Joshua Oppenheimer on what awards really mean for ‘The Act of Killing’

By the time Oscar night rolls around on Sunday, it’ll have been over 18 months since “The Act of Killing” — Joshua Oppenheimer’s searing, inventively constructed documentary about Indonesia’s vast anti-Communist genocide of the 1960s, and its ongoing aftermath in the country today — had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. Since then, the film (which boasts Werner Herzog and Errol Morris among its executive producers) has become one of the most celebrated non-fiction films of recent years, racking up critical plaudits and awards, topping Sight & Sound’s poll of 2013’s best films and, of course, scoring an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature.

Usually, documentaries that earn such widespread approval are less abrasively challenging than Oppenheimer’s film, the most surprising twist of which is that it addresses a large-scale atrocity — one that claimed the lives of over half a million individuals — from the perpetrators’ perspective rather than that of the victims. In allowing the killers a forum to explain and replay their actions (not necessarily with regret or apology), “The Act of Killing” emerges as a unique human and political document, one that takes the long way round to a compromised catharsis — particularly for initially remorseless Anwar, who becomes Oppenheimer’s improbable protagonist.

Hours before the BAFTAs — where he’d go on to pick up the Best Documentary award — I sat down with a fresh-off-the-plane Oppenheimer at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, where the film has completed a record-breaking run. We talked about how the film took shape, what its impact home and abroad has been, and what all this awards attention really means.


HitFix: “The Act of Killing” began travelling the festival circuit well over a year ago; you’ve amassed a vast range of honors and accolades since then. At this stage, what do awards mean for you, and for this film?

Joshua Oppenheimer: Every time “The Act of Killing” wins an award, the film and the issues of impunity that it raises become front page headlines in Indonesia. And that encourages ordinary Indonesians to find the courage to hold their leaders to account, both for historical crimes against humanity and for present-day kinds of corruption – which they get away with, of course, because they know that the ordinary people whom they”re supposedly representing are too afraid to do so. So every time we win an award, that fear diminishes bit by bit. It”s palpable.

When the film was nominated for an Oscar, there was so much coverage and so many wonderful editorials in the Indonesian press that the government finally felt they needed to respond. Previously, they’d sort of kept quiet, hoping, I think, that the film would go away. And when we got the Oscar nod, they kind of realized that wasn”t going to happen. So they decided to make a statement about it. The president”s spokesman for international affairs said, “We know this was a crime against humanity, but we will deal with it in our own time. We don”t need a film to force us into reconciliation, much less a film by a foreign filmmaker.”

Now, the reaction to that government statement was wonderful. My anonymous Indonesian co-director wrote a beautiful statement saying, “This is not a film by a foreign filmmaker. This is a film by 60 Indonesians who worked with Josh. Some of us were university professors. Some of us were filmmakers. Some of us ran human rights NGOs. We left our careers – some of us for eight years – to make this film knowing that we couldn”t put our name on it. Risking our safety, knowing that we could never take credit for this work until there”s real change. And we”re not going to let the government try and get away with saying this is a foreigner”s view of the country, designed to make the country look bad.”

But what makes the country look bad, of course, is not the crime in 1965, but the ongoing refusal of the government to address that crime. So the government’s statement wasn’t a sign of goodwill, but it was a barometer of how much has changed that they can now say this was a crime against humanity. And that’s an about-face: until that point, the government had maintained that the genocide was heroic, something to be celebrated. They continue to teach young children in Indonesia that that”s what it is.

Meanwhile, another thing the awards have meant is that the discussion has grown beyond Indonesia: this past week we had a screening on Capitol Hill in Washington for senators and congressmen and their staffers, with the discussion very much about what America”s role in this was, and what kind of justice is possible given that the international criminal court can”t address crimes that occurred before it was constituted. Could an international criminal tribunal of the sort that happened for the former Yugoslavia be constituted for this? The problem is those tribunals are always constituted through an action of the Security Council of the United Nations. In this case, two of the permanent members are perpetrators of this crime: the United Kingdom and the U.S.

So a discussion is starting to occur in the United States about how, if it wants to take leadership on these issues, it needs to declassify all documents pertaining to covert operations in Indonesia from that period. If the U.S. wants to have an ethical relationship with Indonesia or so much of the global south in similar situations, they need to acknowledge the crimes of the past and take collective responsibility for their role in supporting, participating in and ultimately ignoring those crimes. That discussion is starting to happen because of all the awards attention to date.

As a South African viewer, I was actually reminded of the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which Mandela devised as a way of admitting and processing past injustices that could not be legally addressed.

Yes. You could say they traded justice for truth.

