Interview with Joshua Oppenheimer

Joshua Oppenheimer/Photo by Oliver Clasper. Courtesy of Drafthouse Films
Joshua Oppenheimer/Photo by Oliver Clasper. Courtesy of Drafthouse Films

I recently interviewed Joshua Oppenheimer via skype before the screening of “The Act of Killing” in Harvard today. It was a fascinating interview. The Boston Globe published a condensed and edited version of the interview. But, here is the extended interview, which is some 6,000 words.

Here you’ll find his theory of how society enters into a moral downward spiral in total impunity.

Q: How do you think the free access to digital download will influence the discussion about the anti-communist purge in Indonesia?
A: Our intention is the film reaches as wide Indonesian public as possible. Indonesia bans film on human rights violations committed by the government of Indonesia and we knew that if we simply release the film in Indonesia commercially in cinemas we first have to give it to the Badan Sensor Film (The Film Censorship Body) and they would likely ban the film. So we knew if they ban the film it would become a crime to show the film at all and that in turn can be used as an excuse by the government or it can be used as an excuse by the paramilitary movement Pancasila Youth or by the army or by similar paramilitary movement to physically attack screenings and that would make it difficult to show the film in Indonesia because people would be afraid to hold screenings. So we didn’t want that to happen, so we knew we have to build up very serious high level support for the film in Indonesia before we can really start screening. So all last autumn we held screenings in Komnas Ham (Indonesia National Human Rights Commission, ed) in Jakarta for Indonesia’s leading journalists, filmmakers, even celebrities, writers, artists, educators and so forth, human rights advocates, and we can say that everyone was very moved by the film. Komnas HAM loved the film and felt that everybody in Indonesia should see this film. And the journalists, in particular the staff of Tempo Magazine felt that there was a time before “The Act of Killing” and there was a time after “The Act of Killing” and they could no longer remain silent about the scale of what happened in 1965. The fact that the corruption and impunity and abuse that you see in the film are systemic and “The Act of Killing” is a repeatable experiment, so they felt it was time for them to break essentially the 47 years of silence about the killings. To do so they wanted to marshal fresh evidence about the killings. So they sent, I think it was 47 journalist plus editorial staff and support staff around 15 people to go around the country even to areas where they didn’t know if the killings had taken place and gathered and try to meet men like Anwar, meet men like the perpetrators I filmed to show that the film was a repeatable experiment, to show that Anwar was just one man among 40,000 people. They came back with hundreds of hundreds of pages of boastful testimonies by perpetrators in just a few weeks and edited it down and came up with a special double edition of Tempo. And then there’s an extensive coverage of the film as well and the rest of the media started to break their silence little by little about the killings and all the people who saw the film then started to hold screenings. They said, “OK first step was to go back to our communities and networks and hold screenings”. And on 10th of December of International Human Rights Day last year, we held 50 screening in 30 screenings ranging from 600 to700 people and that grew as of April to 500 screenings in 95 cities and then we lost count.

The point is the film should spark a discussion. We didn’t want people to just watch it at home alone we wanted people watching it together and having these debates together and once we felt really well underway, we felt we can look to make the film available online. So, one of the things that happened that happened between December and now, the screenings have been more and more public and more and more interesting. We had a screening in a mass grave in Central Java where the relatives of the victims who were killed there were too afraid to go untuk ziarah (to visit the grave, ed) at the end of Ramadan because the anti-communist- sort of the veterans of the anti-communist militias would threatened “You can’t come here!” They were too intimidated to go and visit the grave, so one organizer held a screening at this mass grave for the survivors and for the children of perpetrators, that now they have allowed both sides to visit the grave and pray at the grave.

Those screenings happened. That was one amazing screenings. But also the screenings have become more and more public, people started to announcing them on Facebook, announcing them on twitter, putting up posters in university campuses. A couple of screenings have been threatened. A couple of screenings have had Kodim (District Military Comandy, ed) said you can’t do the screening. But by and large the screenings are open and there’s no stopping it now. So now it feels like the time is right to put the film online so that as many people can see it as possible. We knew we have been giving out DVDs for free for the last six month and we knew that it would enter the pirate sphere but we wanted people to be able to see the film for free and not have to pay for it. And the hope is that every Indonesian should see the film

You have mentioned that talking to the perpetrators made you feel like you were in Nazi Germany 40 years after the Holocaust and the Nazi still in power. Can you tell us how you come to feel that way?

