Joshua Oppenheimer

Joshua Oppenheimer film still

LWLies meets the director of The Act Of Killing, an extraordinary, harrowing and bizarre film about the life and memory of a government-sponsored murderer.

Since its premiere at the 2012 Telluride Film Festival, Joshua Oppenheimer's extraordinary documentary, The Act Of Killing, has been shocking and scintillating festival audiences across the globe. Werner Herzog and Errol Morris are superfans, having both chosen to hop on board as executive producers. The film chronicles the day-to-day life of a charming, silver-haired, government sanctioned executioner named Anwar Congo whose methods and actions played a pivotal role in a military coup in Indonesia in the mid '60s. LWLies met the articulate and passionate Oppenheimer at the 2013 Sheffield Doc/Fest where we spoke about the difficulties of sympathising with the devil.

LWLies: How have audience been reacting to The Act Of Killing?

Oppenheimer: Some people, the vast majority of the audience everywhere is very, very moved. And they're really, really emotional. They're coming out trembling, crying. After a 45 minute long Q&As they're still a mess. The film of course holds a very dark mirror up to Anwar, the perpetrators and their whole regime. The moment the viewer sees even a small part of him or herself, the whole fantasy of a world divided into good guys and bad guys comes crashing down. In the case of us here now, everything touching our bodies is haunted by the suffering of the people who make it for us. And, those people are always working in factories located in places where there's been mass political violence, where the perpetrators have won and used their victory to keep people who make things for us afraid.

So do we in some sense depend on these people?

In a sense yes, people like Anwar and his friends keep the human cost of production out of the price tag. I think we know that, and in that sense we are perpetrators. The reality in The Act Of Killing isn't some far off country. But actually the underbelly of our normal lives. Also maybe the way the film plays with cinematic fascination and comments on it, that you're watching violent cinema, but the real world reference is in the image, it's in the killer, it's in the location. We pay money to see people getting their heads blown off in beautiful ways, but normally it's just fake. Viewers feel implicated, and at the end of the film we see that Anwar may have escaped justice, but he hasn't escaped punishment: they're all devastated in different ways. We withdraw from the world through stories, and the most pernicious and ubiquitous story is that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys, and I'm a good guy. Then there are viewers who don't want to empathise with Anwar at all, who feel it's totally wrong to do so, who never overcome the resistance that all viewers would feel. They will reject him as a monster as he feels no empathy. That's not to blame them, it's just that some people don't want to go there.

Do you feel empathy for Anwar?

Of course I do. I think empathy is not a zero sum gain. If I empathise with the perpetrator it doesn't mean I have any less empathy for the survivors. On the contrary. I made this film in collaboration with the survivors. Empathy for the perpetrators only means there's more empathy for everyone else. Empathy is the beginning of love. The hardest part of making this film was getting close to a man who was telling me such awful things. As I became more intimate with him, I was able to tell him what I thought of those things. It wasn't like I was pretending it was good. When you identify with someone and let yourself be close to someone, you become vulnerable to that person. It was painful to hear what he had to say and it gave me nightmares and insomnia. I was a mess for quite a while.

Do you think empathy was a necessity to get the film made?

Yes, simply speaking. I don't think you can make an honest film about a human being and all their complexity without empathy and without being close to that person. You can make a judgmental satire, but not an honest movie.

The film has been compared to Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, although your interview techniques are very different. Where Lanzmann is quite combative towards his subjects, you take things more slowly. Were you ever trying to trick your subjects?

I think the real kinship with Shoah is a looking backwards in memoriam to what was destroyed. Instead of what so many post-genocide films do in the quote-unquote less important regions of the world, where we want to hear about the problem but we want to swiftly move on and assure ourselves that we have nothing to do with it, we offer the viewer a false catharsis. The hope of reconciliation, which is forward-looking, has nothing to do with the enormous pile of wreckage you get when you look backwards. Shoah is a backwards-looking film, and I think The Act Of Killing is a backwards-looking film also.

It's looking at the past and the disaster in the present rather than offering hope for the future. Somehow I thought that I was entrusted by the survivors with a mission of world historical importance, of documenting what had happened, but also exposing the nature of a whole regime built on the celebration of atrocity. In that sense, you could say that I felt that I was not in solidarity with them as a paramilitary group. As I came to understand what had happened in north Sumatra in terms of the killings, I was asking questions that were all in the present. Why are these men boasting? What is the function of their boasting? For whom are the boasting? How do they want me to see them, how do they want to world to see them, and how do they see themselves? Anwar was the 41st killer I filmed. I lingered on him because the engine of the reenactments was Anwar's own conscience.

How much is The Act Of Killing a film about cinema and representations of reality.

It's a film about the stories we tell ourselves in order to justify our actions. The stories we tell ourselves to run away from the most painful aspects of our reality. And because I'm a filmmaker, that's just how I work. Serendipitously, Anwar and his friends were film lovers. I think that it's about the way film viewers are implicated at the level of fascination. It makes us think about what we're doing when we watch, when we tell stories.

Read the LWLies review of The Act Of Killing.

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