Interview: Director Joshua Oppenheimer Dissects ‘The Act of Killing’

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CHICAGO – Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” is now playing in most major markets, currently running at the Music Box Theatre here in Chicago. The film is one of the most devastating experiences you’ll have in a theater this year and it’s a must-see. In it, Oppenheimer convinces some of the main perpetrators of the genocide of the Indonesian murder squads to not only discuss their crimes but reenact them. The film has such power that two of the best documentarians alive, Errol Morris & Werner Herzog, have put their weight behind it, knowing that it’s an incredibly important piece of work. Mr. Oppenheimer called us this week to talk about his film, one that’s starting conversations and tearing down walls around the world.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: I want to start off talking about fear. First, as a creative voice, did you ever have fear that you might be coerced, however unknowingly, into making a piece of propaganda, simply by what they were willing to share and what they weren’t?

JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: No. Not at all. I began this film in collaboration with a community of survivors. First, we found the survivors were not allowed to speak about what had happened to them. The Army was stopping us every time we tried to interview them. The survivors said to film the perpetrators, not only because they will tell you what happened but because they will BOAST. In their boasting, the audience will see why we’re afraid. They will glimpse the dark heart. There was a sense that, from the outset, I had been entrusted by survivors and the broader human rights community to film the perpetrators as a way of exposing something that they already know. Rather like the child with the emperor’s new clothes. Here, in the boasting, we can sense and we can see the nature, the impunity, the fear, the thuggery — what happens when we build a normality of terror, lies, and the justification of evil.

There would have been a risk of that if the perpetrators were denying what they did or offering long, extensive justifications for what they did, along the lines of the anti-Communist propaganda that the government had been putting out. Because they were simply open about what they did, there was never that fear. I recognized that unlike so many films made about the survivors, this one was going to be undeniable. Journalistic balance would usually consist of survivors who accuse and perpetrators who deny.

Then, the method of reenactment was in response to their openness. Anwar was the 41st perpetrator that I filmed. All 40 that I filmed before I met him were just as open and just as eager to take me to places where they killed. The method of reenactment was not to lure them and get them to open up or give them rope to hang themselves by because they were already open. It was trying to understand the nature and the consequences of their openness.

The Act of Killing
The Act of Killing
Photo credit: Drafthouse Films

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Yes, but don’t you think the act of reenactment has an impact on Anwar? You say it’s not to give them rope to hang themselves but it certainly becomes a sort of therapy, especially when you begin filming his own nightmares.

OPPENHEIMER: I think that’s absolutely right. I think at some point I intuited that if we could show that the perpetrators were destroyed by what they have done, even if they’ve been claiming this was heroic and necessary, we could DEVASTATE the official story about what happened for Indonesians. That’s what I fundamentally felt entrusted to do. Indonesians were not allowed to tell their own story because they were being arrested every time we tried. Indonesians who needed this exposed, who asked me to make a film for Indonesia, which is my primary audience. It’s wonderful that audiences around the world are watching it and caring about it so much but it was made as a love letter to Indonesia and is being seen with the greatest impact there. There was a sense that if we could show that the men who ought to be, if they were really the heroes they claim to be, enjoying the fruits of their heroic deeds, are actually destroyed and know it was wrong, then the whole facade would crumble.

The Act of Killing
The Act of Killing
Photo credit: Drafthouse Films

In that sense, I was never motivated by the therapeutic task of bringing a perpetrator to reconcile himself. In that sense, there’s a tension between Anwar and my project. Anwar’s project is to somehow deal with his pain. My project is to expose this rotten and corrupt system. Even though I think I came to understand the fact that Anwar was going into his pain was the most devastating blow to the official propaganda, I think those projects were tension. And it’s for that reason I think that the film is not sentimental. And it’s for that reason that when Anwar says that he knows what his victims felt like, I so readily say, “No, you don’t.” Otherwise, I suppose I would have been eager for such a confession.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: If you hadn’t confronted him there, it would have made for a different film. I don’t want to “spoil” where the film goes because I do think there’s a question as to where Anwar’s journey will lead but those final scenes create a bizarre tension in the viewer. Naturally, especially when it sounds like demons are coming out of him, you feel sympathy for another human being but there’s a part of you that doesn’t want to feel sympathy for a monster. Did you worry at all about how viewers would respond to those scenes or do you like the internal conflict as to how we’re supposed to feel about him in that moment?

OPPENHEIMER: I’m OK with however viewers feel but there’s a longer, director’s cut of the film in which I know audiences feel sympathy with him earlier. That’s something I like and strive for. I’m OK with audiences feeling conflicted but empathy is not a zero sum game. Empathizing with Anwar does not make us any less empathic for the survivors. I don’t think there is ANYONE that’s not deserving of our empathy. I think that empathy is the beginning of love and we simply cannot have too much of it. I think the real reason that the more people empathize with Anwar the better is because the moment that you empathize with Anwar, you recognize that you’re much closer to a perpetrator than you like to think and you open yourself up to the true meaning of the film, which is an exploration of how we do this to each other and the consequences for our common humanity. The longer that you push Anwar away and say, “He’s a monster,” which is simply not true — he’s a human who has done monstrous things — in a way, the more they are simply reassuring themselves, presumably out of discomfort and a desire to reassure themselves that they’re not like him. We may wish that we would never do what Anwar did but we are extremely lucky to never have to find out.

