Interview: Joshua Oppenheimer on Investigating “The Act of Killing”

There’s no proper way to prepare an audience for “The Act of Killing,” so when Joshua Oppenheimer took the stage at the Toronto Film Festival last fall to warn the crowd that while most films deal with good and evil, “the movie you’re about to see is only evil,” it was about as much as needed to be said. After all, words can’t express what Oppenheimer and his crew, many of whom are listed as anonymous for fear of retribution, spent the better part of the last decade creating with a film that centers on a group of former members of an Indonesian death squad that live freely amongst the relatives of those that they have killed under the brutal dictatorship of President Suharto from the late 1960s through 1998.

It was not long after that Oppenheimer was in Sumatra to work on “The Globalization Tapes,” a documentary completed in 2003 that exposed the horrific conditions faced by plantation workers in the oil palm fields of Indonesia and their attempts to strengthen their union, when he learned the situation was as murky in the townships as they were in plantations and after meeting the oppressed, set about meeting the oppressors.

Learning of their love for American movies, he asked Anwar Congo, the former leader of a right-wing paramilitary squad responsible for the deaths of thousands, and his compatriots in the neighborhood to reimagine their murders in whatever ways they see fit, resulting in outlandish scenarios such as noirish gangster fantasies and florid musical numbers that are more disturbing and far more revealing than if they were to describe their crimes in intimate detail.

The result is a movie that investigates the psychological effects of violence in a way no one else ever has nor could be done in any other medium. Though it is one of the most thought-provoking films of recent memory, it is also one likely to render one speechless, which is why I was relieved when I sat down with Oppenheimer shortly after the film’s premiere that he was as passionate in speaking about its unique creation as he was in making it.  

How did “Globalization Tapes” parlay into this film?

“The Globalization Tapes” was a film we made in a community of survivors of this genocide who were working in the Oil Palm Plantations, but we didn’t know [they were survivors]. It was the plantation workers who were shooting the film, editing the film, devising the scenes and although it’s very different in many ways, it foreshadows the collaboration in “The Act of Killing.” The plantation workers were trying to organize a union to fight against the use of these very, very toxic chemicals, particularly one called paraquat, which is an ingredient in Agent Orange and destroys the liver, that was used as a weed killer around the Oil Palm trees.

It was taking a very serious toll on the workers’ health and they were very scared to take any real action as a small, fledgling union. The reason why they were unwilling to do that is because in 1965, there had been a very strong plantation workers union, which had been part of the struggle for Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch, but in 1965, it had been accused of being pro-Communist. Therefore the members of the union were either in prison or very often murdered and the people I was working with to make “The Globalization Tapes” were generally the children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews of the people who were in prison or killed.

It was clear that the story of what happened to this community was at the core of their struggle to fight for better conditions in this plantation region, yet it was this story they were scared to tell and it wasn’t simply that they had had this traumatic experience of being victims of genocide in the ‘60s, but also because they were saying, “The killers live all around us. They’ll see that we’re telling you the story of what happened.” So then we discussed how can we tell that story? And they said, “Well, you can film the killers, it’s very easy.” Okay, where are they? And I was told, “Well, the person next door to us is the person who killed my aunt.”

So I brought my camera outside of the house [of the person] who’d killed my friend’s aunt and pretended to be filming life in this small village — children coming home from school, herding goats. I was hoping the guy would come out of his house and be curious why I’m filming in his garden and invite me in. Indeed, he did. And very quickly, all I had to do was introduce myself, said I’m making a film about the history of this region, which was true enough, and ask about what he did when he was still working because he was retired now. He explained he had been promoted from being a security guard on a plantation nearby to be manager of the plantation because he had exterminated over a hundred communist labor union members by drowning them in an irrigation ditch. He called them communists, but they were really just labor union members.

That was the beginning of the journey that led to “The Act of Killing” and it was not specifically so much because of the story he told me, but the way he told me the story. He was immediately forthcoming. I didn’t have to win his confidence at all. That was curious. How could someone who’s killed a hundred people just tell a perfect stranger the story? And he had his granddaughter who was nine years old, sitting in a chair next to him listening to the story and she looked onboard as if she’s heard the story a hundred times. So I wasn’t sure I would do this yet, but if one would make a documentary about what happened in 1965, and if other killers were to speak in this same register, one wouldn’t really have a documentary consisting of historical testimony. You’d be getting this kind of peculiar boasting and strange performance.

As [the killer] told me how he drowned people, he just started demonstrating how he did it, the way he’d hold people down, hold them by the feet, hold down their heads with his own feet into the water. It was obvious onscreen the real story wouldn’t be of a killing machine that was in place 40 years ago, but rather the boasting that was happening in front of my cameras in the present and what does it mean? Why is he boasting and for whom? Who is he trying to impress? How does he think I see him? How does he want me to see him? How does he think his neighbors see him? All of these questions were at the forefront of my mind, so I asked this man to introduce me to other members of his death squad. There was one who was still alive, he introduced me to him and then from there, I asked them to introduce me to everybody they knew who was still alive.

