Joshua Oppenheimer by Pamela Cohn

Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing explores the experience of tragedy and horror of genocide in Indonesia through imaginative recreations made with the killers themselves.

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Still from The Act of Killing.

Originally hailing from Texas, Joshua Oppenheimer now makes his home in Copenhagen, Denmark. This is where I encountered the director in November, the day after his latest film called The Act of Killing took the big prize at this year’s tenth edition of CPH:DOX, the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival.

Oppenheimer’s haunting and surreal film tells the story of Anwar Congo and his friends. With the director’s help, they make their first film, an autobiography of sorts, about their time as mass murderers. When the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965, these men were promoted from small-time gangsters who sold movie theater tickets on the black market, to death squad leaders who helped the Indonesian army kill more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals in less than a year, making it one of the most horrific—and woefully underreported—genocides in recent history. These days, Anwar is revered as a founding father of a right-wing paramilitary organization, and is a celebrity, of sorts.

Oppenheimer challenged Anwar and his friends to develop fictional scenes about their experiences of the killings, adapted to their favorite film genres, which encompass gangster films—naturally—but also Westerns and musicals. Playing both themselves and their victims, the filmmaking process catalyzes a severe emotional and psychic journey for Anwar in one of the most extraordinary performances seen in documentary, at least in my recent memory. Oppenheimer has been producing films in Indonesia for close to a decade, his work focusing on the victims of the mass genocide and their families, using what he calls “documentary of the imagination” to traverse and push the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction storytelling.

In a nod to the film’s surreality, I was sitting next to three young Indonesian men at the awards ceremony in Copenhagen the night before. These same three men were filming an interview with Oppenheimer at a café called Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus, where I met the director. I couldn’t make this stuff up. After expressing some suspicion about what they wanted from him, Oppenheimer realized they were simply young filmmakers and journalists wanting to talk to him, not representatives of the Indonesian government there to cause him trouble.

When they were done, they filmed my interview with the director, which will be shown in Jakarta. So, I decided to use an excerpt from their interview for BOMB:

Joshua Oppenheimer Do I see documentary as more fact than fiction? To answer that very complex question, I will say this: Given that we’re creating our reality with our characters, the question is, why limit ourselves to setting up a simulation of reality in which we’re not there, and create the reality that’s the most interesting, most insightful, most probing, to the questions we want to answer? It’s obvious in The Act of Killing that I was dealing with questions of the imagination. These men were killers and boasting about what they did, but somewhat haunted by what they did—we can see that from the beginning. How do they really see themselves? How do they claim to see themselves? How do they think I see them? How do they see their neighbors, the relatives of their victims? How do they see the society they built in reality, and how do they want me to see the society that they built? These are complex issues of the imagination. I wanted to give these characters an opportunity to tell us what they did in whatever way they needed to create themselves for the camera. And I was there to document that process. I created the conditions for creating a documentary of the imagination rather than a documentary of everyday life.

The thought was to look not only at the characters, but the whole regime, through a prism where we see the stories and are also able to create the second- and third-hand stories in which they imagine themselves—and fail to know themselves. We see the way they construct themselves. But I think everything we see is nonfiction. Everything is true. Something true is revealed through this process. However desperate Anwar’s fantasy, his visions of the victim, his rewards in heaven, all have a truth—through artifacts, through emotional and poetic force, through his personal process. The village massacre scene was something really problematic to shoot. It’s a misbegotten icon of this terrible time of genocide when genocide shouldn’t really have an icon. But that’s why it’s deconstructed—not only by me, but also by the participants as it’s happening.

Yuki Aditya (Aditya is the young manager of ARKIPEL, the International Documentary & Experimental Film Festival in Jakarta.) Is there anything left at all on the subject that you want to investigate further? Is there anything else about this topic of the genocide for you?

JO With this film, I’ve been very privileged to go as far as I felt I could go. That’s not always the case. I think a lot of people stop filming when they feel they have enough material to tell their story. Here, I felt that the material I was getting was of historical importance. I don’t come from a traditional documentary background; there were no rules I inherited. That’s why the film is a little different. I didn’t have normal production constraints regarding money since I had academic support. I wasn’t yet living in Denmark where there is much more professionalized support for filmmakers. So I had a lot of freedom. And one of the things I meant to do with this freedom was to go very far.

