do would be to stop filming, or even to go put my arm around him and say it’s going to be okay. Because it’s not going to be okay. And I’ve told him what the film is now, and he’s said, Okay, if that’s what it is, I understand, I’m not angry, I want to see it. I’ve told him, I’ll send you a DVD when it’s safe to do so. I didn’t say, Do you want to see it? Because I didn’t feel he had to see the film.
In terms of the emotions, going back to your question about my feelings, yeah, it was really, really hard. And it was really hard for a long time. I felt all sorts of emotions that I simply couldn’t let myself go into while shooting, because I was working. It would be impossible to make this film if the human reactions, the emotions that were there, if I let them really fully come into my heart as I was filming. And that had a lot of consequences. One of the consequences was that it would be very difficult to go home at night. It was difficult to sleep. I’d have upsetting dreams. There was all of that. Also it meant that I felt somehow guilty and tainted as well. Because I was sort of detaching myself from the things I was filming just as Anwar had, and it was becoming more and more clear that that detachment was somehow part of the problem. And as I was realizing I’m detached and he’s detached, I felt implicated.
I think viewers of the film also have talked about this kind of shock turning into fascination turning into shock. I think it’s very painful because the viewer and I go through the same kind of emotional trajectory that somehow Anwar goes through and we therefore feel very implicated. We don’t necessarily go on that journey with Anwar the way we do in most films, which is out of empathy with the main character, but rather because a parallel process is happening in the viewer and me as a filmmaker. And that happened in Anwar.
I think something that might be different for audiences is that the cultural reference points here are a bit different. Obviously the “gangsters” are influenced by Hollywood films, but it seems they’re coming from a different cultural diet so it looks even more garish in a way.
Yeah, that’s true. It is a film about a culture which, if you’re not Indonesian, is foreign. At the same time we took care to do two things: we took care to emphasize motifs that are in common, not just in the Hollywood films but in the Hollywood references. And it’s very important that during the massacre [that is re-created in the film], what it really feels like more than anything are Hollywood war movies. And the film deconstructs that when they call “Cut cut cut cut,” but at the same time the characters are upset and it’s really upsetting. When we were shooting that scene, we felt consciously, “Let’s create the iconic image for a genocide that hasn’t yet been made.” Knowing that there’s something perverse in a genocide having an iconic image. Hence its deconstruction. Hence the need to break it apart and show how it’s made.
But at the same time, there’s Adi drifting through a shopping mall that could be in White Plains; the empty bag shop at the end, where on the roof hundreds of people are killed, now they sell handbags; Adi’s references to the killing of Native Americans; Herman’s admiration for Obama. I think it felt very, very important to show that every culture, every human society whose normality is built atop terror and lies has a hollowness, a deathliness to it. By the end of the film Anwar is not just haunted, I think there’s something dead about him. And I think that your shirt, my shirt, is affordable, this recording device is affordable, because people are making [them] under conditions of fear and oppression that mean they can’t organize proper unions to fight for better conditions. And every place that these things are being made—be it in Indonesia, China—there’s men like Anwar and Herman who are actually enforcing those terrible conditions and who are intimidating people who are fighting for better conditions.
And we are implicated in that. I actually think we all know we are implicated in that. I think we know that we’re kind of guests at a cannibalistic feast. We’re not as close to the slaughter as men like Anwar and Herman, but we’re at the table, and I think we know it and we’re helpless to do anything about it most of the time. But it takes a toll on us too. I think there’s a sadness, a loneliness, a nervousness, a thirst for recognition, I’m not sure. But the emotional reactions that audiences are coming to me with, this experience of alienation, that’s very powerful.
Going back to the issue of the aesthetic being garish, one of the very important principles in the shooting and in the editing, and in the color correction and in the sound design, was to make it seductive whenever possible, although it’s tacky and garish. Whether it’s the fish or the waterfall at the end that looks like one of those things you see on a table at a tacky Chinese restaurant in the Midwest—if you could step inside that plastic universe, it ought to be beautiful. And Anwar’s chair when he gets up to go grab his grandchildren—this carved, painted, over-the-top gaudy chair with crystal in the background—that should be beautiful. It’s beautiful to them and maybe we find it’s tasteless, but here we are in this all glass condo [where the interview is taking place]—why is this more tasteful? So it was a very important principle: a way of translating, if you like, what’s culturally different into our world by trying to always make it seductive, and therefore implicate the viewer that way. To think, Oh it is beautiful, oh it is heart-stirring, even as it’s repulsive.
And by way of cultural context, you grew up in New Mexico and D.C. How has that shaped your worldview?
