Interview: Joshua Oppenheimer, Director, 'The Act of Killing,' Pt. 1
On helping killers film their crimes for a horrifying, haunting documentary
In "The Act of Killing," Joshua Oppenheimer's created one of the singular films -- never mind documentaries -- of this year. It's hilarious and horrifying, brutal and human, surreal as a fantasy and real as a wire across your neck pulled murder-tight. Director Oppenheimer was in Indonesia filming the survivors -- and the killers -- of the 1965-'66 murderous killing campaign that created a military dictatorship and declared open season on communists as Army units and local criminals worked together to execute over a million people. Oppenheimer, overwhelmed, found himself working with one ex-"gangster," Anwar Congo, a petty crook who, in '65, had been recruited to kill. Oppenheimer wound up giving Congo access to film cameras and technical resources -- on the condition that Congo film re-enactments of his past as inspired by various types of film. The end result -- with musical numbers and gangster-film action, costumes and make-up and special effects -- is as fascinating as it is repellent. (MSN Film Critic Glenn Kenny's full 4/5 review can be found here; my review of the film from the Toronto International Film Festival can be found here.) For this two-part interview, I spoke with Oppenheimer in Los Angeles; the film opens in New York today, and nationwide in upcoming weeks.
MSN Movies: I hate to draw too much a parallel with anything as banal as reality television to your movie, but whenever they have, on trashy daytime talk show or local morning television show or talk show, people on the show to talk about things like "I've dated a goat!," the trick isn't just finding someone who dated a goat, it's finding someone who's willing to talk about it on camera. You had to find someone who was involved with the massacres of the Suharto regime and was willing to talk about it on camera. Are those things which are at best crimes just such a part and parcel of life in Indonesia no one would feel any worry, or concern, or shame about them?
Joshua Oppenheimer: Well, all you have to do ... now that The Act of Killing has come out … It has changed the way Indonesians talk about this. You can no longer probably go to Indonesia and walk into a village and say, 'Who was killing people here?' and have people talk in the way they did six months ago. After seeing the film debut at Toronto, the editors of Tempo Magazine, Indonesia's largest news magazine, the equivalent of Time, felt they had to break their own 47 year silence about the killings by marshaling their own evidence to show essentially that "The Act of Killing" is a repeatable experience, that it's not something unique to what I did with Anwar. They sent dozens of journalists all over the country, to every ...to regions both where they knew the killings had happened and to places they didn't even know if the killings had taken place, and everywhere they went, the journalists were able to walk into a neighborhood and say, 'Who was killing people here in 1965?' And everybody would know, and they would visit those people and those people would boast. So essentially you have a whole society, a whole regime founded on these crimes. And a regime which has justified these crimes ever since. And both, and I think in two ways, justifying them to keep everyone else afraid and also reassuring the perpetrators themselves that what they did was right. Because otherwise you have to wake up in the morning, and look in the mirror, and see a murderer.
But I think you make a really apt and interesting connection to reality TV in the sense that, I think "The Act of Killing" is kind of the antithesis of reality TV in that, in reality TV, the directors are sort of manipulating situations so that they know, so that they can anticipate a dramatic arc, and they can create… it's very controlled. It's a kind of controlled psychological experiment, but it's hyper-controlled.
But both "The Act of Killing" and reality TV emerge from a cultural moment where, somehow, vanity and becoming an instant celebrity is, the acceptable deadly sin. It's the deadly sin of our moment.
There's a line from Salman Rushdie, a couple decades ago, but it was, "Whatever happened to shame? Whatever happened to that as a force in people's lives?"
