LONG READ: Joshua Oppenheimer on The Act of Killing

Joshua Oppenheimer. Photo by Daniel Bergeron.

Joshua Oppenheimer. Photo by Daniel Bergeron.

At the tail end of last year, as the film was screened in Malta, I had the privilege of interviewing Joshua Oppenheimer, one of the directors of the blistering, Oscar-nominated – and otherwise award-winning – documentary The Act of Killing. A print-friendly, compressed version of the interview can be read here, but with Mr Oppenheimer’s permission, I’m reproducing the full transcript of our interview below – hours before this year’s Academy Awards get underway. Enjoy.

First of all, congratulations for making it to the list of 15 documentaries at the forefront of the Oscar race. How does that feel?

It’s really great for film to come as far as it’s come, and to be in the company of such other wonderful films. But I think above all, even making it to the shortlist means that it made big headlines in Indonesia, where the downloads for the have increased by something like five-fold (the film is made available for free download in Indonesia). So any attention from the Academy is really constructive in Indonesia, so that’s what I’m the most pleased about.

Did you expect the film to have such an impact, as you were making it? Because surely you were aware of the fact that you were making something that could have a profoundly political, and even perhaps historical, impact. So I was wondering if maybe all of that was running through your mind as you were making it.

Well I think that the film itself… I guess you saw the 159-minute edit of the film, right?

Yes.

Yeah, in that cut of the film in particular the boundaries between the scenes that they’re making and our film, if you like, blur together, and our film becomes a kind of apocalyptic fever dream, an apocalyptic vision, and I think that to create a work that’s so unsettling and dark, of course on sme level you have to have a pretty bleak view, right?

On the other hand you could never sustain the energy to make such a work if at some level you weren’t also hopeful. The hope is that by forcing people or inviting people to look at the most painful aspects of who were are as human beings, that we would then somehow be able to confront our biggest problems. So there’s a kind of optimism that underpins the whole effort. Now I always had this hope, always had this sense, that my task was to create something that forces this confrontation with the truth.

But when you spend eight years making a film you have ample time for self-doubt, and you start to wonder if it’s gonna make a difference. And you know, when I started making the film Indonesians were barely using mobile phones, but by the time I was done they were on Blackberries and on Twitter and so on. So I said to myself: if Indonesia is moving on, why can’t I move on?

Maybe one of the reason for this change is that there’s a whole younger generation of Indonesian professors and academics coming into their careers now, who want to create an Indonesia which is genuinely democratic – they want to have control over their future, which should be case in any democratic society. Nor are they paralysed by fear of direct retribution. And they’re not invested in the status quo because they didn’t form part of the military regime – they’re too young for that.

So I think the film was also allowed to have the impact it’s had because this time has elapsed.

This is in fact what survivors and human rights groups suspected might happen when they saw the footage of the perpetrators boasting that I had originally filmed back in 2003. They told me to continue filming the perpetrators in particular – “you’re on to something terribly important”.

Behind-the-scenes shot of The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer (far right). Pictured in car, left to right, Indonesian death squad members Safit Pardede, Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry.

Behind-the-scenes shot of The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer (far right). Pictured in car, left to right, Indonesian death squad members Safit Pardede, Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry.

They told me that every Indonesian who sees this will be forced to acknowledge first of all that they’re all afraid, why they’re afraid and what lies at the rotten heart of this whole regime.

“Make film about the perpetrators, document and analyse their boasting, and you’ll create something that comes to Indonesia like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes: forcing everyone to confront the realities that they’ve hitherto found too painful to address.”

How much has actually changed in Indonesia since you started filming?

There was a significant political change in 1998, and it actually became possible to make such a film as ours in the first place. Before that, we would have been under a certain amount of surveillance which would have made it impossible for us to make it.

But I don’t think there has been anything like a kind of steady march towards increasing openness. On the contrary, in 1999 a new president tried to take a stance against corruption and tried to apologise for the genocide and for these things, he was thrown out by the military.

Now there’s another election coming up in next year and the likely winner is a man called Prabowo [Subianto]– an army general who has the dubious distinction of being the first person ever on a US State Department black list for masterminding torture and murder in 1998 against student activists, ethnic Chinese and East Timori citizens.

So all I can say is that while, partly thanks to The Act of Killing, there’s an openness to start a national conversation about the past, and the thuggery in the present, at the same time the regime is sliding backwards.

