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Interview: Joshua Oppenheimer Talks ‘The Act of Killing,’ How Werner Herzog Works & The Scene That Gave Him Nightmares

Interview: Joshua Oppenheimer Talks 'The Act of Killing,' How Werner Herzog Works & The Scene That Gave Him Nightmares

They say “never meet your heroes.” But if I had followed that advice, I’d never have met Joshua Oppenheimer, director of “The Act of Killing” and the upcoming “The Look of Silence.” And Oppenheimer in person puts the lie on that cliche — or maybe he just proves I have excellent taste in heroes.

But going in to this interview at the Goteborg International Film Festival, I was nervous. I’d shakily declared Oppenheimer “a genius” in my A+ ‘Act of Killing’ review from Berlin 2012, (along with many others) and since then had that assessment endorsed when the MacArthur Foundation awarded him a 2014 “Genius Grant.” How does a lowly blogger go about talking to a filmmaker whose films have, quite aside from the profound impact they had on you personally, redefined the documentary form and changed a nation?

Remarkably easily, it turns out. Oppenheimer in person is obviously wicked smart, but is also open, articulate and, without a hint of false modesty, humble. And he is generous with his time, so our interview ran over two days and covered everything from Werner Herzog to particle physics to “Diary of a Country Priest” to nightmares to birdwatching. But most of all, we discussed his remarkable films, and despite an Oscar nomination, a Venice Grand Jury Prize and all attendant brouhaha, Oppenheimer still talks with passionate eloquence and a sense of discovery about both. We’ll run the second part of this interview to coincide with the release of “The Look of Silence” in the U.S. on July 17th (my Venice review is here), but for now, here’s Oppenheimer discussing “The Act of Killing,” making Herzog mad and the nexus of art and activism. And teddy bears.

So I understand that you’d been filming a while already, when the overall ideas for both films were born in the same moment?
Yes, both were inspired by the same scene. It’s in “The Look of Silence” where the two men take me down to the river, taking turns playing victim and perpetrator and narrating everything in the present tense, almost as though they’re sportscasters. Without my expecting it, they started talking about the murder of Ramli, whose family was like a second family to me. 

You already knew them?
I’d been very close to that family since 2003. And I had filmed the two guys separately but eventually brought them together. I was wondering if the boasting that I’d been documenting was systemic. Would they speak with each other the way they speak to me? Was it just boasting for a foreigner? Would they tell each other not to talk to me that way? 

Or would they amp it up?
Exactly. And when I saw that they amped it up, when I saw they were reading from a shared script, I had this understanding that the performance of pride (I think I already understood it may not be real pride) was systemic and playing multiple, complicated roles. 

And I knew at that point I would make two films. One about storytelling, fantasy and guilt, and about how victors’ history is always self-deception and what that does to us as humans: the hollowing out, the dry rot of an imagination that nevertheless is flamboyant and exuberant. So that obviously was “The Act of Killing,” a kind of fever dream of a film. 

And I knew I would make another film, about what it does to the human body, the human mind, to a family, to have to live for fifty years in silence and fear. And that’s “The Look of Silence.”

But it’s been an arduous journey between that day and now.
Yes, it was difficult —making “The Act of Killing” in particular was a very lonely process. No one really believed in it until very close to the end. But it was also a sanctuary. I was working in obscurity. 

Yes, it feels like you were able to move freely, from inside to a long way outside that situation in order to see it more clearly — like how you need to travel very far from the planet to see that it is round.
I think that’s right. And, you know, people are always like “Wow! You lived ten years in Indonesia!” And I didn’t. I would go for three or four months, I’d get utterly immersed, lost, traumatized. I’d return [to London] with insomnia and nightmares and work my way out of it to some kind of vision. 

There’s a scene in the longer version [of ‘Act’] where Anwar is on the film noir set, and Herman picks up a teddy bear. Which I think I put there as a homage to “Touch of Evil” — in that film, there’s this toy chipmunk thing in the shot?

Anyway, Anwar is mock-torturing Herman, who tries to “save his life” by offering his “daughter” to Anwar, and the daughter is the teddy bear. And Anwar takes the bear and says “you think she is pretty enough for me?” And then he plunges a knife in and …it’s so absurd, because it’s a teddy bear and he more or less dismembers it.