The Act of Killing
The Act of Killing
Photo credit: Drafthouse Films

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Do you think there’s something unique about Anwar? Or are you suggesting that most people in his position of power would have done the same?

OPPENHEIMER: Well. Is there anything unique about the man who kills, in general?

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: The man who kills A THOUSAND and brags about it on camera and dances across the street to his victims and…

OPPENHEIMER: First of all, everyone who I filmed killed for the same reason. If you go to the top of the chain of command — he orchestrated to eliminate his enemies. For power, for money, and because they could get away with it. It was totally self-serving. Now, is everybody that SELFISH? No. I don’t think so. Hannah Arendt talked about how Eichmann was an “ordinary person” but she was very aggrieved when she was then misunderstood as saying that every ordinary person could be Eichmann. It’s a simple logical fallacy.

I think that there’s two things. First of all, I would hope that if I grew up where Anwar grew up — in that society with those parents and in that social and economic space — I would hope that I would make different choices. I know I’m extremely lucky to never have to find out. That’s the first point.

The second point is that the boasting seems at first to be a sign that Anwar has no remorse. But I think in Anwar from the very beginning we see that the boasting is not a sign of a lack of remorse but rather the opposite. It is a sign that Anwar knows what he did was wrong and is desperately, defensively trying to convince himself otherwise. That’s the paradox at the heart of the film. It means that when we as human beings get away with evil and justify and lie to ourselves about it, that actually is corrupting and leads to further evil. Anwar and his friends kill a lot of people, get away with it, justify it, produce propaganda to justify it, then they now have to supress the survivors, they have to blame the survivors for what happened, which allows them to shake them down in markets and discriminate against them and steal their land, and it demands that they kill again. If the Army says, “Now, kill this group of people” for much the same reason as the first group, if they refuse it’s tantamount to admitting it was wrong the first time. The film captures this downward spiral into evil and corruption that we human beings inevitably slide down from committing wrong and justifying it. Not because we’re evil people but because we’re moral people. It’s because we’re moral that we justify our wrongs. We don’t want to live with thinking of ourselves as evil.

The Act of Killing
The Act of Killing
Photo credit: Drafthouse Films

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: In that environment of justification and the shakedowns we see in the film, did you feel any fear for physical danger for yourself or your crew during production?

OPPENHEIMER: Yes. Sure. Especially when people question the film itself. When they say the film will turn history on its head, that was a frightening moment because then they accuse me of being a Communist. Or when the Deputy of Youth and Sport calls “Cut” after acting in the Pogrom reenactment and says this is going to ruin his image. I thought, “Oh, no, now we’re all going to be arrested.” He changed his mind. Thank God. He realized that he only has a job because of his fearsome image. That’s why he’s in power.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: The act of role-playing. Anwar mentions James Bond and talks about gangsters and mentions Elvis. And then you very purposefully take that and tear it down by making him play the victim role. Can you speak a bit about the impact of the process? Does Anwar call himself a gangster and behave that way if there’s no camera on him and then is his crash on the other side of his boastfulness even greater because of the camera as well?

OPPENHEIMER: He definitely plays those roles when he talks about the killing because it was a way to distance himself from the act of killing. Acting was always a way to distance. And then when he’s reenacting the act of killing, he’s using the filmic space, cinematic reenactments to again kind of distance himself; to build up a cinematic scar tissue around the world. Anwar will talk about himself as a gangster but in terms of how he came to play the victim… The longer version of the film, in that version you see the steps that lead him to play the victim. You see that comes out of a dynamic of self-pity where he starts to feel remorse and that makes him feel upset and angry. It’s painful. He blames the victim. I’ve killed you, that hurts me. Out of self-pity, he puts himself in the chair. And then, unexpectedly, he’s forced to taste the terror of it.

At the same time, he’d been playing the victim from the beginning. The scene on the roof where he dances the cha-cha, you’ll notice that the length of wire is around his own neck. The image of watching people die really haunted him and he was trying to somehow deal with that.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: What is the importance of Errol Morris and Werner Herzog producing a film like this one?

OPPENHEIMER: There’s so many things. They made the project much more approachable for people who would otherwise hesitate to watch the film. Errol has helped produce a tremendously rich set of questions around the finished film. Werner was very helpful in producing the shorter, theatrical cut of the film. He offered to view rough cuts to tell us if we were removing any vital organs. He was wonderful. Both of them…Film is not done when you finish editing. Film is done in the conversations. Every viewer finishes the film in her head. And in the conversations you have with viewers after the film. The film finds its meaning in the world. And they’ve both been tremendous companions and collaborators in that part of the journey.

Join the journey of “The Act of Killing,” now playing at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago as well as other markets, and expanding around the country in the coming weeks. content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

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