I filmed everybody I could find. Generally, everybody with different variations was open and boastful in the same way. And I came to understand this wasn’t just one man who was a little bit psychotic, but these men enjoyed such impunity for what they’ve done and were in such power that there was a kind of collective political lunacy, so I asked the killers to introduce me up the chain of their command. I filmed about 40 people by the time I met Anwar and his friends in 2005.

How did the idea develop to reenact the scenarios? Of course, you allowed the former soldiers to decide on the style of the scenes they’d perform, but the idea of putting them in these situations must have taken time.

Like any collaboration, we met each other in the middle. Where I came from was this key question of how they imagined themselves. What are they doing by boasting? I understood the reason they were so boastful was impunity, so I had this idea about documentary already when I was doing “The Globalization Tapes” that the community I was working with would tell their own story and devise their own scenes.

Documentaries are kind of a misnomer. When we say documentary, at the heart of the word documentary is the term “document.” We think we’re documenting a preexisting reality. But in fact, we’re not. It’s been said again and again, but the moment we bring a camera, the reality changes and if the reality is changing, what are observational documentarians of the direct cinema school — the Wisemans and the Maysles —really doing? They’re simulating — maybe by becoming incredibly intimate with their subjects or by standing back or both – a reality in which they’re not there. That can be extremely effective and gives you an illusion of an authentic reality where there’s no filmmaker and the authenticity can be genuinely authentic and that the characters interactions can be authentic, but it’s nevertheless a rather arbitrary thing to do, given that the moment you point a camera at someone, they start imagining themselves and staging themselves for your camera.

I came to filmmaking with this idea that given that that’s the case, why not create whatever reality we can together that’s most insightful for the questions we’re trying to understand. Here, I was trying to understand how these characters imagined themselves, not just as individuals, but as an entire regime that emerged and was built out of mass murder, so the idea of giving them the chance to stage themselves in whatever ways they wished to recreate their past in whatever ways they wish and document the process seemed as I say at the beginning of the film, the perfect way to understand why they are so proud of what they did and what’s really lying behind that pride.

At the same time, I come as an American moviemaker as far as they’re concerned – to people who, in the case of Anwar and his friends, love American movies. They have no notion of documentary. The closest thing they’ve ever seen to a documentary is the evening news, and I arrive with a camera saying let’s make a movie about what you did and for them, that’s gangster scenes, musical scenes, cowboy scenes, it’s whatever they wanted. So it happened very organically. As you see, it was both partly because I was willing to go there, because that was my approach to filmmaking and partly because that’s simply what they wanted.

The film that this has been most compared to is Rithy Panh’s “S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine.” Was it an influence?

In some ways. Rithy brings perpetrators together, guards from a Khmer Rouge prison camp where everybody was being killed and has them act out what they did and gets a kind of bodily memory and a testimony. We’re reading the routines of killing in these men’s bodies the way we would read a palimpsest on a pad of paper. They’re etched into their bodily memory and we’re seeing memory. The conditions of impunity and celebration in Indonesia mean we’re not getting memory. We’re getting performance, something intended for a spectator. And because we stage ourselves for a spectator the moment we’re being filmed, it was clear from the very beginning that a very different approach to reenactment is required. In the Khmer Rouge, the world had already declared this was a genocide and some of [them] may face punishment for committing war crimes. Indeed, the main character, one of the main perpetrators in that film is in prison for his crimes. The opposite is true in Indonesia.

One of the most blood curdling moments is when someone says they took the inspiration for their torture techniques from American movies. It must’ve been a meta moment for you.

Anwar explains early on that he got his methods of killing from gangster movies.

Did it change your ideas about the responsibility of storytelling?

That’s an open-ended question, but it brings a few things to mind. First of all, I had to hear that several times before I understood what he said. I knew they loved American movies and I knew they killed across the street from where they saw the movies and one of the reasons they killed people was because the people they were killing had boycotted American movies. I understood all of that. But I’d been filming for several years in the countryside where people who had no connection to American movies were also perfectly capable of killing busloads of women and men every night, so I certainly didn’t come to this thinking American movies beget genocide.

Some people have written that way about it, but I don’t think there’s anything in the film to say that, except that that’s what these men did and in film we tend to generalize from the specific in the film to universal. It never even occurred to me to say that violent movies create violence, but that’s not to say that violent movies don’t inform how we imagine ourselves and how we inflect how we commit violence and relate to violence. So I had to hear this point that they got their method from the movies, maybe five or ten times before it really sunk in. By the time it did, I thought it was terribly important.

