Director's Cut: Joshua Oppenheimer ('The Act of Killing')

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Since 2001 Joshua Oppenheimer has been investigating the mass-killings that happened in Indonesia during 1965-66 where between 500,000 and 1 million people died and have never been fully told to the world. Through a combination of a cover up by the Indonesian government, and in effect the rest of the world ignoring this horrific moment, it inevitably became in Indonesia, Oppenheimer says, "the heroic yet mysterious chapter in their nation's past."

Following his film "The Globalization Tapes," which looked at worker oppression in Indonesia, Oppenheimer gradually gained the trust of mass-killing survivors and their families and attempted to interview them for a film. The Indonesian government quickly thwarted his attempts, tracking him and arresting anyone who would talk on camera. This lead to one of the survivors giving Oppenheimer an unconventional suggestion that would soon lead to the creation of a new film, one that would showcase the atrocities that occurred through the eyes of the perpetrators, literally changing Indonesian’s perspective of their history.

"The Act of Killing" has become one of the most anticipated documentaries to hit theaters this year after wowing audiences at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals last year for its unique telling of the mass-killings: told through the killers who did it as they reenact some of their handywork through a film genre of their choosing (read our review of the film here). "I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade," says Werner Herzog, while Errol Morris writes in a piece on the film for Slate, "Oppenheimer is not offering a historical account of what happened in Indonesia, but rather an examination of the nature of memory and of history." Both doc icons came on as executive producers after seeing the film.

Here Oppenheimer tells Film.com his journey making the film, how during shooting he and his crew almost had to flee the country after showing footage to one of the legendary killers, Anwar Congo, and why at the end of the day "The Act of Killing" is for the Indonesian people.

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FILM.COM: Is it true that one of the survivors you were trying to film was the one who suggested you interview the killers?

JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: Yeah. 2003 the film "The Globalization Tapes" came out, then I went back and started working with the survivors and I actually stumbled across a neighbor while making "The Globalization Tapes" that killed the aunt of the woman that made the suggestion that I interview the killers. He had boasted how he had killed all of the communists in the plantation. And I said, “Who do you mean?” And he said the union members. 200 people. By beating them up until they were unconscious, drowning them in irrigation ditches and just laughingly showing me how his muscles are still pretty strong, maybe he can still do it. All in front of his 10-year-old granddaughter, who watched on and looked bored, as though she had heard it many times before.

And so I already had this sense that there was something very rotten here and then started filming, as we were getting arrested for filming with the survivors. I felt I had wondered into a situation where, like going to Germany 40 years out from the Holocaust and finding that the Third Reich was still in place. I felt this situation demands whatever time it takes of me. Starting from this little entry point I will have to film and explore and investigate whatever is needed.

Actually, the day that I premiered "The Act of Killing" at Telluride, I got a call from that village saying that the woman who you are talking about, who suggested I talk to the killers, that she died from liver damage.

So this has been a story you've been telling since 2001?

Yes. When I couldn't interview the survivors we all flew to Jakarta—myself, the survivors, my core collaborators—met the human rights community there and asked if this was a bad idea, and everyone said, “No, you're onto something. Keep going.” And their the woman said, “Why don't you continue filming the perpetrators?” Because she knew I'd stumbled across this neighbor of mine. I filmed all of the perpetrators I could find in the region. Found they were all boastful. Found into addition to them being boastful they would take me to the places where they killed, which I wanted to do because no one knew what had happened. I felt I have to film everyone involved who was still alive, and I must film where they would do the killings because these are stories of how perhaps hundreds of thousands of people in this province were killed. No one knew. No one had investigated it. So it wasn't like someone had researched this and then I went in and made the film. I was doing all of it.

So first I felt I was gathering evidence on behalf of survivors for a film, then I started to realize that by filming the perpetrators I can somehow expose, especially for Indonesians, I can unmask the whole regime, which will then create a space for Indonesians to challenge the official story and remember what really happened and talk about it. I'm making this film for Indonesians.

So gradually as my questions became more about how the perpetrators want to be seen, how do they see themselves, I started being very straight with everybody. I started saying, “Look, you've participated in one of the biggest killings in human history, your lives are shaped by it, your society is totally based on it, you want to show me what you've done, I want to know what it means to you and you're society, so show me what you've done in any way you wish, I'll film the reenactments.” I wasn't expecting these dramatizations yet.