But then Anwar concludes “you tried to bribe me with your daughter. See? You’re the barbaric one, not me.” And then we cut to Anwar unable to sleep in his bed singing this song of self-pity, because by harming his victims, he’s harmed himself. So now he feels like his victims’ victim.

Sometimes these reversals are dizzying —the switches between victim and perpetrator, performance and action, blame and pity…
And there’s one more. While we were shooting that scene, I put the camera down and Anwar said “Joshua, you’re crying.” I didn’t know I was, but Anwar, who was always very caring toward me, said “shall we stop? You don’t have to do this.” And I said, no, we have to continue.

And that day, I went home feeling utterly tainted, as though in encouraging this violence to be dramatized, I was complicit myself. Because I could see that when Anwar acted in those scenes, he was unwittingly re-entering the same kind of performative self-state that had allowed him to kill in the first place. 

Anyway, I had a horrible nightmare that night. And the next day, I couldn’t sleep at all because I was afraid of having the nightmare. Then I collapsed because I was exhausted, but then it started again. And that cycle went on for eight months or so, that dream. It was always that somehow, because of a scene we were shooting, my family were being tortured. It was terrible. It was terrible. People often ask me if making “The Act of Killing” was frightening, and they usually mean, was I afraid physically. But it was frightening emotionally.

And how do you process that enough to continue making a film?
When Werner [Herzog] was finishing his “Death Row” films, he showed me his notebook. What he does is watch the footage and mark down one, two or three exclamation points according to how important it is. And he tries to construct a film only out of the footage that gets three exclamation points. If needs be, he’ll dip into the two, and only in the worst situation will he use something from the one. And that’s a good approach, because anything that strikes you as worth three exclamation points must be allegorical or metaphorical in some important way. 

But then he said “You could not have made ‘The Act of Killing’ that way, could you?” Because it all seemed so vast and upsetting. Now I actually do work in a similar way… but he just shook his head almost in despair and said “I hope we will each make Eddie Murphy comedies next.” Because he was having nightmares and waking up screaming with the “Death Row” films too.

Herzog had a huge impact on the reception of ‘Act of Killing.’ How did it come about?
My British Executive Producer Andre Singer —who has just made his own really interesting film called “Night Will Fall” about the efforts to restore a Hitchcock film about the Holocaust— he produced some of Werner’s films. And we talked about how meaningful it would be for me if Werner could see it, because I don’t think I’d be a filmmaker were it not for Werner’s work. 

So you are a fan?
Oh yes. And I don’t necessarily have in mind the films that people might imagine. It’s films like “Even Dwarves Started Small” —I think that’s my favorite. Anyway, I got to play ten minutes of the film for him, and Werner said, “I have to see the whole film immediately.”

But then I didn’t hear from him for a couple months, and when I finally received a phone call, in which he said some very lovely things, he then asked “what are you doing now?” And I said, “well, I’m shortening it, because…” and he interrupted me, saying “that’s a crime! If you shorten your film, I don’t ever want to speak to you again!” He got really angry.

And I had this sinking feeling. It was like a dream when he called. I was so happy, and then to hear him suddenly furious… I tried to explain that it was important that the film would be accessible to as wide an audience as possible, and at that point it wasn’t even passing the pre-screeners at festivals.

And Werner just angrily got off the phone. And then ten minutes later, he called back and said, “I just spoke to my wife… and she can absolutely understand why you’re cutting it down.” 

So he was ultimately very sweet and said, “you’re going to be making the film worse now, but I’m happy to watch. I can be there like an assistant surgeon to make sure you don’t kill it. It will be smaller, lesser, but let’s keep it alive. I care about it enough that I’ll watch rough cuts.” And he watched 3 or 4 rough cuts over the next three weeks. It was so good of him. And working together, we became friends.

He seems one of those rare personalities — he shifts the gravity of a room just by being in it.
Oh, there is something very singular about him. You know, I think it’s that he doesn’t adapt to his environment  — I mean, he survives, but he is always himself and the world has to sort of twist and come meet him. But a lot of the myths about him are nonsense, especially those that make him seem ruthless about his art. Because really he’s the most gentle, empathetic, humble, kind, loving person you’ll know. 

Although he recently announced “I’m gonna write this script. It will take me a week, which is a little long for me because it’s going to be in English.” And I wondered, “is this one of these myths about Werner?” But then a week later, there was this screenplay. And unless he has a little workshop of… 

Herzogian elves?
…hah, exactly! Then maybe a lot of the stories are true and he’s just really unique. 

