Interview: Act of Killing’s Joshua Oppenheimer

“Good guys and bad guys only exist in stories. In reality there’s only human beings and human beings.” –Act of Killing director Joshua Oppenheimer.

A few years back, Lars Von Trier told a crowd of Cannes journalists “I understand Hitler,” which led first to uncomfortable looks from Kirsten Dunst, and eventually to Von Trier being declared a “persona non-grata” and banned from the festival. Back in 2002, Bill Maher made a comment about the 9/11 hijackers, saying of their decision to knowingly kill themselves by flying planes into a building, “say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly,” which eventually led to his show being cancelled.

While it seems fairly straightforward and non-controversial for an individual to accept the basic truth of the statement that it might be possible to agree with or even empathize with, say, Hitler about… something, if you actually met him on the street – maybe you both hate mayo! – or to agree at least semantically with the idea that someone who suicidally flies a plane directly into a building isn’t “cowardly,” human beings’ knee-jerk refusal to accept the idea that those who do monstrous things are made out of the same basic biological building blocks as the rest of us is almost comically transparent. We grasp at anything that will separate “us” from “them,” no matter how ridiculous, whether it be boxing (as in the Boston marathon) or brain tumors (the University of Texas clock tower shootings). And I’m convinced that we lose the legitimate lessons when we focus on the easy answers.

The trick Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary Act of Killing pulls is that it absolutely forces you into a state of empathy with admitted murderers. In one of the world’s lesser-discussed atrocities, the Indonesian mass killings of 1965-1966 purged the country of somewhere between 500,000 and a million “communists” – union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and the ethnic Chinese – with the direct aid of Western governments in one of the most regrettable chapters of the Cold War. In Indonesia, the same status quo that helped purge the communists, an association of government, military, paramilitaries, and “gangsters,” is still in power, and far from being punished, many of those who participated in the killings are celebrated for them.

Oppenheimer began his documentary ten years ago, first by trying to talk to the victims of the massacres, but he soon discovered that most were rightfully terrified of reprisals. Conversely, those who actually perpetrated the killings seemed more than willing to boast about it. Oppenheimer’s extraordinary documentary, so esteemed by fellow documentarians Werner Herzog and Errol Morris that they even put their names on it as executive producers, follows a handful of participants in Indonesia’s massacres, urging them to reenact their crimes for a film about them. Which the killers gleefully do, casually describing beheadings and the burning of villages, but also spice up with their own twists, like dance numbers and men in drag, leading to one of the most surreal, eye-opening, and darkly comedic viewing experiences you will ever have. One of the killers, Herman Koto, spends much of the movie in drag with his fat belly hanging out like an overgrown baby in whore make up while he happily describes government-sanctioned murder, illustrating the mundane clownish tragicomedy of evil like nothing else ever has. The comical absurdity of mass murder, it’s no wonder Herzog loved it.

I spoke to Act of Killing co-director Josh Oppenheimer after he showed his film at SXSW, and found a man rightfully passionate about what he’d created, and generously polite about me leading off with the admission that I still hadn’t seen the last 15 minutes of his film (I’d only gotten the screener a few days prior and couldn’t watch it on the plane like I’d planned), which, when I actually did watch it, turned out to be one of the all-time cathartic turning points in the history of film, or any non-fiction, really. The fact that he didn’t shout at me speaks to his compassionate nature.

“And someone had the idea, you should film the killers, because the killers will boast and will actually appear to be proud of what they did, and if you simply film that, you will see why exactly we were so afraid.”

VM: So how did you get involved in the film?

JO: I went to Indonesia to make a film about a group of trade workers who were very badly oppressed. This was kind of the brief, and I actually knew nothing about Indonesia at the time. The story was about workers who were struggling to organize a union in a place where unions had been illegal. Unions had been illegal under the military dictatorship, and that was the biggest obstacle that these plantation workers had in organizing a new union to fight for the most basic protections. They were inhaling a poison that was dissolving their livers. Weed killer. And killing them. They were trying to get masks – this was one of their main demands. And they were afraid to even make those basic demands because there had been a union until 1965 and its members had all been killed. And so that’s how I learned about the genocide. And then I came to understand that while tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people were killed here, the whole system is built on that. And nobody has ever documented what happened in this part of Indonesia.

So I started working with the survivors after I finished working on the film about the union, trying to break the silence about what had happened, and also expose a corrupt regime of terror and fear that had been in place ever since. And when we started, we were constantly being harassed. Every time we would film together we were being arrested. That was uncomfortable for me, but scary for my crew, and terrible for the survivors we were filming with. [Oppenheimer actually co-directed Act of Killing with an Indonesian who chose to be credited as “Anonymous.”]