Every president since Soharto – except for the one who was thrown out in 1999 – would hold meetings with his high-ranking ‘preman’ (gangsters) to discuss skimming oil. Indonesia is an OPEC country, and here you have a gangster running the nation’s oil imports and exports. This guy skims around 10 to 15% of all the oil which goes through Indonesia – he steals it, then pays off the Indonesian president.

Every day in office there’s a meeting with the president to sign off a certain amount per barrel of oil. It used to cost one dollar and now it’s down to 60c – which still amounts to a total of $480 a day over a 10-year period. This is the beating heart of a military dictatorship which will never stop.

Although there’s been change on a superficial level – there’s talk of clamping down on gangsterism and corruption – until this high-level corruption stops, nothing will ever change. Pancasila is certainly not afraid of protest. Recently tens of thousands of people – among them sweatshop workers – were out striking out on the streets, and Pancasila was on the front lines hacking at the workers with machetes.

And they were all paid by a garment sweatshop that makes clothes… both for us, and Indonesians.

As you set out to make the film, were you at all apprehensive about the ‘heart of darkness’ you would by necessity have to confront? How did you prepare yourself, psychologically, for the experience?

It was difficult and painful. The very first perpetrator I filmed was from a plantation village where I started this journey. After I filmed him he showed me how he killed hundreds of plantation workers by beating them up until they were unconscious and drowning in mud. He demonstrated this in his living room in front of his wife and daughter. I was shocked, mostly because of the smiling, boastful tone with which he told the story. I walked across the road to this little village, back to the house I was staying in. About an hour later his wife shows up at the door with plate of fried bananas. And I felt profoundly afraid that she had come to my home… this woman I’ve just seen sitting next to her husband as he performed that horrific re-enactment.

And she came with a plate of fried bananas, and I accepted it, very politely, and got rid of her as quickly as I could, and I threw the bananas away. I felt that anything she made was tainted. And afterwards as I saw her granddaughter playing right in front of my house I started to think about that, and I began to regret having thrown the bananas away. I realised how easy it was for me to treat the whole family as radically ‘Other’ and tainted. And I decided I would never do that again, that I would try to empathise, to understand. Because I realised that the main reason I did that was to reassure myself that I was not like them. And while I hope that I would never make the same decision as Anwar made if I were growing up in the 50s, I know that I’m extremely lucky to never have to find out.

Ever since, I insisted that I would let myself become close to Anwar. Doing that meant the process was all the more difficult. I don’t know how to make an honest film about another human being without being close to them. And so I tried to become close, and as I became close it became harder and harder to conceal my feelings. For example you know the scene in which Anwar butchers the teddy bear? That scene was so horrific to film. When I was filming that I was only a metre away from him and to my alarm, I noticed that I was crying – it just caught up with me. Then at some point we had to stop to adjust a microphone or a light or something and Anwar noticed that I was crying and he asked, “Josh, are you okay?” and I said “yes” (though I wasn’t, really). And he said “let’s continue then”. And in my mind that was the start of eight months of very difficult nightmares…

Still from The Act of Killing. Photo by Carlos Arango de Montis.

Still from The Act of Killing. Photo by Carlos Arango de Montis.

It was painful. And when Anwar saw the finished film, he cried. Then he was silent for a while, and then he finally said, “the film shows what it’s like to be me”. And I was relieved. I’m relieved to finally have been able to show what these things have meant for me.

And he and I remain in touch – I wanted to make sure that there’s no physical reprisal against him after the film. And there hasn’t been – they’ve just blamed me. Which is fine, it just means I can’t go to Indonesia safely… but it’s good that they’re blaming me and not him. I think the other reason I remain in touch is to try and understand the situation beyond just the film. And I may never quite figure it out…

The scene with the teddy bear – which stands for a baby in that particular re-enactment – certainly shows a point of no return…

Yeah, it shows just how damaged Anwar is. The re-enactment becomes a kind of cinematic prism through which Anwar comes to recognise the meaning of what he did. But it’s not a linear journey to that point… it’s more like a pendulum that is swinging wildly, or a seismic vibration that grows greater and greater in amplitude.