Well there were two things that happened. First of all the perpetrators were boasting and the boasting was obviously a sign. It wasn’t necessarily a sign of pride. I’ve come to understand that it’s actually that they’re boasting not necessarily because they’re proud. In fact in the end I think “The Act of Killing” really shows that the boasting is defensive and they’re desperately trying to convince themselves what everybody knows, namely that of course mass killing is wrong and when you killed unarmed defenseless people it’s wrong. Period. The message of the film could be: everybody already knows everything. And I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Two things happened in the early years I when was filming with survivors and perpetrators. First, the perpetrators were boasting and I understood: OK the reason they’re boasting is because they’ve never been removed from power and therefore, they’ve not been forced to admit what they had done was wrong. So therefore they neither deny what they’ve done nor do they apologize for it or act ashamed of it. The second thing I realize was that I understood they could either feel proud of what they’ve done or perhaps as I think the film shows that they’re desperately clinging to the justification that it’s OK, that they don’t have to wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and see mass murderers in the mirror. The other thing that happened was that the survivors that came out. Word got around that we were talking about what happened in 1965 and the survivors were no longer allowed to talk to us. We were arranged to film with somebody. We would come to the house to start filming and within half an hour people from Koramil (the military subdistrict command, ed) would show up and say “sorry you can’t film”. Or people would come from Polda (District Police) and say “you can’t film these people”. And our equipment will be taken and they would pretend that they’re looking at our tapes but they would have nothing on the tapes yet because we haven’t managed to start filming. So the contrast between survivors who were bullied or forced into silence while the perpetrators were boasting about telling stories, which were far more incriminating that anything the survivors could possibly tell, that was what made me feel this is something I’ve never seen before. It’s just like being in Germany 40 years after the Holocaust and finding the Nazi still in power.

But because I started my work in Indonesia filming on a Belgian oil palm plantation on the very brutal conditions by which our palm oil — therefore our margarine and skin cream – were produced. I came to feel this horrible situation is by no means unique and it’s not just this is an amazing case study for a country where there has been total impunity. I recognize that this is how most of the world is organized. That everything we buy, whether we’re from a country in the global south like Indonesia or in United States or wherever, everything we buy is haunted by the suffering of people who make it for us. All of them are working in places like the Indonesia of “The Act of Killing”, places where there’s been mass political violence, places where perpetrators have won and in their victory built regimes of fear that keep everybody who makes everything we buy too afraid to effectively get the human cost of what we buy included in the price tag that we pay. In that sense we all depend on Anwar and his friends for our everyday living. I don’t think we want to, but that’s the world we’ve inherited and the position we’ve inherited. And I think it damages all of us. I’ve said we are guests of Anwar’s cannibalistic feast but I would say more chillingly we are hosts of the cannibalistic feasts. Just as Jusuf Kalla says we need our thugs to do our dirty work and get things done, so too does Anwar and his friends do our dirty work. And it’s maybe dirty work that we wished the world hasn’t done. We wish the world to be organized in a different way where people are not exploited like the H&M T-shirt or the Macbook that I’m speaking to you through, but I think that’s the world that we live in and I think it damages us. I think as Anwar and his friends are damaged from building a normality on mass graves and the suffering of others, we are damaged by depending for our lives from the suffering of others.

Back in 2002-2003, I set out to expose that. The human rights community in Jakarta and also the survivors when they saw the footage I was getting with the very perpetrators I filmed — They saw them boasting in front of their grandchildren, taking me to the places that they killed. And you’ll see that material in my new film, it’s sort of similar to the footage of Anwar on the roof in the beginning where he dances, people were simply taking me to the places that they killed, showing me how they killed and demonstrating it — they say continue filming even if the survivors can’t be filmed. “Keep filming the perpetrators because you’re finding out what happened and when the viewers see them boasting, they’ll see exactly what we’re afraid of and they will glimpse the moral vacuum, the cultural vacuum that is inevitable when you have total impunity for genocide”. So I kept filming, I film every perpetrator I could find across the region up the chain of command to some retired generals in Jakarta, — General Kemal Idris was one and Herman Saren Sudiro was another, both of them have died — retired CIA officers and State Department officers living outside of DC. And everyone was boastful, even the Americans. And the State Department Guy said: “I may have blood on my hands but sometimes that’s a good thing.” He was just providing the list of thousands of names of journalists and educators and union organizers, people who were non-violent, people who were not communists necessarily at all, providing them to the army and say kill these people. For us.