To my great shame, it was remarkable to discover that I was in Indonesia during the time you were filming ‘The Act of Killing” and I knew nothing of the genocide.
Well, I wouldn’t have known except…  look, most tropical paradises lie atop mass graves. The clothes we wear and the lives we lead depend on that terror. Not because we want it to, but because the whole economic system on which we rely for everything depends on it.

And how do you think we can morally negotiate living these privileged lives in that context?
I think the solutions are not lifestyle choices, they’re going to be political movements.  I first went to Indonesia because me and my friend Christine Cynn were asked to help make a film about a group of plantation workers trying to organize a union. So we found ourselves in our late 20s knowing nothing about Indonesia, on a Belgian-owned oil palm plantation where they made the women workers spray a weed killer with no masks or gloves, and the mist would get into their lungs and then into their blood and then into their livers and kill them in their forties. 

And as part of the effort to organize a fledgling union, they would petition the company for protective clothing, and for different chemicals to use and the company would respond by hiring thugs —actually the Pancasila Youth, who are featured in “The Act of Killing”— to physically attack them. And they were easily intimidated because often their parents had been victims of the purges in the sixties. 

I mean, I’d heard of many atrocities committed across the global South, but I simply hadn’t heard of the one in Indonesia before I went there. 

Did you worry that, not being Indonesian, you might be ill-qualified to involve yourself in this story? Did you have any fear of coming across as the White Savior?
Well, the film emerged through a long journey with an Indonesian family, the Indonesian human rights community, an anonymous Indonesian crew, heads of NGOs, university professors and so on who spent a decade doing this work, risking their safety knowing they couldn’t take credit for it until there was real political change —because they felt it was that important. 

So I think gradually I felt charged with work that they couldn’t do. I never felt like the American filmmaker coming in to expose barbarism in this far-off country, to “save Indonesia.” On the contrary, I felt like an agent of people with whom I was living, and deeply close, who asked me to do something that was not possible for them.

Was there any particular moment of vindication for you and the whole team?
When the film was nominated for the Academy Award and the Indonesian government finally felt compelled to make an official statement. They said “what happened in 1965 was a crime against humanity and we need truth and reconciliation, but we’ll do it in our own time and we don’t need a foreign filmmaker to make us do it now.”

It was a wonderful moment —not just because the government for the first time ever had admitted what happened was wrong, but because the whole media then said “how dare you call this a foreign film? Have you not seen there’s an Indonesian credited as co-director and 60 Indonesians who because of this attitude are unable to take credit for years of wonderful work?” 

And that reaction shows that the society sees it as an Indonesian film and that the general consensus is that it is authentic. And that it’s not, sorry but,  “Zabriskie Point“— you know, a stranger’s-eye view of a country. 

And now do you feel more like a filmmaker or an activist?
I’ve never thought of myself as an activist. I do think, though, that the purpose of art is to force us to confront the most painful and important aspects of who we are.

So I think art can change the conversation and make space for activism, because you can’t have activism around a problem no one acknowledges. But very rarely does that happen immediately. What happened with “The Act of Killing” is really unusual.

So how do you see your next project fitting into that continuum?
I truly don’t know. Yesterday I was asked “do you think your next film will be about something that’s so important for humanity?“! I said, not wilfully —it’s not like I’m choosing projects on the basis of how “weighty” the topic is.

So the next thing may seem unimportant to anybody else, but whatever I choose will be a sort of crack opening up to something that, knowing me, will be vast and strange and probably sort of apocalyptic, and some  fundamental indictment of who we are. I’m sure it will feel important to me, because otherwise I won’t wish to embark on that journey. We have a finite time on Earth, and if a film can take five years, seven years, you choose carefully. 

But whether it will matter to other people, whether they’ll deem it worthy or merely comic, I don’t know. I think of that wonderful line by Marx, “…[history plays out] first as tragedy then as farce.” If it’s farce, that’s okay too… it’s just tragedy come round the second time. 

We’ll bring you part two of the interview in July. Meantime, Oppenheimer’s (and Herzog’s!) preferred, longer cut of “The Act of Killing” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray now, and you can check out a conversation between the two at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival below. 

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