That's a beautiful quote. Anwar was the first perpetrator that I filmed. And before that I started filming perpetrators in collaboration with a community of survivors, the survivors were sending me to (my subjects.) I was working, trying to film with the survivors and they send me: "Please film that person, we think he killed my son." And I would go, and (my perpetrator subjects) would tell me what happened, and I would find out, on behalf of the survivors, how their sons, wives, mothers died. And I ... some of that's in a new film that I'm editing now, but the point is, when that happened, when I was shooting that, the survivors were being stopped from shooting, from being filmed, from filming, we were being arrested every time I would film with them or very often, my equipment would be taken. It was scary for them, it was difficult, and meanwhile, the perpetrators are boasting, and I felt at the time almost as though I had wandered into Nazi Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, to find that the perpetrators had won and were still in power, that the Nazis were still in power -- and of course something peculiar happens to shame when that happens. As you can imagine, Himmler didn't want to boast about the Holocaust, but what he did do ... well, you can imagine that the official history left out the Holocaust, but the little SS officers are encouraged to go back to their communities, back to their lives, and boast about what they've done -- unofficially -- so that they become feared proxies of the state. And in that unofficial storytelling and unofficial sort of, "Yeah, go ahead and talk about it so that everyone's afraid of you," emerges alongside that inevitably a kind of unofficial power, thugs of the state. You know, they're telling stories that aren't officially told, and so forth. I think that the reason I gatewayed into this Germany analogy is that ... imagine that the Holocaust, instead of being condemned internationally when it happened, was celebrated. The New York Times publishes, The West's Best News for Years in Asia, Time Magazine publishes, A Gleam of Light in Asia. Then you can imagine the conditions whereby somebody comes in from outside, meets some of these aging SS officers that have been encouraged to boast their whole lives…
"What did you do during the war, Daddy?"
You didn't even have to ask that. You could say, "What did you do for a living?"
And because -- this maybe also relates to your question about reality TV -- what did you do for a living, the biggest thing they did for a living, the foundation for their whole career ... was the killing. Because they were rewarded with power. And because, probably, they never experienced such an exorbitant power as the moment when they were killing. It was like, I think ... maybe the reason the reason it was so inevitable that Anwar would come out of cinemas intoxicated by the identification he felt with whatever movie he had just watched and use that to dance his way across the street and as he says, kill happily, or kill however he would kill depending on the movie, is because the moment one kills, takes a life, there's this kind of thrill, and you feel like you've sort of transcended ordinary reality, and you are like the star of your own movie. So there's a kind of congruence there between the experience of destroying others and rising above reality in this moment of kind of fantastic vain and … not celebrity but …
... fame and notoriety. That goes to the next thing I want to ask about, which is, somebody asked me why I loved this film and I said because it depicts this kind of art therapy for monsters. When did the idea of giving these perpetrators cameras come up?
When I filmed the first forty perpetrators, at some point I came to pretty well understand what had happened in 1965. I got the, after say the 15th or the 20th, my questions ... imagine the first time you're filming someone you're asked, 'Please go find out what happened to my son.' Right?
So your questions are inevitably, "What happened then? Did you do that? Where did you kill this person? How did you kill them? How did you kill the other people?" They were historical questions. But as I met perpetrator after perpetrator after perpetrator, all of them boastful, all of them showing off, all of them within minutes of telling me what they'd done, they'd say, why don't I show you where I did it. And they'd take me and they'd launch into these spontaneous demonstrations, much like Anwar does at the beginning with the wire…
The whole thing of "... it got so slippery here, we couldn't walk safely. "
Yeah, exactly. "It smelled awful," is what he says also. That was the second day I met Anwar, the first day I filmed him. And you can imagine, if you film person after person, taking you to the places that they killed, showing off what they've done with such nonchalance, you start asking questions about now. What is happening now...