Exactly. It wasn”t entirely successful, but it was a very bold concept. In a sense, your film is its own truth commission, even if the perpetrators didn’t necessarily realize that when they came on board. Did you have an endgame in mind for the project? Or for the individuals involved?

Our primary commitment and loyalty was always to the survivors and the human rights community with whom we made the film. We were in dialogue throughout the whole process. I began this film in collaboration with the survivors, who were quickly forbidden from participating by the army. The survivors then said, “Before you quit and go home, try and film the perpetrators.” I wasn”t sure if it was safe to do that, but when I started I found, to my astonishment, that everyone was boastful and open and recounting the most awful details of what they”d done with smiles on their faces, in front of their families. I saw this as a symptom of what happens when killers win and remain in power and build a whole political system on the basis of their victory. It felt like coming to Germany 40 years after the Holocaust only to find Nazis were still in power.

So I showed that material back to the survivors, and they said, “Keep filming the perpetrators, because you can expose this whole regime that way.” So my first commitment was to create a film that would come to Indonesia like the child in “The Emperor”s New Clothes” – pointing at a reality that everyone knew was there, that underpins everyday life. And because it”s the perpetrators themselves who name it, there”s no denying it any more. Even while shooting, I was not trying to lead Anwar to a place of recognition. That would have felt obscene to me. But it did become clear to Anwar himself and the perpetrators themselves that this has destroyed even them. They’ve not only destroyed everything they”ve touched, but themselves too.

Over the course of shooting, but particularly in the editing process, Anwar”s journey became more and more important. Now Anwar”s journey was difficult to perceive in the sense that it wasn”t linear. He”s almost like a seismic vibration swinging between extremes more and more wildly, until finally something cracks – sorry to mix metaphors! But our biggest hope – and it”s been achieved beyond our most audacious dreams – was that the film would force a break, an intervention in the present. I know that some people see the film and expect that they”re going to be given a history lesson on what happened in 1965, but this is a film about the present. Any work of art ought to be an invitation to look at ourselves in the mirror, and see what we”re normally too afraid to see.

I”m curious to know if you”ve seen Rithy Panh”s Oscar-nominated “The Missing Picture,” which – in addressing the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge – strikes a balance between personal history and present-day processing.

I see it as an attempt to gather memory amidst irrevocable loss and trauma in the present. Rithy”s a friend – he’s actually the person who”s been distributing “The Act of Killing” in Cambodia – and it”s always hard to talk about a friend’s work. I”ve been hearing strange comparisons and contrasts between the two films, which speaks to a kind of myopia: “Oh, there”s two creative movies about atrocities this year.” They obviously define two poles. Rithy”s film is made in a context where there is in fact an international criminal tribunal for what”s happened, and the perpetrators cannot go around and boast about what they”ve done. “The Act of Killing” is a film about a regime built by perpetrators now – the opposite. So they”re both dealing with the aftermath of genocide, but fundamentally looking at different objects. I”m very happy we”re both nominated.

How long has “The Act of Killing” been in development? What sparked your interest in this period of history to begin with?

Well, I first went to Indonesia in 2001 to work with a community of plantation workers, to help them document and dramatize their struggle to organize a union. You see, the women workers were being made to spray a poisonous herbicide with no protective clothing – it was killing them in their forties. And the company was hiring Pancasila Youth to intimidate the workers whenever they so much as delivered a petition to the offices. We finished that work in 2002 and then they said, “Come back right away and let”s make another film about why we are afraid.” So I went back immediately.

The army found out what we were doing in early 2003, and I spent two years filming every perpetrator I could find from 2003 to 2005. Anwar was the forty-first perpetrator I filmed. And I lingered on him because somehow I noticed his pain or trauma was involved with the mechanisms of his boasting. Because we”re used to looking at people through this sort of bogus moral paradigm of villains and heroes, we assume the boasting points to an absence of morality. But as a non-fiction filmmaker, it’s my task to look at the reality that”s really there. And they”re human. There are no cackling cartoon villains in the world.

The very first day I met Anwar was the day he dances on the roof, and he says he”s trying to forget his pain. I recognized gradually but quite forcefully that he was producing one of the most grotesque and absurd images of perpetrator boasting that I filmed in all these two years. By dancing, he’s dispelling and denying the moral meaning of what he”s talking about. He’s desperately trying to convince himself otherwise so he doesn”t have to see himself as a killer, and then imposing the victor”s history on that whole society. So I did something different with Anwar then what I had done with the others. I screened that scene back to him. That was the beginning of a five-year process of working with him and his friends.

From 2005 to 2010 I was shooting three to four months at a time, then returning to London, then going back. Every time I would end up with a mountain of footage and I”d be emotionally exhausted because the material and the journey was so dark. And then there were two-and-a-half years of editing and post-production. Right after finishing the editing, I went back and shot a film called “The Look of Silence,” which will come out next year.

