Joshua Oppenheimer's appearance at the Based on a True Story conference (BOATS) at the University of Missouri's journalism school wasn't an official keynote address. But his 90-minute interview, conducted by Slate's Dana Stevens, had the force of an aesthetic manifesto, a true vision of what documentaries can do — and what they can't.
Oppenheimer, who also screened his new film, "The Look of Silence" and the director's cut of his 2013 Oscar nominee "The Act of Killing" in Columbia as part of the True/False Film Festival, could be spotted all over town throughout the long weekend, nodding intently as festivalgoers seized their chance to chat up a MacArthur fellow. But given the floor, as he was at BOATS, Oppenheimer responded not with soft-spoken sentences or even paragraphs but whole pages of thoughts, cogent and neatly organized, and deeply fascinating.
Both "Act" and "Look" deal with the Indonesian mass killings of 1965 and '66, when 500,000 people or more were murdered in supposed anti-Communist purges. In "Act," which was released in 2012, the men who carried out the killings were invited to restage them, acting out horrific tableaux in which they are both methodical executioners and screaming victims; in "Look," Adi Rukun, whose brother was murdered during the purges, confronts the killers himself, often while performing his duties as a traveling optometrist.
Oppenheimer's methods were born of practical necessity: Filming survivors old enough to remember the purges firsthand would have placed them in grave danger, since the perpetrators and their political heirs have held sway Indonesia ever since. So instead, Oppenheimer found a way to film their absence, to make visible the country's decades-long denial. The film have served the function of conventional activist documentaries, opening a long-overdue dialogue in Indonesia itself and directing attention to the survivors. "Look's" Adi was also selected as the recipient of True/False's True Life Fund, which provides money to documentary subjects.
Listening to Oppenheimer speak was, in its own way, nearly as overwhelming an experience as watching his films. He's light-years ahead ahead of most of his fellow filmmakers, to say nothing of most people writing on the subject, in his understanding of the nature and purpose of nonfiction film, the inaccessibility of the historical past, and the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of conventional human-rights documentaries. Oppenheimer's talk is now available in its entirety here, but we've culled some of the aspects which focus on his philosophy of documentary filmmaking below. His answers have been edited and condensed.
To protect the safety of his subjects, Oppenheimer shot both "The Act of Killing" and "The Look of Silence" before "Act" was released.
The two films, which Oppenheimer calls "companion pieces," were conceived around the same time, although he worked on them separately. The earliest footage in "Look," in which two perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide reminisce about killing a man named Ramli, whose death became almost synonymous with the genocide in the surrounding area. From 2005-2010, Oppenheimer worked exclusively what would become "Act," and edited it for the next two years. After that, in the spring of 2012, he returned to "Look." As those who ordered and carried out the killings are still in power, Adi put himself at risk, so part of the film's budget went to relocating him and his family before either "Act" or "Look" was screened in public.
Oppenheimer doesn't make films about history. He makes films about the present.
Although both "The Act of Killing" and "The Look of Silence" work to uncover the brutal legacy of the 1965 genocide, Oppenheimer is careful to specify that they are not movies about the past. Although he admits to using the word himself early on, he now avoids calling the scenes in "Act" where the genocide's perpetrators take on the roles of killers and victims "reenactments," preferring to use "dramatization" instead.
"It wasn't that I was getting information about what happened," he said. "What we're seeing is dramatization of the present-day fantasies, scripts, stories that the perpetrators are telling themselves so that they can live with themselves."
Some of these fantasies are self-glorifying, but others channel the guilt into readymade forms. "They throw themselves into a model of being bad," Oppenheimer explained, following a kind of film noir scenario that is "at least intelligible and inhabitable."
He hates the term "fly-on-the-wall."
"In so-called 'fly-on-the-wall' documentary, there's a claim that the camera is a transparent window onto a pre-existing reality. But what really is happening is that the director and the film crew and the subjects are collaborating to simulate a reality in which they pretend the camera is not present. It's a kind of dishonest story about how the film was made that performs a useful function — namely it helps us to suspend our disbelief and perceive that simulation as reality," he said.
"People who would have us believe that the masterpieces of direct cinema — and to be sure, there are masterpieces of direct cinema — would ask us to believe that if the camera is there long enough, the mother and the child will forget that the camera crew will behave as though it's not there. That's absurd. That's just idiocy. No one forgets the presence of the camera, no matter how long it's there. All documentaries are performance. They are performance precisely where people are playing themselves," said Oppenheimer.
