READ MORE: Joshua Oppenheimer's Documentary Manifesto
Recently Joshua Oppenheimer and I sat down and discussed his two movies, "The Act of Killing" and "The Look of Silence" in relationship to the current phenomenon of true crime stories – "Serial" on NPR, "The Jinx" on HBO and "Making a Murderer" on Netflix. It occurred to me that Joshua and I are also part of this movement. Myself, because of "The Thin Blue Line," now made almost 25 years ago.
These are stories of independent journalists — journalists not affiliated with any news organization – who sought to address a miscarriage of justice, much like Zola did for the Dreyfus Affair in "J'Accuse," his open letter to the President of France in 1898. And Joshua Oppenheimer in his efforts to examine a genocide from over 50 years ago. Didn't Thomas Jefferson tell Lafayette in a letter from 1823 that "The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed"?
EM: There is a collection of Rebecca West's essays, "A Train of Powder" — among other things, her coverage for The New Yorker of the Nuremberg Trials. So, "a train of powder" is a phrase that comes from a sermon by John Donne.
JO: What was it referring to?
EM: Perhaps the greatness of God. That God is greater than anything that man can do or has done. He is not undone by just a train of powder. "Our God is not out of breath because he has blown one tempest and swallowed a Navy: Our God has not burnt out his eyes because he has looked upon a Train of Powder."
She talks about the major defendants (Goering, Hess) and then she talks about defendants whom I was less familiar with, principally Walther Funk, Reich Minister of Economic Affairs. Did you know that Nuremberg courtroom was designed so that the Allies could project movies during the trial? And, also so that they could film the trial? The first movies that were shown were prepared by John Ford — a compilation of material from the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau. But here comes an interesting part. Did you know they lit (using fluorescent tubes) the defendants so they could be filmed watching the films that were shown during the trial?
JO: That's amazing. I didn't know that.
EM: Yes, there are these pictures of the defendants essentially watching their crimes.
JO: And, interestingly, crimes that (given the high rank of the defendants), they had ample ways of imagining they had nothing really to do with — a kind of self-deception of the defendant.
It's a segue into what we're talking about. There is a parallel to what I was doing in "The Act of Killing" with Anwar watching scenes, and certainly, what Adi — although I'm not projecting the footage for the perpetrators in "The Look of Silence," Adi comes and confronts them not with firsthand knowledge of what they've done, but with having seen the footage of them. So, Adi becomes a little bit like the screen or the mirror in which they see themselves. It's this form of confronting people with what they've done.
There was this definition of justice that I heard not long ago. I think it's Robert Nozick [a Havard philosopher, famous for his book "Anarchy, State and Utopia"]. Nozick defined revenge as delivering the message that you know what someone has done, and it doesn't involve hurting them or doing anything to them beyond that. It's just delivering the message that their crime has been noted not just by its victims, because the victim might be dead, but by another who has a different moral view and will challenge the perpetrator's view. Simply coming to the perpetrator and delivering the message is Nozick's definition of revenge. And in that sense, Adi is exacting revenge. When people ask, "Does Adi want revenge?" — they mean violent revenge. But in Nozick's formulation, it is revenge. That is the essence of revenge.
EM: The other thing that I wanted to write about but I hadn't ever really explicitly talked to you about this. They write now, everybody is writing about "Making a Murderer." That's the cause célèbre of the moment.
JO: I haven't seen it.
EM: I would love to talk to you about it. It crosses so much known territory for me in many, many, many ways. It actually relates to you too, and this is something that we could talk about with profit.
Basically, "Making a Murderer" chronicles a set of crimes committed in Wisconsin: Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The first crime is a miscarriage of justice. Steven Avery is convicted and sentenced to a very, very long prison sentence for the assault on a woman. And it comes to light through DNA evidence that he was not the assailant. It was someone else who was serving time in prison, subsequently serving time in prison for a similar kind of violent crime. The police actually even knew that there was this exonerating material and they kept it secret.
So, he gets out and he files a lawsuit against the authorities. He becomes this famous guy who has been wrongfully convicted, et cetera. And within a couple of years he has been indicted for another murder. The bulk of "Making a Murderer" concerns this second crime that ultimately leads to two convictions — his conviction and the conviction of his nephew.
JO: Did he commit the second crime?
EM: We don't know. Ten hours of "Making a Murderer" and we don't know.
JO: And that's the end of the series now?
EM: Well, they've commissioned more.
JO: There was always a question raised with both my films ["The Act of Killing" and "The Look of Silence"] — Will this lead to vigilante action or anger or violence in Indonesia? There is a certain kind of reading of the culture and an understanding of what you're putting out there and how it's likely to be received, which is a guess. I was definitely trying to make something that would be saying something other than, "These men have done something terrible and let's go get them." I was trying to say something deeper than that.
So, there is a question of how does the tone of the "Look of Silence" or even the more flamboyant tone of the longer cut of "The Act of Killing" (which is what has been seen in Indonesia), how does that bear within it some kind of moral imagination, which suggests that the answer to this is not just to go out and exact violent revenge?