I have shot another film that I have yet to edit. It’s about a family of survivors who confront the people who killed their son. They find out about who killed their son through my work. Together we documented these confrontations, which, as you are well aware, is dangerous. But it was possible because of the trust the killers have in me and the incredible dignity and courage on the part of the brother of the victim who is the main character. I’m not quite yet sure what this film will say about the genocide. I hope it will give the feeling of how this shared trauma lives between perpetrators and survivors, and between the children of these two groups. It’s there in every Indonesian community. The Act of Killing gestures at all that and you think about it, but you don’t get the every day reality of it.

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Still from The Act of Killing.

(He turns to the three young filmmakers, speaking directly to them) I hope more Indonesian filmmakers make lots and lots of films about this. Using methods that are more innovative than what I’ve done and just as wild. Indonesian culture is nothing if not syncretic. Therefore, the possibilities for interesting ways of exploring the past are so endless. I want this film to be an inspiration for Indonesian filmmakers. (Their interview comes to an end with a polite “Thank you very much” from Oppenheimer, along with another apology for the mix-up the night before. They ask if they can stay and continue to film the interview and both Josh and I are fine with that.)

Pamela Cohn Inasmuch as Anwar and the others can talk about mass killings, they can never quite get to the point where they can understand themselves. Anwar is trying so, so hard to reconcile something. In this process, he supplies a mother lode of sheer drama and supplied you with astounding access—not just physical access, but deep emotional access, as well.

I’m very interested in your emotional journey, and if it’s not too invasive, maybe you can speak to that a bit—how you coped, basically, in very difficult situations? There’s just so much emotional pain in the story from every quarter; it must have been really hard sometimes to live with that day in, day out.

JO There is so much I can say about this. I came to this film working in a community of survivors. I think I was a little bit blind at the beginning of the process to the fact that Anwar’s conscience was there the whole time. The celebration of mass murder, even on the part of the highest officials we love to demonize like Suharto, was a desperate attempt to convince one another and themselves that what they did was right. If it wasn’t heroic, then what? Then it was awful.

So I started on this with a sense of mission for the survivors, but at the same time, I also wanted to know how my characters, as human beings, imagined themselves. Therefore, I had no choice but to treat them like human beings if I expected them to allow me to see the human beings they really are from the very beginning of the filming. That was the gauntlet I threw down before myself. And then at a certain point, Anwar and I started to become close.

From the beginning, it was Anwar’s wish to make something beautiful. All the aesthetic choices, however, had to be authentic, somehow, even when we were helping to set up scenes. It was to be authentically his vision, authentic to the society, authentic to the culture. They were his choices to make along with his friends. They had to be as magnificent and beautiful as I could make them.

PC Why was that aesthetic of beauty so important?

JO If it’s not beautiful, it positions the audience to have a very easy time to sneer at them, to laugh at the tackiness. When we laugh, it disarms us, because humor has a levelling effect: we are on the same level. And we are happy. And then something that starts off as funny morphs into something utterly beautiful, shocking, or completely horrifying, and it’s unexpected and takes our breath away. And one of the reasons for this is that the laughter disarmed us. Another example: Anwar’s vision of redemption. Near the end of the film, just as Anwar is starting to really fall apart, he imagines a fantasy of heaven at giant waterfall. It’s tacky - the characters are glowing ever so slightly - but it’s also undeniably majestic. This comes in a moment in the film when we’re all very vulnerable, and so it has a force. To be lured into Anwar’s world, we have to enter it. To make this film, I had to enter Anwar’s world. That’s a good analogy for my emotional process.

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Still from The Act of Killing.

At some point, as Anwar started to go more and more into his conscience and into his nightmares, I felt, somehow, that I was a fellow traveler with him through all this, into all those dark places. But I had to keep my eyes open in order to allow him to go through all this and just be with him on that journey, as a support, certainly, but more importantly, as a witness. That’s how I felt more and more towards the end of making it and how one should feel towards the end of the movie. At the beginning of the film, when he’s on the roof dancing, Anwar tells us that he’s trying to forget all this stuff. But if he’s trying to forget, why would he choose to be in a film where he’s re-enacting all of it? Acting for him became a way of trying to contain the trauma, to make it okay. He hoped that if he could successfully make a beautiful movie about mass killing, he could make it okay for himself.

But, of course, he can’t. He can’t make a beautiful movie about mass killing. In that sense, the film re-enacts the regime’s process of repression and release with the people they mean to control.

PC This makes me curious then about how long it took you to find Anwar? This film would not have been possible in its current incarnation if it weren’t for Anwar. You encountered someone exactly when they were ready to crack. And he wanted to crack since the pressure was getting to be too much. In terms of your work with victims, it must have felt, oftentimes, that you had to re-question how you could approach someone who is not the victim, in fact, but the perpetrator.