How did Anwar come your way in the first place? Did he come forward, or did someone lead you to him?

My way of finding the perpetrators was generally to ask each one to introduce me to another. I would follow from death squad to death squad, from plantation to plantation, moving my way up the chain of command to Medan from the countryside where I”d started. And in the city there was a death squad veterans organization called The Forum Exponents of 1965-1966. It was an organization dedicated to publicly commemorating what they had done, remaining vigilant for any sign of the return of Communism. I filmed virtually every leader in that organization. Anwar was the most notorious of the Medan death squad leaders who was still alive.

Originally, I thought I would work with several death squads because I met the surviving veterans from all of them. I thought I would try and have each of them carry a different part of the film. But that approach foundered when it turned out that the gangsters, even though they”re all in this veterans organization are really competitive with each other. They spent their whole lives fighting turf wars over various illegal industries – prostitution, gambling, illegal logging – so they hated one another. Anwar was certainly the most generous with me, and even he would say he refused to participate if I filmed with, say, the Majestic Kid.

I had to choose and I chose that death squad because it was the most notorious, most powerful and seemed to be responsible for the most deaths. And then I decided I would show structure by focusing on paramilitary and political hierarchy. That was a good decision because it meant the film is a snapshot of a present-day regime – not a magisterial vision of what happened either in 1960 or 1965.

At what stage in the process did you hit on the formal conceit of re-enactment?

It began rather organically, while I was filming the 40 perpetrators before Anwar. Everyone would right away invite me to the places they killed and simply demonstrate to me how they killed. When I was still in the countryside, I started to realize that if I could just understand for whom they”re performing, I could expose the regime to some extent. For I was getting something much closer to performance than the sober testimony we”re used to in human rights films. Performance always has an imagined audience – who was it in this case? How do they want to be seen by their fellow Indonesians, by their international audience, by themselves?

So this is what I told them:”You have participated in one of the biggest killings in human history. I want to know what it means to you and to your society. You want to show me what you”ve done. So I”ll film you showing me what you”ve done in whatever way you wish. I will also, however, film you and your fellow death squad veterans preparing your re-enactment, discussing what you want to show – but equally, and just as importantly, what you don”t want to show.” That’s what I proposed to them: they all know from the outset that they”re not making scenes for anything other than “The Act of Killing.” There’s no film within the film. This wasn’t a lure or a trick to get them to open up. It was a response to their own openness.

When I started showing the footage to Anwar, to see if he would recognize the moral meaning of what he”s done, he started to propose what he would claim were improvements. And it was a very simple and telling thing that happened. He watched that footage and looked very disturbed. But he doesn’t admit what he did was bad – he”s never been forced to do that. Instead, he lies to himself and to me about what”s bothering him: he starts changing his clothes, changing his acting, adjusting the genre. You see more iterations of it in the longer director’s cut of the film.

Our method was always the same: we”d shoot one scene, Anwar would watch it, respond and propose the next scene. And he”s always trying to run away, I think, from the pain he felt in the previous scene. It was like a man painting his own portrait: he would paint a little, step back, look at the canvas. At some point he had a choice: would he make a portrait that was beautiful or true? And you can hear him absurdly trying to wrestle with this contradiction; in the director”s cut, he says, “It”ll be a beautiful family movie about mass killing.” The oxymoron is apparent from the outset. But actually he never really lets go of his fantasy of ambition to make something beautiful. He just chokes on it at the end.

After playing the victim, he proposed a scene where he stages his own redemption, and in Heaven the victims thank him for killing them and sending them there. I was really disappointed with him because I thought he was changing. In fact, he was, but not in a linear way. I didn”t see that in the moment. I agreed to continue because every scene he was proposing was shedding light on another aspect of this regime or the victor’s history.

You had to be quite objective with the participants – you obviously couldn”t specifically articulate that these were crimes you’re dealing with. How aware were they of your political stance on the events?

I think Anwar and Adi became quite aware of it. And Herman, too. Herman has left Pancasila as a result of the film. He spent five years exploring the source of their power as gangsters and what he found there was ugly: it’s torture, it”s mass murder. So he left the organization and got very angry when Pancasila repudiated the film. He”s been one of the only people with the courage to hold public screenings of the film in Medan. As for Anwar, he’s not trying to look good. He”s trying to deal with his pain, and he”s being listened to for the first time. That”s really evidenced by his reaction to the film when he saw it. He was tearful. He was silent for a long time but then he said, “Look, this film shows what it”s like to be me.” He was silent again and he said, “I”m relieved to finally have been able to tell what this means.”