that you would want me to see you like this? How do you want me to see you? How do you want society to see you? How do you want your grandchildren, who you've just told this story in front of, to remember you when you die? And how do you see yourself? And these questions about the nature, about the imagination of the perpetrators now, flourishing in impunity, and desperately clinging to whatever excuses they've told themselves so that they could live with what they've done ... I realized that if I could understand that, I could somehow unlock the key to the moral corruption and rot that infects a whole regime after you commit such an atrocious, original sin, and get away with it, and never reckon yourself to it. And so, I started to say -- long before I met Anwar, I said, (to other perpetrators) "Look, you've participated in one of the biggest mass killings in human history." I could be that open because on the talk show, they were that open and it has a kind of heroic nuance to it. I wouldn't have to euphemize at all. "Your whole society is based on it, your lives have been utterly shaped by it. You want to show me what you've done. I want to understand what it means to you -- so show me what you've done, and whatever way you wish, I will film the process. I'll film the reenactments, we'll combine the material to create a documentary that answers these questions." Now, I didn't expect to focus on one…I wasn't casting, looking one person, looking for the right killer…
You were thinking more of a kaleidoscope.
Exactly. And then Anwar… somehow I lingered on Anwar because I think, I recognized that he is -- and this goes back to your question about art therapy -- I think that his pain is close to the surface. And as a result of that -- and I can come back to that in a second -- he starts proposing these embellishments. When he watches himself on the roof, at the beginning of the film, that's the second time I filmed with him more or less, and he is watching himself on the roof, and he looks very disturbed. And I think he is very disturbed. And I showed the material back to him to see, will this man who's obviously… to dance where he's killed a thousand people, he must be in utter denial of the moral meaning of what he's done there, right? Otherwise, he wouldn't dance...
If I show it to him, will he recognize himself in the mirror of the film somehow? And I think he does actually, I think he was really disturbed when he watches that. He looks really disturbed. There's a close-up there that shows him when he's looks really disturbed and I think audiences always think he's about to say, "This is wrong, this makes me look bad, what are you doing, the game is up, whatever ..." ...but he doesn't dare say any of that because to do so would be to admit it was wrong and he's never been forced to do so. So what does he do though? He takes that feeling and places it onto his trousers. He says, "I look like I'm dressed for a picnic. My hair is wrong, my clothes are wrong, my acting's wrong ..." and so begins his process of embellishment. Now, I saw the embellishment as… I was not looking for psychodrama there, I wasn't looking for him to feel remorse, and I think if I were, you would probably not like the film because the film would have become sentimental. I think what I was doing there was thinking, okay, well, he wants to dramatize this, and in those dramatizations would be kind of a blooming or blossoming allegory for impunity, and for the rotten logic of what happens when perpetrators win and are never held to account. In fact, if you think of that blossom, that blossom fully blooms into a real full blown allegory for this impunity in the talk show and in the waterfall scene, those are good examples, where the victims thank him for killing them and sending them to heaven, and that scene is tremendously cathartic for Indonesian viewers. They watching that gasping, laughing because finally, crying, because finally the underlying logic of this regime, this country, has been so thoroughly exposed.
So I'm looking to expose a regime of impunity, mostly for Indonesians themselves, not so much for an international audience, so that the film, like the child in "The Emperor's New Clothes," can point and say, "Look, the king is naked," and people will be able to say something that they've all known but have been too afraid to say. Remember that Hans Christian Andersen's story leads to the deposing of the King, right?
Utter shaming for the king. So it's in that sense that I saw the film as an intervention in Indonesia and was asked to make the film as such. Anwar, meanwhile, is running away from his pain by proposing these embellishments--new clothes, new set, new genre--and in that sense there's a tension between our two projects. And I think it's that tension that animates the whole film. And in the editing, you experience it as a kind of tightrope between repulsion and empathy, repulsion for the crimes that are exposed, the regime that is exposed, the corruption that gets expose .. and empathy for a man that is struggling with something. And in the end, it became, in hindsight, I can see, yes, it was inevitable that Anwar, because he's making these reenactments, his conscious is the motor for his project the whole time, that the reenactments themselves would become the prism through which somehow he would be forced to see himself ... but I wasn't looking for that from the outset.
(The second part of this interview will run this weekend.)