Very quickly with Anwar [the main killer highlighted in the film], he and I became pretty close and I was able to be very honest with him. So the method was not a lure to get them to open up, and they're not making their own film, ever. The form of the film consequently is a response to their openness and my effort to understand its nature and its functioning effect.

I was asked today why did the perpetrators, knowing you were working with the survivors, still want to be filmed? And I think it's because they being old and retired didn't necessarily know what we were doing, the police and the military did, but because their status is so respected in society that once they were on board the military people who were moderating me and thinking about what I was doing didn't want to make waves, they didn't want to ask questions. I had a seal of approval from people more senior than them.

So at a point in your discussions with the killers they decide to film certain incidents in a genre of their choosing?

Yes. I think in hindsight—I don't think I could see this at the time—what was fueling that process was actually Anwar's conscience, his desire to run away from the meaning of what he's done. As he says in the longer version of the film, "I want to make a beautiful family movie about mass killing." As though if he can make it beautiful, perhaps he can make it okay for himself. There's this little passage early in the film where Amor is on the roof and he shows how he kills, he then actually shows how the victims looked when they were killed. He says he's a good dancer because he's been trying to forget what he's done—drinking, taking drugs, going out dancing.

So even as he's offering us this outrageous metaphor for impunity, him dancing on the roof is precisely not a symptom of his lack of conscious it's the opposite. It's some kind of self-protective assertion. To dance on the roof where you killed a thousand people is to deny the moral meaning of what happened there. And he is insisting on that denial.

I think I felt that and I wondered if I screened this back to him would he recognize himself in the mirror of the film? So I showed it back to him, and it may have been the second or third thing I filmed with him and I'm fully expecting him to say, "That's it. I look bad. Call the military." So I had my production manager at the airport with all of our bags packed, with a lot of cash ready to buy tickets for all of us to leave if there was not a text message saying everything is okay. Anwar watches, he looks disturbed and I think genuinely he is disturbed and he's disturbed by what happened on the roof, but he doesn't say this makes me look bad because to say that would be tantamount to admitting for the first time that it was bad, which he's never been forced to do.

So instead what does he do? He takes all that unpleasantness that he must be feeling and transposes it onto his clothes. He says, “I look like I'm dressed for a picnic. I should dye my hair.” Because he doesn't want to acknowledge what is really disturbing him. So I followed in his process and there's a tension there between my project—exposé—and Anwar’s project—which is running away from his pain. In a way I think that's the tightrope the film walks. There's an empathy with a man struggling with his pain and there's repulsion in what he's done.

Talk about your co-director, who you've credited as Anonymous to protect his identity.

He was never there as the director of "The Act of Killing." He was there as my production manager, my assistant director, my second cameraperson, my sounding board, my best friend. I think that though the reason why in the end instead of just giving him all those credits I felt he deserved to be named as a co-director was because one of the things I'm most proud of with the film is that it's been welcomed into Indonesia as an Indonesian film, a work of Indonesian cinema, not a foreigner coming in and saying something. It’s actually Indonesians themselves holding a dark mirror up to themselves. My big hope is that one day, with the help of the film, there's sufficient change in Indonesia that we can take off that credit role and put on a new one with everyone's name on it.

It seems that through showing the film numerous times in Indonesia that the way Indonesians think about this part of their history is starting to change.

The film has come to Indonesia like the child in "The Emperor’s New Clothes." Pointing at the King saying, “Look, the King is naked.” Which is what I hoped it would do. It's said so emotionally, and by the perpetrators themselves, these men who aught to be enjoying the fruits of their victory are in fact by the end of the film have escaped justice but not punishment. Anwar is a mess by the end of the film, as he was before, I don't think he's doing any worse now than he was before I met him, but you see what a mess he is. And Adi, who sleeps easily at night, is this hollow shell of a human being.