Coming back to the question, this is sort of the space where the Nazi have won. This is not unusual, this is the underbelly of our reality and we all depend on it. And the other day, we had our Finnish premier, and someone say “Josh these things don’t happen in Finland but we have our own historical violence that we’re silent about” and I said, “first of all, no they do happen in Finland. Every time you buy a shirt in H&M it’s happening in Finland. Every time you put petrol in your tank it’s happening in Finland”. There’s of all of that.

And I think what makes Indonesia special, in particular North Sumatra, is the shamelessness of the perpetrators and that of course is a consequence of the fact that unlike the Holocaust the rest of the world was cheering them on while they were killing. During the Holocaust maybe the rest of the world didn’t intervene to stop it but they were opposed to it. Here the world was cheering them on and so, they’ve clung to that celebration so that they can live with what they’ve done ever since. And that is what makes Indonesia unique. Not the violence, not the terror, not the regime of fear. Indonesia is not so much worse than China or anywhere else. In fact I don’t think it’s worse than China. I’ve spent time in China and China is probably the more serious case of them all by far. The shamelessness of the perpetrators in Indonesia is what makes Indonesia such a powerful allegory for everywhere else.

Drafthouse Films
Drafthouse Films

Q: One of the questions about your film is that you interviewed a lot of people including the retired generals and up to the CIA but those people weren’t present in the film. Why was that?

A: The film is not a historical documentary of what happened then. The film is about the consequences of impunity now, the consequences on a group of people and on a whole political culture for building your normality on terror and lies. So if I want to include the story of American involvement, there will be two problems. One is that is by no decisive means we can show, we can demonstrate that America supported this, that America provided weapons and money and cheered and gave encouragement to kill more and more people. We can’t show that this was decisive. America was not the dalang (puppet master) behind this. And the reason for that of course is that America burned a lot of its bridges with the Indonesian army in the late 50s when they supported the PRRI/Permesta rebellions because they were caught red handed tried to break up the country. And Indonesia, although many of the people involved in the Permesta rebellion later returned from exile from Singapore — these are traitors, Suharto called them back. How many people in the Suharto cabinet were actually traitors trying to break up the unified republic of Indonesia and the New Order bangs on about, what is it, the Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia. It’s ironic that the actual framers of the discourse were actually traitors caught red handed trying to break up the unified republic of Indonesia but that’s the side story. My point is that the US has burnt its bridges with a lot of the Indonesian army. So they could offer support, they could say, “OK if you really move forward against the communist we will give you lots of aid, if you go against every potential supporter of the communist, the whole Indonesian left, we’ll give you even more aid et cetera. But we can’t show that that’s determinate and so it felt like if you show and tell that story you would be drawn into a historical argument about how significant was that support right. And to do that you’ll inevitable be making a film, a historical documentary about what happened in 1965 and I bet even if I did an excellent job of it no one would care. No one would care, including Indonesians. Because in fact the facts are available online and we can’t even get people to care about what’s going on in Syria right now or Egypt, much less what happened in Indonesia in 1965 at the height of the cold war. It was a decision to make a film about now. And about a regime now, and about corruption now, and the moral vacuum now.

And but therefore, I took a decision to kind of make America a character throughout the whole film, whether it’s American culture or American movies, American fashion. I think that it’s fair to say, the same person who said this wonderful thing, “Your film is about how everybody already knows about everything” is Peter Seller, he’s a friend of mine and a friend of the film. He also said, “Your film Josh is a film by an American”. It’s a film about Indonesia, and it is an Indonesian film about Indonesia, because of its huge Indonesian crew and component but it’s also an American film by an American, and I think it’s so because of the way the U.S. and the U.S. culture is haunting the whole film, also the victims are haunting the whole film. The dead haunt every frame of “The Act of Killing”.