JO Anwar was honest in the sense that he was not defensive. I filmed many killers before I met Anwar. He was probably around the fortieth one I had encountered in my work in this particular area of northern Sumatra. That was a long casting process. It destroys one to take lives, or at least a certain part of oneself. You can be fine if you’re very defensive or dishonest about that part of yourself.

PC He has his own sort of victimhood. He kept slipping in and out, but I did start to see him very much as a victim of his own demons, a massive struggle with the self. Traditionally, this is one of the most powerful literary devices to tell a compelling story. Did you, too, have this reaction or experience where you felt Anwar was slipping between the roles of victim and perpetrator? He becomes an amalgam of both, essentially.

JO Anwar was drawn to play the victim almost from the very beginning. When he’s dancing the cha-cha on his roof with a piece of wire around his neck, it’s right after he’s demonstrated how the wire was pulled to kill someone when he re-enacts the victim getting strangled.

Why does he act that role instead of the killer’s? Because what he sees when he kills is the victim’s face, what he knows is how the victim’s face looks.

PC This sort of unlocks the mystery of this process a bit, doesn’t it?

JO Yes. And one would think that that should be the beginning of empathy. But it’s not necessarily. Anwar plays the victim, and there’s this double-ness that is totally disarming. You want to empathize with him because you want to believe he’s empathizing with his victim. But you’re not sure. And then it dawns on you that it’s the killer re-enacting his own crimes. It’s a feeling of vertigo, for lack of a better word, or this concept you mentioned of feeling like you’re slipping in and out of something. All the scenes are constructed to, hopefully, give the viewer this sensation.

But knowing it’s real means we have to protect ourselves to a certain extent. I think the way in which this film is shot mirrors my own experience as much as I could possibly make it so. In both the long and short version, I meant to re-create this emotional pendulum where you do feel empathy but you also feel repulsion, enchantment, and horror, absurdity and something extremely serious.

PC What’s interesting though is that you also keep focus on a couple of protagonists not only because they’re Anwar’s friends, but unlike him, they really mean to stay comfortably ensconced in their delusion. You could have made a much more diffuse film. There are a lot of documentaries on genocide that are quite clinical and cold as if this is the only way we can deal with it, antiseptically. But you go in the complete opposite direction making it as bizarre as possible.

JO The core of nonfiction filmmaking is that somehow you are creating a reality with your characters the moment you film them. You are never a passive observer documenting “what’s there”. That’s why it’s fundamentally creative. Films often don’t do justice to the process one must go through to make them. In the reality you’re creating, there is something you want to explore. You may not be sure what it is exactly. I worked with many gangsters around North Sumatra that had been involved with killing, different death squads based in different movie theaters since all the gangs had a movie theater where they were based.

Gangsters are competitive with one another. Naively, I thought they were all like brothers, but they spend a lot of time undermining each other and hoping to cause someone else problems. So initially, I was pitted one against the other by them telling me that if I shot with so-and-so, then I couldn’t shoot with them, etc. So in having to choose, I chose Anwar and his death squad. I wasn’t sure how far he’d go in the beginning. I developed deep relationships with him and the people around him as much as I could (or they would allow) and then went back to Anwar again when I felt he was going to be the one to really stay close to. There were also practical considerations to deal with, what was possible, what was safe, lest the film just get completely stopped by authorities for political reasons. There was always the chance that the whole thing would be stopped.

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Still from The Act of Killing.

PC It’s interesting the tricks one’s mind plays while watching this film. I had a hard time locating myself at times. I found that I, literally, did not understand what people were saying, or what it really meant. It was that surreal. The beauty in which the way the film is put together really cannot be overstated for that very reason.

JO In historical documentary, we’re used to words have some kind of authority, presenting facts. But in the case of the Indonesian genocide, there’s not enough remaining evidence to have, say, some forensic scientist come in and say what really happened in order to push against perpetrators’ denials (which might be a conventional source of dramatic conflict in a documentary). Also, these perpetrators are not denying, but boastfully celebrating! So the conflict must come internally, from the fact that the perpetrators don’t believe their own words of celebration. They’re lying to themselves, and they know that, too. So everyone is uncomfortably disoriented. That’s why it makes perfect sense that you would feel that way as a viewer. Film is not necessarily good with words. Film is good at imagery, subtext.

PC What was the most vulnerable moment you can recall in the time shooting the film? I would imagine there would have been at least a few times where you felt you had lost your way or were having difficulties dealing with what was coming out of the process of working with Anwar and the others.