For example, he goes into that scene as an act of despair – he moves from that re-enactment in which they’re burning down the village. He starts to feel remorse after that, and in response he despairingly turns to the worst parts of himself… as though to say, “yes it is still me and I did this and I can still live and be this”. And it hurts him, it’s painful, he hates playing that scene. We see him lying in bed with that wind-up chicken and singing the most self-pitying song… and through that self-pity he comes to play the victim. He doesn’t come to play the victim knowingly, but out of pure… simple… he’s just the victim. And then through playing the victim he experiences real trauma, and to wash the trauma away he proposes that ‘cleansing scene’ by the waterfall, this phony redemption… and I was so disappointed with him. Because I had hoped that maybe he’ll be waking up to something. And that happened again and again but instead he chose to run away – 180 degrees, completely the opposite direction. And I felt that the film had to faithfully show that. It might be easier to take if it was about a man who was coming to terms with himself… but rather, he’s zig-zagging – zig-zagging frantically.

To put it in a more concise way: the film bears witness to how the maintaining of the lies we tell ourselves leads to a moral vacuum. A downward spiral of evil and corruption. You now have to blame your victims – because that’s the excuse, they deserved it – and that allows you to oppress them, and you have to kill again. Because if the army tells you okay, for the same reason you killed the first group, now kill this second group… if you refuse the second time it’s equivalent to admitting it was wrong the first time. And so the reason you need to maintain the lie is not because you’re a sadistic monster, but because you’re human… and being human, you’re moral, and you know what’s right and wrong, and you don’t want to live with the tormenting effects of guilt.

You’ve mentioned previously that the film is about ‘a failure of the imagination’ – with particular reference to the way the West reacted to the massacre back in 1965. This may be a bit of a trivial comparison to make, but given how it’s more or less taken for granted that contemporary Hollywood is operating on a dearth of the imagination, would you say we are ‘at risk’ of this happening again?

Yeah, I think the film shows not the danger of violence in movies, but escapism, right? And our problems become more intractable as our crises deepen. We then become more eager to escape from our realities. And escapism, denial, is what inevitably leads us to a moral and cultural vacuum.

And I think… yes, I think as our crises – ecological, economic, demographic, political – deepen, the dangers of escapism become critical.

I mean, Anwar says that he got his methods of killing from movies, and while I believe that’s true to a degree, I don’t think it’s definitive – I mean I’m pretty sure he would have found ways of killing people bloodlessly without watching movies. What he does say… when he talks about coming out of Presley musicals, dancing across the streets, intoxicated by his experience of cinematic identification… and killing ‘happily’… Now, Elvis Presley musicals are not violent. They’re just dumb. But that’s the problem. So I think you’re right, I agree with you.

I suppose it’s more about the iconography of Hollywood, rather than anything to do with content. Which brings me to the more stylised moments in your film – particularly the central musical sequence, which appears to be primarily spearheaded by Herman Soto… speaking of wish-fulfillment and so on… was there any particular reason why Herman Soto insisted on being in drag during the re-enactments (I’m going to assume it was his decision…)?

Ah! Well the answer to that is rather prosaic. Herman was in a theatre troupe until 2003 – the paramilitary Pancasila had a theatre troupe, and being a military theatre troupe, all the roles were played by men – they would have men playing  women’s roles, like Shakespeare’s Globe back in the day, or like Japanese Kabuki theatre – and Herman would often play the comedic storyteller role, and Anwar loved that, and thought it would be wonderful for the film.

So he cast him to play the role of the femme fatale, a communist’s daughter who takes revenge on Anwar in that jungle sequence – a scene inspired by Anwar’s on nightmares, where we see Herman ‘feeding’ Anwar his own liver or also in the studio, when he’s seen ‘cutting off’ Anwar’s head.

Then there were two musical numbers. We filmed one – ‘Born Free’ – which you see in its entirety, and which came in the production in the same order that it appears in the film. As I said earlier, I was deeply disappointed that, right after playing the victim, Anwar proposed this grotesque scene in which the victims thank him for sending them to heaven.

Still from The Act of Killing. Photo by Joshua Oppenheimer.

Still from The Act of Killing. Photo by Joshua Oppenheimer.

Then the second number, which was filmed on the set of the ‘giant goldfish’, was a staging of one of Anwar’s favourite songs – Peggy Lee’s ‘Is That All There Is?’, where he substituted the spoken verses from the song with spoken verses from his own life.

And it was a strange… mysterious…. the ‘giant fish’ had been a seafood restaurant until the mid-90s (it failed during the Asian economic crisis).

As we passed by it one day Anwar said: “It’s beautiful – it’s embodied all this hope but now it’s just sad, it’s all gone wrong, just like my life.” He said it was perfect for the Peggy Lee musical number. But being a ballad, it was very long, so we interspersed these strange, dream-like sequences throughout – like the scene in the storm where Herman sings about the movies, and directs the dancing girls, shouting “more hot, more hot!” I would say that these moments in fact embody the poetic core of what the movie is all about. About how we as human beings get lost in our fantasies, or our stories.

