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FUTURES | Joshua Oppenheimer On This Year's Most Disturbing Doc and Working with the Heads of Indonesian Death Squads to Re-Enact Mass Murders

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | feelingsoblahg.blogspot.com September 14, 2012 at 2:42PM

Recruiting Werner Herzog and Errol Morris to become executive producers for your debut feature is quite the feat.  Joshua Oppenheimer, who has been creating videos documenting political violence for several years now, has made quite the splash with his new film "The Act of Killing," which has premiered this month at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals.
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Joshua Oppenheimer.

Recruiting Werner Herzog and Errol Morris to become executive producers for your debut feature is quite the feat.  Joshua Oppenheimer, who has been creating videos documenting political violence for several years now, has made quite the splash with his new film "The Act of Killing," which has premiered this month at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals.

"The Act of Killing" documents the mass killings of Indonesia following the CIA-funded military overthrow of the Indonesian government in 1965.  A band of self-proclaimed gangsters went from selling movie tickets on the black market to suppressing communist sentiment by killing known communists in the mass killings of over one million Indonesians.

When Oppenheimer's cameras join the killers, they are, led by their leader Anwar Congo, enacting their cinephile fantasies by acting in their own film in which they recreate the scenes of their murders.  Doing their best de Niro, taking cues from Tarantino, the killers relish in their roles as actors.  And in Indonesia, they are just as famous as the men they seek to emulate.  The killers, now decades later, are bona fide celebrities whose actions are seen as a source of national pride.

To see "The Act of Killing" is to be thrown into the rare, disorienting position of trying to understand the actions of mass murderers.  In a sense, as Oppenheimer discussed in our conversation, the film is trying to probe the depths of someone able to stand by a corpse and smile, with the V for Victory sign.  The recreations of these killings are much like the Abu Ghraib photos that provoked Errol Morris to make "Standard Operating Procedure."  And like "Standard Operating Procedure," "The Act of Killing" interrogates the desensitization of violence.

When Indiewire sat down with Oppenheimer, he explained why doing that in this film was not only ethical but necessary.

How did you know the story of these killers was going to be a film?

I guess I knew Anwar was going to be the main character, and in that sense, I think that's when I realized I was making "The Act of Killing." I was on the roof with him.  He showed me how he killed with such swagger.  He plays the victim without being particularly affected by it.  And then he stands up and he says there's a little pain here that [over time] he tried to forget by drinking.  Then he showed me the cha cha, and what a great dancer he was!

All within a short amount of time?

Within an hour, going from playing the victim to doing the cha cha, and he doesn't even take the wire [the weapon used to decapitate victims] off his neck.  There was no discomfort with the wire around his neck, it was almost like the wire was a necklace he was used to wearing.  That was a very very very unforgettable and intriguing and disturbing detail, and I think that is where the film began.

Everyone is coming into this film is there for a different reason.  What was motivating you as you continued to shoot the film?

I came to the film in solidarity and collaboration with the survivors.  Of course, I'm not a person who would want to make a film to glorify mass killing.  I had been working with a community of survivors who had lost their relatives and were too scared to talk about it.  So it was very difficult -- I remember after that scene where Anwar does the dancing on the roof, I took him back to his house and immediately broke down.  I was in tears and upset in the car after we dropped him off.

How did you convince the men to participate in the film?

The recreation of a murder in "The Act of Killing"

It was very easy to win these men's trust because all I had to do was show up as an American filmmaker and they assume I make the kind of movies they love.  They have no notion of documentary.  They assume that as an American I'm on their side.  They assume that because the Americans supported this during the time and helped pay for the killings. Anwar and his men were getting advice and reporting to the American consul during the killings.  Ever since, too, the US supported the military dictatorship that was there and now supports the so-called reformed Indonesia.  We can see from the film just how reformed it is.  All I had to do was be how you and I would be with each other:  be nice, be kind, be caring when someone was going through a hard time, and repress. 

You took a bold approach to this topic.  Why did you want to do something different with this film?

In documentary filmmaking, there's a tradition of telling stories about victims.  We often do that from a very patronizing place, but mostly we do it from a very selfish place, to reassure ourselves that our lives are in sympathy and solidarity with the victims.  Whereas, in fact, the main editor of the film, and that's why I asked him to edit the film, he said, "You know, Josh, it's very refreshing to see a film about perpetrators, because we're much closer to perpetrators than victims.  All of us."  And that's the message of the film.  [Another killer] Adi has these scenes where he suspects that this film is going to make him look bad.  He says "Drag me to the Hague! Fine! I can be famous!"  When you've killed so many people, you've experienced the living death that that must entail.  When you've killed so many people, to still have the pathetic desire for fame because you've been dragged to the Hague as a war criminal, which won't happen to him and he knows it, that's tragic.  And then the deputy minister is totally confused as he's watching them shoot one of the scenes.  He comes in and says this is gonna make us look bad, just like Adi does, but then he realizes that looking bad is the source of his power.  And so, he turns 180 degrees and says keep this, this is good.

The interview with Oppenheimer continues on page 2.

How are audiences responding?  I personally found it to be an incredibly overwhelming viewing experience.  There's just so much to digest.