JO As I said, there was a deeper and deeper bond forming with Anwar through the years, especially since I really became focused on him due to the fact that others wouldn’t cooperate or work with one another. Going deep into my main protagonist before broadening the film a bit was something that happened more out of necessity than anything else.

There was a period of time around 2006-2007 where I started to have deeply guilty feelings about Anwar. I felt, somehow, that I was betraying him. We became close, and he was opening up to me, but I hadn’t really shown everything around him and hadn’t been able to document the paramilitary movement or broaden the scope of the story. I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to. I was already in 300 hours of footage; I was obligated to make a film! I remember wishing at the time that the film would have no effect on anyone’s life, and that was a clear indication that I had lost my way a bit.

When we shot the gangster scenes, they were really brutal. You can especially see this in the longer version where there are four rounds, the last where Anwar plays the role of the victim. It was a real descent into hell for him. I felt so implicated because suddenly we were re-living something, and it felt very, very real. And it felt like the flimsiest cover that it was being played as a gangster scene. I had nightmares and was experiencing intense feelings of guilt. To go really deep into that kind of pain just made me feel dirty, really awful. So much of what eventually constituted the story of the film didn’t exist yet. It was a really hard time. I couldn’t sleep throughout that period which lasted about six months.

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Still from The Act of Killing.

The last scene with Anwar on the rooftop was the last scene I filmed with him. Of course, he is performing to a certain extent, as he has been the whole time for my camera. He’s been filmed a lot at that point and knows a lot about the camera. But it’s a very real moment. I wasn’t really prepared for what was to come when we went up there. “This is where I always killed and tortured people. I know what I did was wrong, but I had to.” This is what he says and so I had to ask him the question, Why? He had his back toward me, and I, at first, didn’t realize that he was choking, and that’s why he doesn’t answer me nor did I think he even heard me. That question I ask has been lifted from the soundtrack because he was already choking when I asked him that question, and I didn’t see that at the time. To clarify this word choke: the sounds Anwar makes in this scene imitate the sounds his victims made as he killed them, expressing in phantom ways how it might have felt to have your neck garroted with a wire and pulled tight until it cuts into your windpipe. The choking that Anwar experiences is exactly that, and it is a terrible sound, indeed.

But then he perversely and tragically answers the fucking question! He chokes and then he sits down, stands back up, pulls himself together and says, “Why did I have to kill?” So it sounds like he’s asking the question instead of having been asked. That was a terrible moment. I didn’t know what was happening to him. And then he starts to choke again. I didn’t know what to do. To comfort him by saying “it’s going to be okay”, would be dishonest. It’s not okay, so there was no way I could have told him that.

There was another line that was in the film for the longest time that, for me, illustrated Anwar’s feeling of being trapped by his awful past and that I cut at the last minute. He says, “I don’t know if God is angry with me,” fairly begging me to tell him that God isn’t mad at him. I cut it because the scene is much more painful when he just leaves the space, having the same expression on his face as the previous scene when he’s, again, hoping for something from me. But in reality, before he leaves, he goes to the far end of the roof, sits down and starts choking a third time. This third time he’s choking, he’s trying to cross his legs. He is completely and utterly not in control at this moment of anything, including his own body. He is trying to cross his legs elegantly, but can’t. My instinct to shoot wide works, because in close ups all of this would have been lost to the viewer. I had to keep my distance.

That space that Anwar was occupying belonged to the dead. It’s filled with ghosts. I could not walk in that space with him. The boundaries between Anwar as a person and the political regime have been dissolved. He’s holding it all. I could not have had any kind of political ending; it had to solely reflect Anwar’s psychological state. When he’s just standing still on the stairs in the final shot, this is accomplished. In the shorter version, I just stay as he leaves, and the final shot is the empty bag shop and the traffic going by on the street outside. In that version, it’s a bit more ambiguous. Perhaps, the dissolution of that boundary is not quite complete. The shot on the stairs is much more explicit in the way he’s become entrapped between the memories of the deeds of the past and his current existence in which he’s escaped justice—but he hasn’t escaped punishment. That space of the dead is his space, he is of that space, because he’s also died somehow. It’s a terrible thing to witness that in someone you’ve come to care about. It’s a very difficult scene for me to watch, as well. The final statement is the understanding that he’s in a total limbo. And that’s where he’ll probably stay for the rest of his life.

For more on Joshua Oppenheimer and The Act of Killing, including upcoming screenings, visit the film’s website.

Pamela Cohn is a Berlin-based film producer, curator, freelance programmer and arts journalist.

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