So we started reaching out to the Indonesian Human Rights Organizations that exist and talking about, “How can we make this film?”

And someone had the idea, you should film the killers, because the killers will boast and will actually appear to be proud of what they did, and if you simply film that, you will see why exactly we were so afraid. When I started, it turned out that the first perpetrator I could film was my next door neighbor from this village, who had killed the aunt of the main character in the film I had been trying to make with the survivors. And I could understand from that that this is why people are so afraid. The killers are living all around them. And I found that the killers were as boastful as you see in the film.

And so then I filmed every killer I could find, trying to understand both what happened, because nobody had ever recorded it, but also to understand the nature of the boasting. How do they see me? How do they want to be seen by the world? And how do they really see themselves? And what are they doing by boasting? And Anwar [Congo, the main character in the film] was the 41st killer that I filmed.

VM: That’s a lot. [Brilliant observation there, me.]

JO: Yeah and I spent about two years tracking them down and filming before I met Anwar.

“Good guys and bad guys only exist in stories. In reality there’s only human beings and human beings, and every act of evil in history is perpetrated by human beings, and we seek to escape from this really difficult reality.”

VM: Let’s talk about Herman [pictured]. I’m just sort of fascinated by him because he’s like this cartoon character. Like why was he always in women’s clothes? He’d always be in some crazy costume, and the movie would just  sort of smash cut to him in another bizarre outfit and you weren’t entirely sure why.

JO: Well, he had been in the paramilitary group theater troupe that had disbanded by the time I met these guys, and like Shakespeare’s Globe, all the roles were played by men. And Herman played this kind of matronly storyteller, comic character. And I think he didn’t like doing that, actually. He was pushed into that role in the theater troupe, and Anwar thought it was hilarious. And so Anwar put him in that role again.

VM: Aw, but he [Herman] seemed so comfortable in that.

JO: Yeah, he is comfortable, but I think he’s also kind of long suffering, Herman. I actually think he came to enjoy it for the film, but he hadn’t liked it in the theater group because it was all the thugs who were supposed to see him as scary. I think once he was in a film, he felt it was for a bigger audience and then he could enjoy it. There’s a great line in the talk show, you see in the film, did you see the talk show yet?

VM: Yeah.

JO: There’s a great line which isn’t in the film where the talk show host says, “Herman, you do so many amazing things in this film, you give birth to a monster” (which is not in the film either) “You burnt down a village, you do this that and the other, and but the most amazing thing you get to explore your feminine side,” and it’s this great description of how Herman got into that. I didn’t put that in the film because it was more magical leaving it as a mystery.

VM: Right. On that note, there’s a lot of comedy in the movie and it seems like people often have a hard time accepting comedy when it’s about cruelty, or when there’s darkness to it. What’s been the reaction?

JO: I think there’s two kinds of comedy in the film. I think there’s one which is disarming and that’s its purpose, where the characters are so open and so generous with themselves. That’s something I look for in any character that I film. That person has to be open. They can’t be self conscious. They can’t be withholding. They can’t have a facade. I think they’re so open that we love them for that in those moments.

Like, when Herman, sitting at the fish market suddenly says “I’m not gonna shake my ass for you. I’m just gonna sing this song.” The guy who does that is just so open. I don’t think we’re laughing at his joke. He’s not making a joke. We’re laughing with the light and warmth at his openness. And I think the openness disarms us because our guard is down. We like him for a moment. And then when he spirals quickly into something horrifying, or goes on to say something terrible, we feel that he’s a human being doing that, because we’ve just related to him as a human being a moment before. So that kind of comedy plays a very very important role in disarming us so that our breath is taken away the next moment and it can also be that the next moment just becomes something surreal and strangely beautiful.

And the other kind of comedy in the film comes from moments of total absurdity. Their openness relates to their shamelessness, right? They don’t seem to realize that what they do or what they’re saying makes them look bad. But suddenly when Anwar, the waterfall scene, for example, where Anwar dreams in reaction to his growing doubt. He tries to convince himself, it’s… it’s a defensive fantasy almost. That, okay, I’ll go to heaven and there will be my victims ready to meet me, waiting for me with a medal to thank me for killing them. [A memorable sequence of the movie finds Anwar going up to Heaven to receive a medal from the people he killed.]

But I think those moments are… well, maybe that moment is too dark a place to be a moment of comedy. But there are moments that it becomes so absurd that you laugh. That kind of comedy is most interesting, can become an even cathartic and joyful laughter for some audiences, audiences who have lived in countries where there are oppressive regimes. They, in the scene for example, with the waterfall, you’ll find that audiences, they’re both crying and laughing at the same time. They are crying because it is this horrible climax of the film. They’re laughing with joy because finally the underlying hypocrisy, the underlying grotesque logic of this regime where they kill a million people and the victims are supposed to thank us for it has been exposed for once and for all. And that is joyful and cathartic. But there is never a moment, I think, in the whole film, where they make a joke and we’re laughing at the joke they’re making.