The Human Rights Community in Indonesia said to me, one person said to me very clearly, “Josh we need a film that is an expose but an expose not of the things we don’t know but an expose of things that everybody in Indonesia somehow already knows but has been too afraid to address. We need a film that comes to Indonesia like the child in the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’, and it points to a reality that everybody knows about but is too afraid to address”. And that’s what the film somehow I think does.
And I think in that sense the film has come to Indonesia a little bit like the child in the “Emperor’s New Clothes” and it will continue to do its work as that opens up a space where people have the courage to talk about the things they can’t talk about before. And it’s done that around the world. The film almost literally holds up a dark mirror to Anwar but it holds up a dark mirror to the whole regime and it holds up a dark mirror to all of us. I’ve been amazed and heartened by the bravery and the courage of viewers all around the world to see themselves in this. This is me. Anwar is me. The society is my society and it’s something of the humanity of the way I approached Anwar.

Q: The film is powerful and disturbing at the same time as it forces the viewers to see Anwar in an intimate setting as a human, which makes viewers confront their own human flaws. Was there a time in the filming process that you stopped seeing Anwar as a human to be able to maintain your own sense of humanity?

A: No, I made a rule to myself that I would never for a second stopped seeing Anwar as a human and that was a painful rule because when you make a film about another human being when you’re not just trying to gather facts and issue a verdict to judge them, you actually have to get very close to the person. When you become close to someone of course you become vulnerable to them and that was painful because then that gave me pretty bad nightmares. And yeah, it gave me nightmares. That gave me intermittent insomnia because I couldn’t sleep because of the nightmares. And I only really got through it because of the support of my crew especially my anonymous co-director and the rest of the crew too. On the contrary when you decide, “OK, I’m going to see this man as inhuman, as a monster to retain my humanity”, the opposite is what happens. If I were to say, “This man has done something monstrous and therefore he’s a monster”, what I would be doing is simply reassuring myself that I’m not like him and I would be closing off two things. I’d be closing off any possibility of understanding how human beings do this to each other, because in fact every act of evil in our history has been committed only by human beings like us. And when people ask: How can you humanize Anwar? The answer is extremely simple. It’s three words: He is human. Period. But I would also be closing off my possibility to empathy in that moment. And empathy is not a zero-sum game. You can’t have too much of it. If I empathize for Anwar it doesn’t mean I have any less empathy for the survivors who I began this project with. On the contrary I think empathy is the beginning of love and you can never have enough of it.

Q:How much has your cultural and family background as descendant of people who escaped the Holocaust influence you in the making of the film?

A: I think it’s probably the source of the large part of my commitment. You know I’ve dedicated a decade to this work and there’ll be another year before I’m done with this because I have another film coming and I think when I had this feeling that I’m now in you know the equivalent of post-Holocaust Germany if the Nazi’s were still in power I understood I have to give this as many years as it take. And I think that way because growing up I very much was taught that the aim of all culture, certainly art, and the aim of all politics certainly and maybe the aim of all culture is to prevent these things from happening again. And not in the limited sense of never again to us but in a human sense of never again to any human being anywhere. And the tragedy of course is these things keep happening again and we have to look at the reality that although there is much that is singular about the Holocaust, every genocide is singular, and we have to look at the reality that human beings keep doing this to each other and we have to look at how human beings do this, why they do it, and the effects of this kind of evil on ourselves on each other on our society on our common humanity.