The audiences experience mirrors my own.  You become shocked, then there's a place of numbness but still hopefully fascination, then something intriguing starts to open up with Anwar's nightmares and a crack begins to grow and by the end of the film hopefully one begins to feel very deeply for him again.  I think in a sense my journey through making "The Act of Killing" mirrored the emotional journey of the audience but in slow motion.  One of the things that is tough was when I was shooting things that were very painful for me, I had to not let myself feel what was happening somewhere inside of me because I was working.

And how are you feeling now that the film has been released into the world?

It's been really painful for me because all that repression was channeled into working.  All that was channeled into "What do we shoot next?" "How do we conceive the next scene so that we can to do justice to the pain that me and my entire crew are feeling?"  The audiences reaction has been really overwhelming.  People come out really wrecked.  Someone tweeted to me last night, "It's really painful.  I'm sort of experiencing what this thing felt like to me the whole time." 

It's possible to see what you did as taking advantage of these men in the service of your story.  That would be a simple way of putting what you did, but how did you make sure you were making this film while making sure you weren't using the film's subjects?

I was trying to understand how fairly high ranking perpetrators of genocide -- Anwar was one of the leaders of this group across the province.  He's not just an executioner.  The other men I follow, they're fairly high ranking people.  I was interested in the imaginative structures that underpin their impunity.  They subsist in total impunity.  They celebrate what they did.  I was trying to, in a sense, expose that.  And so when there were two different types of scenes. 

There were scenes when Anwar was going into something very personal, very real for himself.  In those spaces, I would create conditions where it was really about him and his own reflections and Herman, who is often in drag, and who Werner Herzog calls the goddess of destiny.  He drags Anwar towards the truth and rubs his nose in it.  Though I would create spaces where the two of them could go towards the unspeakable together and then stammeringly recover from that and maybe speak about it or deal with that. I was dealing with a small crew, giving them as much space as I could to just do what they wanted to do. 

Then there were these scenes which were exactly what you described earlier, where people's different motives and perspectives came up. Those were conceived to create spaces of social interaction.  They had their own TV crew following them that they took from state television because they are the power structure.  They are the government, they are the power structure in North Sumatra.  The state television station in North Sumatra, the North Sumatra Studios is their network.  They would say to the people working there, "Hey, could you direct this scene?" 

What did you learn by following these men so closely?

We lie to ourselves all the time.  The better part of reason is rationalization, so we all rationalize and justify to ourselves.  I don't buy these terms monsters or psychopaths, these are just ways that we assure ourselves that we're different from these people.  We're not.  They're human.  It's the ultimate fallacy.  To say that Hitler's a monster or these guys are monsters, and that's, if anything, is what has been discouraging from the press, not from audiences, it's been that it's easy to sensationalize these people and call them monsters.  The point of the film is to show that they're not monsters.  We're all human beings.  These people are human beings, and those are moral categories, designed to reassure ourselves.  When a critic comes out of a film and has to pull themselves together to write about it, it's tempting and may be comforting to say "they're monsters."

And Anwar's journey in this film is so intense.  Do you think he made the right decision to appear in this film?

It's very complicated.  For me, I think this film needed to be made.  I don't know if you've seen the latest quotes from Indonesia about how important this film is.  They're really beautiful.  I think it's really difficult.  There's a contradiction between what's psychologically good for a 70 year old man who could continue to live quite happily in denial until he dies and what's humanly good to live as what Socrates would call an unexamined life.  It's really hard to know.  For me, Anwar is fine.  I warned him that the film might be really hard to watch, but he wants to watch it anyway. He does not face arrest, he does not face violence.  He faces journalists once or twice a day, and that bothers him, but I hope it will pass.  He still says he doesn't regret making the film.  He's gone on the record saying he is happy I made the film.  I think he's the most honest, brave person in the film, but that may not be saying that much.

I showed them clips, when I showed Anwar the scene at the end where he calls in his grandkids to watch himself be tortured, after that he watches the part where the wire goes around his neck, and he has a very visceral reaction, he starts wretching, the same way he does on the roof at the end.  I felt that Anwar for two reasons maybe shouldn't necessarily see the film if he doesn't want to.  One, it was very traumatic for him to watch the scene, unedited footage.  he's a 70 year old man, and if he doesn't want to live with himself, he should have that right.  So I didn't insist that he should see the film.  And I didn't insist that I should meet him somewhere or come to Indonesia and show him the film. I know out of hospitality, we've been through a lot together, he'll say, "Oh, that's great!"  But then he's forced to watch the film. 

But I've very much waited for him to say, "I want to see the film," which he's now said.  And I said Okay, of course you can see the film.  He knows it's come out.  He knows its perspective.  He's been much less upset by that then I had feared, because I think by the end his motive for making the film had changed, by the end he's choosing to go somewhere very deep and very authentic.  Even though he may be acting.  Let's say he was acting.  It's still an authentic reaction.   But you hear there's something performative in his words on that roof, where he's saying he knows what he did was wrong.  He's trying to hold it together with his words, but his body is rebelling and is sort of telling its own story.  The demons are trying to escape from his body and they can't get out.  He's a broken man by the end.  That's the sad end of Anwar's story in the film.   But he's not angry at me because he knows what he did.  We went through a big journey together.