VM: People seem to have a resistance to seeing people people who kill people as humans. You’re talking about showing the killers’ humanity. Has there been an adverse reaction to that at all?

JO: I mean we’ve screened the film in enough places now to know that overall the reaction is really positive, but there are people who are resistant to that. I think that the whole tradition of cinema is about movies about good vs. evil, and specifically good guys vs. bad guys. And in fact, good guys and bad guys only exist in stories. In reality there’s only human beings and human beings, and every act of evil in history is perpetrated by human beings and we seek to escape from this really difficult reality.

I actually think that was the Star Wars morality in play at that time, that, we’re good guys and the rest of the world, you know, and the people who do these things, are bad guys. And it’s a fantasy. It’s a lie. In fact, if we have any interest in preventing these things from happening again, we have to look at what actually happened. The moment you go from describing a human being who has done something evil to an evil human being, you make a judgement, you denounce the person, you denounce an entire life, and the reason we feel entitled to do that is because we assume that we’re good. That we’re good people, good human beings and therefore we have the right to denounce someone else as a bad human being. And that, in fact, I think that’s why we make the denunciation. We’re simply reassuring ourselves that we’re good. And I think that’s a fantasy. I think we’re much closer to perpetrators than we like to think.

VM: I don’t know if it was last year or the year before, but Lars Von Trier, all he said was, “I understand Hitler.” Like he was trying to understand him as a person. And then he basically got kicked out of the film festival. Is that part of the craft of the documentary, to make people go on that intellectual journey with it, instead of just saying “that evil person and me, we’re not so different?”

JO: I think people go on an emotional journey and I think the moment that people realize, see a small part of themselves in Anwar, that the Star Wars morality crumbles. And then for many viewers that opens the flood gates to a very painful process of recognizing emotions that we don’t even realize we feel normally. Isolation, I think the consequences of depending for our survival on other people’s suffering is a kind of pain, a loneliness, an isolation, a sadness that we don’t even know we normally feel. So many reviewers when you ask, do I expect there to be a lot of resistance? I expected there to much more resistance than there is. Most viewers comes out of the film really overwhelmed, really moved, shaken, shaking, and suddenly connecting with all sorts of pain that I think exists in our lives because I think in the moment, Anwar was destroyed. Anwar and his friends have maybe escaped justice, but they have not escaped punishment. I think they are destroyed by what they did. I think that’s the horrible anti-catharsis at the end of the film which you have yet to see. [He said this very politely, believe it or not.]

And I think we all also, something inside of us is broken and harmed by the fact that we depend for our survival on other people’s suffering, and I think we come to feel that brokenness in ourselves when we see Anwar’s brokenness in the end and it’s very painful. And it’s a wake up call that we all have to find imaginative solutions because the message is horrible but it’s also hopeful. If the killers are human beings and we’re all potentially killers I… well, I would hope that I wouldn’t kill a thousand people for power and money, but I know I’m extremely blessed never to have to find out. But the message is horrible because the killers are human beings and we can’t just eliminate them. But it’s hopeful because we can create conditions where we don’t harm people, where we care for each other more, where we respect each other, where we listen to each other, where we love each other, and where we think before we act and think critically. So I think there’s hope actually at the end of the film, in very same way that there’s a horror.

VM: [The way the movie is constructed,] The content of the movie really sort of speaks for itself. Was it hard to keep from editorializing or was there any pressure to sort of, you know, put in your perspective as a filmmaker?

JO: I think that my perspective is there, actually. I think that every frame of the film is haunted by the victims who’ve been killed. The film has completely transformed the way Indonesia sees itself. It’s the broken the silence in the media. It’s the most loved and talked about work of culture in Indonesian history. I think people who don’t want to look at their own complicity with the world around them may try to rationalize their dislike for the film by saying, ‘you can’t do this, you are on this side of the killers.’ But I think that the ultimate indictment is that the people trying to stop this film from being shown in Indonesia are the killers. And the people who are distributing it are the human rights community and the intellectual community. So I think the film speaks for itself. I think it is obvious. And when you come to the end, it’s even more. You’ll see.

Post-script: I did see. Boy did I. The climax was every bit as intense and disturbing as you’d expect from Werner Herzog’s favorite documentary and then some. I desperately want to describe it for you here, but I don’t want to spoil it. ACT OF KILLING opens in select cities this Friday, July 19th. Check here for ticketing and screening info.

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