One of the things that the film I thing that have discovered, you know Anwar is the 41st perpetrators I filmed, but I lingered on him because somehow his pain is closer to the surface, and I saw there, “OK the boasting is not a sign of pride, it’s actually covering guilt”. I saw the whole film a study of the consequences of guilt and living with guilt. And therefore I sort of saw that the film is about Anwar but there’s also this whole layer about the society about the use of preman (thugs, ed) in politics, Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth), the corrupt politicians and so forth. And I saw the corruption, this sort of moral vacuum of corruption and exploitation is also perhaps a consequence of people maintaining lies that they tell themselves because they don’t want to admit their guilt. So when you have a whole society, a whole regime, committed this huge atrocity, gets away with it, is celebrated for it and rewarded for it by at least one of the superpowers and the whole Western bloc and then they produce excuse for what they’ve done, a lie. And then the perpetrator clings to that lie. That demands a downward spiral into further evil and corruption because now you have to blame the victims and survivors. That’s part of the excuse, “it’s their fault, they deserved it”. You have to de-humanize them because it’s much easier to live with having killed them, for they’re not fully human. You have to stigmatize them. You can steal their land because every time you steal their land or every time you shake them down in the market, every time you extorte them in the market, of course you are reasserting their lack of humanity. And you have to kill again. Because if the army now tells Anwar – kill this group of people – for the same reason he killed the first group, and if he don’t do it the second time, you’re admitting it was wrong the first time. Here, I stand on the shoulders of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Rumah Kaca (Glass House) where you see this colonial police inspector, collaborator, who knows what he’s doing is wrong and despairingly throws himself, justifies it to himself. Despairingly, knowingly he has to justify it and throw himself into further violence, further corruption, further evil. We see that corruption in the whole society in “The Act of Killing” and we see it inside of Anwar because we see Anwar recognizes after they burned down Kampung Kolam — they re-enact the attack of Kampung Kolam, he says, “It’s too much this is wrong. It’s the end of the world”. He’s in the jermal, on the fishing platform in the middle of the night, saying it’s “dunia hampir kiamat” (The world is nearing its end) or something and then he throws himself despairingly into finally reliving in that office the sadism of the film’s noir scenes and of course he also, in the section of Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI he says, “I know this was wrong, I know it’s a lie”. They know the film is a lie, but Anwar says it’s the one thing that makes me feel better about myself.

I think the film witnesses that downward spiral and the irony is that the cause of that evil, is not that the perpetrator are immoral evil people but actually that they’re human and they’re moral beings and they know the difference between right and wrong and it’s precisely because they’re moral not immoral that they have to lie to themselves to protect themselves from the terror of guilt.

That’s a really counterintuitive idea but it’s something that I really didn’t understand before I made the film. But you know we have this idea that everyone out there is pretty much good and there are a few people who fuck everything up for the rest of us. But in reality, everybody’s human and we all do bad things and we cover it up and sometimes those stories we tell to justify our actions, how we lie to ourselves to justify our actions, to maintain those stories and those lies lead to this downward spiral. So corruption corrupt absolutely and the first act of corruption is when they first kill.
Sometimes people say to me, “Josh, Anwar must have been really dumb to be in the film to participate in the film”. And actually I don’t feel Anwar feels tricked by the film at all in the end. He and I remain in touch all the time. At the beginning, I didn’t know how to answer that question. But now I have to say no, Anwar wasn’t dumb to be in the film. Anwar was dumb to do the killing in the first place. That was stupid, that’s when he really fucked up.

Q: How did you decide on using a participatory method in documenting the film?

I want to ask that in two ways. First of all, all documentaries are participatory. That in fact it’s a myth that you’re just filming people. That’s a lie that we tell. In reality every documentary shoot is an occasion for people to perform on camera. They’re always aware of the camera. They always try to act normal but it’s still acting or they can use the occasion of being filmed to express, to confess to something, to prolong an argument. If I film you for the day, the biggest event in your day is being filmed by me, it’s no longer your day, and in that sense we can try to get you to quote-on-quote act normal, but that would still be acting. We really create reality anytime we film anybody and it seem arbitrary to create a reality in which we pretend that I’m not there filming. In that sense all documentaries are collaborative and participatory. It’s just whether you want to show that or not. And I think it’s more honest to show it.

And then as I filmed 40 perpetrators before I met Anwar, all of them were inclined to take me to the place where they show me how they killed, boast about how they killed. And I realize they’re not really giving me testimonies. They’re not really going to a sober process of trying to remember. They’re performing. They’re telling me facts, but it’s all oriented towards a spectator. They have a spectator in mind. And the question is: Who is the spectator? Why are they performing. I film a man boasting about killing a man in front of his granddaughter. She looks on bored as though she’s seen this many times before. Ok, I can understand that he boast to his neighbors because he’s afraid of them taking reveng — the survivors. He wants them to be silent and suppressed so he boast to keep them afraid or he boast to keep people afraid so he can wield power as a gangster. But why does he boast to his granddaughter? Surely he doesn’t want his granddaughter to be afraid of him. So I started to wonder for whom are they performing in their normal lives? What is the function of this performing? For whom are they performing? For whom are they boasting? What are the effects of this boasting on the whole society? How did they want to be seen and how do they really see themselves? And I understood that if I let them show me what they’ve done in whatever way they wish, and film the process, I can answer those questions. I can produce a documentary of the imagination instead of a documentary of their everyday lives.