He continued, "If we throw away the myth of fly-on-the-wall and ask what is a more helpful understanding of what's happening in documentary film when it really soars, when it's really explosive, when it's really wonderful, what's happening is a situation within the overall safe space of the filmmaking process, and the efforts that are taken to protect the safety of people when a film is released, within that overall framework, scenes are set up that cut to the core of what the most important issues are in the film in which everybody — filmmaker, participant, crew – is pushed beyond their comfort zone and things are allowed to spiral somewhat out of control. That's when documentary film becomes genuinely cinematic. Until that happens, it's mere simulation."
There are no heroes or happy endings.
He explained: "Far too many documentaries dealing with atrocity approach the atrocity either through a campaigner or a hero who you feel is, even if they're not succeeding in the film, at least they're fighting the good fight on our behalf. It's a way of creating a less overwhelming position for the viewer, and I think it fundamentally doesn't serve any understanding of the atrocity. It fundamentally serves to make the experience easier for the viewer, so that when we leave the cinema, we feel like, 'We, somebody out there is fighting the good fight. The future is in good hands. And maybe by my watching the film, that person in their struggle is strengthened.' Maybe there's a website where you can sign a petition of make a donation and go on with your life."
These films are about the present.
"I understood 'The Act of Killing' and 'The Look of Silence' as films about the present, that these are not films about a secret, unknown past," said Oppenheimer. "Nothing can can bring back the dead who were killed in the genocide, but at the same time, nothing can make whole the lives that have been destroyed by fear and silence. Nothing can restore the decades lost to fear. I felt very strongly that 'The Look of Silence,' should be a kind of poem made in memoriam to all that's destroyed, not just through killing but through the impunity that continues to exist in the present. No matter what good might come of these two films, nothing can restore all that's been lost."
One of "The Look of Silence's" most important scenes was shot by someone else.
"The Look of Silence" climaxes with a troubling scene in which Adi's father, over 100 years old and in the grip of advanced Alzheimer's disease, crawls around his own house in terror, unable to remember who or where he is. It's the only scene in the movie that Adi shot himself, as Oppenheimer explained:
"When Adi said he wanted to [take part in the film,] I said, 'No, it's too dangerous.' Then he pulled out a camera that I had given him two years earlier to use as a kind of notebook, to look for images that would be powerful metaphors for the film we would go on to make after I finished 'The Act of Killing.' He took out a tape — he'd given me all the others — and he said, 'I didn't give this to you because it's so painful, but I want to show you something.' It's a scene right at the end of the film where he father is crawling around his own house, lost, demented, no longer able to remember where he is. He calling for help, and Adi's not really helping him. He's behind the camera. I said, 'Why don't you help him?' and Adi said, 'I tried to help him all day.' His wife and children had spent the whole day trying to help him, but because he didn't know them, it just made him more afraid.
Adi said, 'At some point, I felt that the most loving thing I could do was to bear witness to this moment. It's the kind of thing that could never be repeated. It could never be staged. I said, 'Yes, but what does it mean to you?' He said, 'For me, it's like my father's trapped in a prison of fear, and he'll never get out of it because he can't remember the events that caused it.' He can't even remember the son whose murder led him to this trauma. It's like he's in a prison cell and can't even find the door anymore, let alone the key. 'He'll die in this prison of fear, and I don't want my children to inherit this prison.'"
Consent forms are a charade.
Later, Oppenheimer was asked about issues of consent, and whether he considered leaving the scene out of the film entirely.
"I don't think I ever debated about whether or not the scene should be in the film, because the way it was presented to me was like my pole star making the film. The whole film should be constructed so that scene, for some significant portion of the audience, works and is moving at the end, and that there's enough love and safety around that family that even if viewers wonder, 'Why aren't they helping him?' they figure, 'Well, there must be an answer. I just don't know it,' which is how many things in films or not. It wasn't a matter of should I include this or not. It was a matter of this whole film is constructed for that moment. There are people who don't like it, but I also think that's a sign that it's good."
He went on to explain that he took his cues from Adi's father, who was an enthusiastic proponent of the film in its early stages, and from Adi's family, who never expressed any reservations about what he was filming. "Of course," Oppenheimer admitted, "he never signed a consent form, but then, I think consent forms are basically a fraud, for a lawyer. If the film is worth making, no one knows where it's going. You can get them to sign a form as soon as they're in a scene, but they don't know how the footage is going to be used. It's a charade that we go through for lawyers and insurance.