'Unprecedented in the history of cinema', is how The Act of Killing’s producer, Werner Herzog (you might have heard of him) describes Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary about the Indonesian genocide of the ‘60s.
Told from the present day point-of-view of the unpunished and politically dominant perpetrators as they saunter around a beautiful country, reenacting their techniques for mass murder, it is a bracing account that has been seized as a human rights tool in Indonesia and beyond. Yet even as it unearths truths previously hidden under fear and corruption, The Act of Killing is disinterested in vilifying its subjects, making the deepest revelations of the film profoundly humanistic.
Before a day’s work editing his next genocide survivor film (provisionally titled The Look of Silence) we snatched an hour with the softly spoken Harvard-educated American.
GFW: How did you overcome instinctive revulsion to the violent details the killers reenacted in front of you?
Joshua Oppenheimer: First of all, I’m filming. No one has recorded this story before and if I run away crying it goes undocumented so that gets me through the initial moment.
It became harder later. I was having nightmares for weeks. Then I stopped being able to deal with the nightmares so I hardly slept. I’d sleep not at all one night then two hours the next, then I’d sleep dreamlessly for 12 hours. It went on like that for 6 months.
It was hard for my crew too. We supported each other and brightened a very dark journey, especially the person credited as my anonymous co-director.
Why did you tell this story from the point of view of the killers?
I started working with survivors to try to make the film but we found that every time we would film together we would be stopped by the army and investigated, equipment would be taken and it was terrifying so we regrouped.
It was partly because we were filming with survivors that we kept getting stopped so someone had the suggestion of, ‘why don’t we film the perpetrators? They will boast and appear to be proud of what they’ve done’. It was striking that they went to great pains to say, ‘seem to be proud’. It was already as if the survivors had a little empathy and could believe the perpetrators were suffering under their prideful stories.
Are you worried that by aligning yourself narratively with killers you’re seen to condone what they’ve done?
No. The film is loved in Indonesia because it finally exposes the hollowness on which the whole society is built and the rocky foundations of contemporary Indonesian political life. It’s the torturers and the murderers who don’t want the film screened; the survivors and the human rights groups are pushing it.
What would you like to happen next in Indonesia? Are you hoping this is going to be a catalyst for change?
I think the film already is a catalyst for a process whereby the country is changing the whole national discussion about its past. For example, it’s no longer acceptable for perpetrators to boast about what they’ve done.
There should also be a broader political movement against corruption and the use of gangsters in economics and business. Above all I wish that people would come forward in large numbers to talk about what was destroyed. The act of killing wasn’t just about killing bodies it was also about killing hope, culture and ideals.
What would you say to people curious about your film but squeamish about watching reenactments of murder?
It’s tempting to read about a film like The Act of Killing and think it is about something far away, ultimately different from the reality in which we live. But this is actually our reality. If there’s any hope of changing it we have to not flinch and stop avoiding the darkest parts of our world.
Are you saying that it’s an act of self-improvement to be able to face up to events depicted in your film?
Broadly speaking yes, but self-improvement locates it as an issue that needs to be improved within the individual. The problems are so grave and structural that we need much more collective and imaginative solutions than just individual choices.
I filmed men who took me to a riverbank where they helped to kill 10,000 people and at the end of the shoot one of them pulled out a stills camera and asked me to take a picture of them posing with the river behind them giving the thumbs up and the ‘v for victory’ sign. That was in early 2004 and in April, the Abu Ghraib pictures came out with American soldiers doing the same signs ... What’s going on in our world that makes different sets of people think these pictures will bear a happy memory?
How did you build empathy with boastful killers?
First of all seeing the connection between them and the way we all cope with dark aspects of our reality – the inevitability of our death, global warming, relying on other people suffering in sweat shops for our economic survival… We tell stories to diminish our sense of personal responsibility and cope with ourselves. It’s a human thing.
Secondly, to say that a man has done monstrous things is not to say that a man is a monster. When you make that leap you condemn an entire life. We’re tempted to do that because we seek to convince ourselves that we’re not like that and that’s dangerous because the moment you do that you divide the world into good guys and bad guys instead of saying this is a world of human beings and we do horrible things to each other under certain circumstances.
I don’t claim to be some kind of saint but I do think I was able to feel empathy despite real hatred for the acts that these men did. And people who really love the film are people who can feel empathy too.
‘The Act of Killing’ is out in the UK on June 28 and in Canada on July 19.
For more info on the film and its release head over to theactofkilling.co.uk
Images via Dogwoof.