Q: Your film allowed creative participation for your subjects. Where did the idea of reenactments come from? 

A: The form of “The Act of Killing” as a film was my idea. And they’re not making another film. But the re-enacting the killings were something they were doing from the moment I met them. In the living room they’d start re-enacting. The first perpetrator I film had a wife. He said, “Oh let me show you how I killed the Gerwani (Women’s wing of the Communist Party) members”, because it was different from the way he killed everyone else. He called his wife in and starts acting it out on her. The next person invites me to this Snake River, sungai ular, and shows me, he and his fellow death-squad member showed how he would drag people to the river and cut off their heads, taking turn playing victim and perpetrator without my asking. I think because they know the films they’ve seen are dramas and maybe they had a notion that they should dramatize. And then they would watch the footage and then they would say, “Oh it’s not good enough”, because it doesn’t look like a movie. And I was thinking, what is going on here? What image are they trying to project? So the re-enactment came from them.

And in “The Act of Killing”, you see these very simple demonstrations, like Anwar does on the roof, evolve into more and more surreal, more and more grotesque re-enactments. And that process happened organically because of the love of American movies because of the days of preman bioskop (cinema thugs). And it happened, as you see in the film, in response to dissatisfaction with the first re-enactments. So the narrative was the same from the whole time. From the beginning, they film something — I mean I film with them — they started re-enacting. They re-enact because that’s what they were doing I didn’t ask them to. Then we’d show that footage back to them, wondering how on earth this is possible and will they recognize the moral meaning of what they have done when they saw the footage in the mirror of the film. And then they would plan what to shoot next. When I met Anwar, he looked very disturbed when I showed that footage back to him, where he’s dancing on the roof that first shoot. I think he’s very disturbed about what he did, but he dares not say it because he’s never been forced to admit it was wrong and to say “this makes me look bad, this is terrible” would be to admit it’s wrong and he’s never been forced to do that. So, he displaces that discomfort on to his clothes, he says “I look like I’m dressed for a picnic and my acting is bad”, and so began this process of more and more surreal embellishment each time he’s trying to run away from the horror that’s evoked by the previous shoot. And in that sense it’s little like the artist painting his own picture. He paints a little, steps back, looks at the canvas chooses what to paint next. We only plan one re-enactment at a time. We’d shoot it. He’d watch it and then we’d plan the next based on his reaction. Of course what’s fueling this process from the very beginning if you think about is his conscience. And in that sense it’s not a surprise in hindsight that the fictional dramatization becomes the prism through which he’d finally confronts the unspeakable of what he’s done.

Q: You interviewed 70 people and used a participatory method, but in the end you as a director had to choose which characters to present to tell their story. What are your considerations in choosing who to present in the film?

A: Well it’s not a casting process. It’s not like I was looking for the right character. I thought I cut a film out of the 40 men that I filmed before I met Anwar, plus Anwar the 41 and it would be a kind of horizontal film with lots of different people, kind of a kaleidoscopic. But the way I work — I’m not a filmmaker who looks for a great story and thinks about the best way of telling that story. I look for a theme, a location, a powerful metaphor. Boasting perpetrators was the powerful metaphor. The theme was about impunity. The location was North Sumatra. And then I looked for some methods and a few characters. Those thing become a machine to investigating and exploring that world deeply and unearthing and answering it’s most pregnant and important questions. Those parameters can evolve as the process goes on. The characters can evolve and when I lingered on Anwar was because I saw that with him — he was bringing his other friends. Because his guilt was closer to the surface he started bringing in his other friends for a collaborative process of essentially trying to cover his guilt cover his wounds with almost the cinematic scar tissue of more and more layers of performance. And I understood that this is almost a replication of what the whole regime has done. And so, I was fascinated by it and I found myself going down that rabbit hole with him. But it wasn’t like I was looking for him.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s