Well, my family, especially my father and my step-father’s family, lost a lot of people in the Holocaust. And my mother’s family is Jewish, but they came before that. Both of my parents were political: my father was a political science professor, and my mother was a labor activist. The urgent political question growing up was, How do we prevent these things from ever happening again? And we say “never again” as a kind of mantra in the Jewish community, but far too often it’s never again for us, but actually it happens again and again elsewhere. And unless “never again” means never again for us humans, it’s happening again. And of course what’s happening in Palestine and the injustice in Palestine is an example of “never again” for us in its most tragic and hypocritical manifestation.
I think if you’re going to make a film about genocide, it had better be really disturbing, because what are you doing making a film about genocide if it’s not really disturbing? And two, if you’re going to make a film about genocide, if you’re going to try and understand genocide, you have to understand the people who commit genocide. You have to understand why people commit it, how they do it. And to quote Godard, forgetting an extermination is part of the extermination. After the Holocaust had been judged by history and by the world to be a crime against humanity, you could equally say that the persistent celebration of extermination is part of the extermination. And to expose that is to expose part of the mechanism, to expose the extermination.
In terms of getting into the mind-set of Anwar and the others, I’m still trying to figure out what we do with that understanding then. Not that I’m asking you to solve the world’s problems, or what’s the next step.
You know, I’m tempted to say that I’m not Mahatma Gandhi, that I leave it with the viewer. But I think that if we can understand the mind of the people who kill and the mind of the people who profit from killing, and the mind of the people who keep killing alive, and who continue to celebrate extermination, we can recognize it. We can see it when it comes to our own societies. We can argue vociferously against it. We can be more critical when Eric Holder says, to give you an example, that we’re not going to prosecute anybody who’s been involved with torture. We can think twice.
What I’ve tried to do in The Act of Killing is to expose the mind-set not just of killers but of a celebratory regime of impunity that’s so hermetic and so grotesque yet so human and so recognizably human that it becomes an allegory, it becomes a metaphor. It becomes an allegory for the impunity that exists across Indonesia where as I said it is not the case that everybody is as boastful as the killers in North Sumatra. But also the impunity that exists across the world, in Putin’s Russia, in China, in the UK, in the United States, and across the world—going back to what I said about the clothes, our normality, our everyday life, is built on things that make us queasy. And queasy is a good word because I think film makes us queasy. Things that make us queasy, yet things we also enjoy. And that enjoyment is tragic and it’s also for many viewers the dramatic motor in the film.
The reason I ask is because once we do get in their mind-set, you find it’s more claustrophobic than anything else. Because it’s a small mind, in a way. You get there, and what’s in there? First of all a lot of vanity.
There was some little write-up about the film the other day: it’s all the seven deadly sins. There’s vanity, there’s pride, etc.; they’re all there for the taking. I mean, Rush Limbaugh’s mind is a small mind. And the mindset of the electorate for whom disappearing people is popular, is a small mind. And, as you know, my next film [The Look of Silence] is coming from the tradition of telling stories about victims in documentary. It’s very reassuring to see lots of films about victims. We feel, Oh, that’s where our sympathies lie. That may even be the effect of all these films about victims: it makes us feel like we’re in sympathy with victims. But actually we’re much, much closer to perpetrators than we care to admit.
I don’t think that these men have big hearts, you know. One of the things I felt—40 killers before I met Anwar and then all of Anwar’s friends—is that they all share a kind of exorbitant selfishness, vanity, and pride. But especially selfishness. To take a life is a very selfish act. And we can call that monstrous or psychopathic, but those are words we use to simply make ourselves feel like we’re not that.
But in fact we live in an economic system where selfishness is vaunted as the natural human virtue. That that’s what competition is about. So unless we also care to say that our whole economic system is monstrous and psychopathic, we can’t really say these men are monstrous and psychopathic because they’re selfish. I mean, I hope I’m not that selfish, I hope you’re not that selfish. But it’s human, it’s not monstrous. Hitler wasn’t a monster. We can call him names, but he was a person. And that’s the really scary thing.
Well, that seems a completely depressing and perfect note to end on.
But the positive thing is, maybe if you can look at our selfishness, we can teach people to be less selfish. And I’ll say one last thing. There was this debate between Mark Danner and Peter Sellars in Telluride, and Mark was totally pessimistic and Peter was optimistic. And I said, to make this film you have to be both. You have to be pessimistic because the point of art, for me, isn’t to comfort people and to reassure them. Otherwise I’d take a walk! Go do something better than sitting in a cinema. Go talk to someone you love. The point of art is to unsettle people. And therefore there has to be pessimism or you’re not, for me, making art. But why do I make this? How could I do this for seven years? Because somehow some other part of me is optimistic. It’ll do something. It’ll touch people. And it’ll make real change in Indonesia, and it’s already starting to, and that double movement between optimism and pessimism is the only way.