But then there’s a sense in which Anwar got more than his method of killing from the movies. He also borrowed a kind of psychic protection from the movies. He talks about in the film how he would walk out of an Elvis Presley musical in the mood of the film, which you and I have both experienced. We’ve come out of a movie where the characters are cool and just take on the persona of those characters. Anwar would walk across the road and kill people. What struck me there is that not only is Anwar getting the actual techniques of murder from the movies, he’s also getting a mode of performance. He would come out of the cinema in the mood of the actors, identify with the actors and act as he was killing. So as he was killing, it was always an act of killing, not just killing.

That had huge consequences for what was going on in the storytelling of the film because what that meant was that as we were doing these reenactments, we weren’t just reenacting what happened and getting the material that gives insight into their impunity and their celebration. What these men conjured in front of the camera was the very same mode of performance, the same mode of acting, the same mode of being that they were in when they were killing in the first place.

One of the reasons in the beginning of the film why Anwar was so keen to act out the killings for me…maybe on the surface, it’s because he’s trying to glorify what he did, but I think there’s another motive that grows through the film, which is him trying to deal with what he did and to get in touch with it. But before he’s trying to deal with his conscience, I actually think he’s trying to make what he did okay by repeating it in a safe situation. Victims of trauma or people that have done something traumatic will often want to retell the story again and again to make it okay the way we build scar tissue over a wound.

We’re the only species that I know of that enjoys violence. We not only enjoy watching it in films, we enjoy on the playground if two people get in a fight, kids come running over and scream “fight, fight, fight, fight.” That’s a very, very upsetting and tragic thing about us. Even the playground example seems rather trivial. But the fact that we enjoy violence and that now we live in a society where a whole sector of society enjoys torture and enjoys the fact that our leaders commit torture, and we have heroes who torture in the likes of Jack Bauer on “24,” that’s very disturbing. So we thought we were exploring the nature of Anwar’s impunity and his regime’s self-conception whereas in fact we were summoning in front of our camera the mode of being in which the killers actually killed. And that was terrible. I felt dirty. I felt implicated. I felt like I was engaged with the killing and it was traumatic for the people involved. But I think that’s part of why the film is so devastating for viewers because they get lured into thinking this is outrageous, it’s an expose, it’s grotesque, they’ve been given a lot of rope with which to hang themselves and we’re going to them expose their collectively insane ideas about killing and in fact, what we’re going to find is that the act of killing is so banal but so terrifying that can reappear at any time, even in front of our cameras.

[SPOILERS AHEAD] At the end of the film, you show Anwar the reenactments and film his reaction. Did what you capture there inform what the film would be as a whole?

First of all, Anwar and his friends knew from the very beginning that weren’t making a film for them. They’re just making scenes for my film and we watched stuff all along the way. Sometimes we’d shoot a few scenes in a row because of scheduling or we were using the same location, but right afterwards, we’d watch the footage.

For Anwar, what we filmed was pretty simple. We would shoot something in an office and show what happened where they did most of the killings, which was in that office, and that we did in a gangster style because that was their favorite genre which [was where] Anwar got his method of killing. This is the newspaper office across the road from the cinema, then there was the village massacre, then there were his nightmares, then there was some weird cowboy thing that we never really show. [laughs]

The basic outlines for the scenes, we devised them as we went in reaction to what we shot, so there was a feedback loop where we would shoot, screen, plan, shoot, screen, plan, shoot, screen, plan. Anwar hasn’t yet seen the complete film. He didn’t ask to and by the end of the filming, the screening was pretty traumatic for Anwar. After the scene with the grandchildren at the end of the film, he goes onto watch the scene where he gets strangled with wire and that led him to choke, much as he does at the end of the film on the roof. It was kind of a sympathetic, reflexive thing. He saw the wire go around his neck and it was like he felt the choking of the victims that he watched. You have to remember when Anwar was strangling people, he wasn’t watching himself strangle people, he was watching the victims he was strangling, so that’s why their perspective floods into the film at that moment and why that was really tough for him to watch.

By the end of the film, I think Anwar’s not just haunted, something in him has died and I think something dies in all of us when we participate in killing. Or even when we’re implicated in killing, which I think all of us are because we live in societies built on violence, even if it’s as simple as the clothes that we wear being affordable because somewhere workers are being intimidated by men like Anwar to produce them. We’re kind of like guests at a cannibalistic feast. We’re not as close to the slaughter as Anwar and his friends, but we’re at the table. And we get that sense in the final shot in the film. After Anwar leaves, we’re left with this empty handbag shop.

“The Act of Killing” opens on July 19th in New York at the Landmark Sunshine and opens on July 26th in Los Angeles at the Nuart and in Washington DC at the Landmark E-Street Cinema. A full list of theaters and dates can be found here.

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