It was a case of either/or for me. I could either just use the musical numbers by themselves – which were surreal and funny, but a little thin – or I could use these moments, which would in fact be more representative of what the film was about. Then I realised that I had no choice – I had to use these poetic moments, and I decided I would employ them to mark chapters across the movie. And it changes in tone, from sunny and bright to increasingly dark and frightening throughout the course of the movie, reflecting the film’s emotional journey.

Something I also noticed was that Anwar appears to be very sensitive to the art of filmmaking, or at least storytelling. For example there’s that scene in which he’s explaining to Herman that you can’t make a film tense all the time – that you have to insert moments of humour and so on. Did just you stumble upon this intuitive quality that he had, as you were making the film?

I loved that, yeah I loved that. I was always so charmed by it! He was a sort of cinephile, or at least a cinephile of those low-end Hollywood products that made their way to the region in the 60s. He would present himself as the authority. And I love that everything he said about the film was true. And it was proven to be true by The Act of Killing. He said in the film you need a love interest – which of course we had, and I’m not just talking about the fictional relationship with Herman in drag and so on but also the dynamic between Anwar and Herman themselves – they were like a old bickering married couple, they were ‘married’ to each other in a way. I had actually filmed some funny scenes with Herman and his actual wife, in the part of the film where Herman is running for office. But it was imp for me not to use these scenes. Because within the logic of the story, Herman can’t have a wife… he’s ‘married’ to Anwar.

So everything Anwar said about the film is true to the film – you know, it can’t be tense all the time, needs comic relief, a love interest… and he also said that this film will attract so much attention because no other film has ever used the real killer to play himself… and that is, of course, why it has attracted attention.

And he makes this wonderfully poignant point, doesn’t he, when he says, “why do we watch films about the Nazis? To see power and sadism.” And yes, that’s exactly why we watch films about the Nazis. You cannot say it better.

One last question: I’ll understand if you don’t really want to talk about it for fear of spoiling its ‘magic’, but I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about that final, uninterrupted shot of Anwar coughing and dry heaving, which appears at the very end of the film…

Well I’ll tell you the story to that shot. Going back to the first time I met Anwar… he was actually the 41st perpetrator that I filmed. I spent around two years filming them. All of them showed me how they killed boastfully, and I handed over some of this material to the Human Rights Commission so they could use it as evidence.

The very first day I met Anwar was the day he took me to the roof and danced the Cha Cha Cha [a sequence appearing early on in The Act of Killing], and then I spent five years with him, dramatizing, in a sense, everything that went on in that office. And I never could get back to that office: and I tried, time and time again, to gain permission.

What I wanted was for him to walk me through that office and tell me, “this happened here”; “we did this and that here”… but when we filmed for the first time he was remembering things as we went along and it came out rather incoherently.

Then, six months later and at the tail-end of the shoot, we met with some of the highest-ranking political leaders of the country. I saved this to the end because I knew that they could question why I was there and stop me from making the rest of the film. It could have endangered us and our production. And during the final day of that final shoot, I’m walking down that street… and I knew a shop had opened up on the site just that day, and the owner of the shop was a Chinese-Indonesian – he knew exactly what had happened there and was happy to let us come in and film.

I asked Anwar to go back to that office, walk through it quietly and tell me what happened. I told the cameraman: “There’s only one rule – we’re going to stay against the wall, we’re not going to step into the roof terrace at all, because that space belongs to the dead.” Because the first time we were walking on the roof felt like we were dancing on the dead, just like Anwar did.

And so we walk in. Anwar is trying to slowly walk upstairs and tell me what happened on my roof. I’m keeping my distance – we’re not doing any zooms or close-ups – and maybe Anwar felt I was holding back, I don’t know… when suddenly he’s caught completely off-guard by this dry heaving.

I felt it was awful. He had no idea what was happening, I had no idea what was happening… I wanted to put down the camera, come up to him say, in that stupid way we Americans do sometimes, that it’s all ‘going to be okay’, but then I realised… oh no, this is what happens when it’s really, really not okay. And when someone realises that it will never be okay.

The final shot of him standing by stairs was the moment that I realised I can never film this man again. If it were up to me, I would want to just get out of there as soon as possible. Get out of there and go home.

Why doesn’t he go down the stairs? What’s he waiting for on the landing? He must know that will never be free of this.

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