The Indonesian media, as a result of the film, have produced a special double edition of Indonesia's main news magazine about the film but also 75 pages of boasting perpetrators from around the country basically showing that this is systemic and it's about their whole country. So the film is helping to create a sea change in how the country talks about its past. As of the first of April there have been 500 screenings there, ranging from 30 and 800 people in 95 cities. I think that yeah, the media has finally ended its 47-year silence. And perpetrators no longer boast. You couldn't go there now and find a man like Anwar to talk that way anymore because of the film.

Did Werner Herzog or Errol Morris give you notes after seeing the film?

Werner gave notes in the very final stage of making the director's cut of the film and he gave notes during the cutting down. Errol gave a lot of feedback on rough cut scenes but not on the actual going from rough cut to finished film. Both of them have been tireless ambassadors of the film since then.

With the way this film is told, were you able to find the story you wanted to tell while shooting or did you not know until post?

I think I never know where my films are going. I think it's really important for me to treat the shooting as a process of exploring something that matters to me as deeply as possible, guided only by a method, a group of characters and a central metaphor, and then the editing process is not about presenting what I've shot but also analyzing all the layers of meaning and interconnectedness within the material that you can't see when you're shooting.

When Anwar plays the victim, it's a touching scene of a victim being tortured, it's also a double take because the victim is the killer, plus it's stylized as film noir. So there's all these layers which you can't see when you're shooting and unlike fiction you have the actor and you watch on a playback and you have someone do it again and again, the subtext in the person's face you don't see until you're editing and it's that that I'm really looking for in the editing. It's the little turn in the corner of the mouth that shows disgust or the little squint in the eye that shows doubt or the little pause that shows fear.

How have the killers reacted to the film?

Herman, the next generation of the killers, loves the film. Adi has only said, “I didn't get rich making the film,” his reaction of the film is in the film where he says this will make us look bad. And then the high-ranking politicians all hate the film as they should and feel angry about the film. If they didn't I would have failed in my job. [laughs] And Anwar's reaction is he'll stand by the film and that it's honest.

I don't want to give away too much of the last scene, but I have to know, what was it like being there and filming it?

It was this terrible moment. I had been trying to get back in that office from the very first day I filmed there. Because Anwar reenacts all these horrible things that happened in the office and the only time I had been able to get him there was the first day I met him and I didn't know what happened there then. So I was thinking it would be extremely useful for the film to get back in there and have him take me through. We could never get permission to get back in there. Never. And I don't think it had anything to do with the killings, it was just some superstition about photography by the owner of the shop. We had gotten in the first time because the owner was away. In the final shot of the movie you see a bouquet of flowers next to Anwar when he's leaving. That's because a new tenant had moved into the shop two days before and she was fine with us filming there.

That was the last days of the very final shoot. It was 6 months after what I thought would be the final scene in the film, which is when Anwar watches himself play the victim with his grandkids. His hair has grown out—it was black and now it's white again. I never thought it would be the final scene of the film, I thought it would come much earlier. He's walking and trying to do what I asked and suddenly his body is no longer cooperating, it's not going along with the words that he spoke. And he's still trying to carry on, because again, to admit something is wrong is to admit everything that has happened.

So he's trying to carry on and I could see what was happening to him and I wanted to put my arm around him and say it's okay, but I'm realizing that he knows it's not okay and will never be okay and just as he's had to deny the meaning of this whole thing to get back up on that roof and to live with himself every day, I've had to deny the meaning of this whole thing to bring him back to the roof and expect that he could do this again. So I stood there and I don’t get close because the space between him and me is the space of the dead, of the victims that died there. I don't want to step on the dead and trample on them the away Anwar was doing in the beginning of the film when he was dancing on this very roof. And I don't want to zoom in on a sentimental close up showing his pain because what matters is I'm just witnessing.

Can you talk a bit about the follow up to "The Act of Killing"?

I'm in the editing, the working title is "The Look of Silence." It's about a family of survivors who have been living traumatized by what happened to them ever since the mass-killings and the youngest son is determined to somehow break out of that fear by seeing if the killers living all around him take responsibility for what they've done and feel remorse about it. He approaches everyone involved with his brother's death and it’s unimaginable for that to happen in Indonesia. Through the breaking of these taboos you feel exactly what it feels like, all of the constraints that a survivor would live under and you feel exactly what it would be like to be a survivor in the world of the act of killing.