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Nordling Interviews Joshua Oppenheimer About His Masterpiece THE ACT OF KILLING!

Nordling here.

THE ACT OF KILLING is probably the most important film to be released this year.  It's certainly one of the most powerful, and it left me in pieces afterwards.  I can't remember the last time a documentary so profoundly wrecked me.  I want award-recognition for this movie - not out of any vanity for the filmmakers or Drafthouse Films, but because the more people who hear about this movie, the more people who will see it, and that is a genuine good.  There are few movies out there that have the possibility to actively change this world for the better, but THE ACT OF KILLING is easily one of them.

THE ACT OF KILLING opens this weekend in select theaters, including The Music Box Theatre in Chicago.  Buck LePard of the Music Box graciously gave me this opportunity to interview the director, Joshua Oppenheimer, and I must thank him from the bottom of my heart for making this possible.  Thanks also to Joshua Oppenheimer for the interview.  It was very much a real honor, and I remain floored by his film.

Nordling: This was one of the most tremendous documentaries I've ever seen. I'm stunned by the power of it.  I guess my first question is what kept you from leaping from your seat, jumping over your camera and pummeling these guys?
 
Joshua Oppenheimer: I think I understood from the outset that these men are human beings, and I set a rule for myself - as monstrous as everything they did is, I would never make the leap to say these men are monsters.  Because in doing so - not because I'm some kind of saint, and don't have those feelings - but because in feeling that, I recognize that I'm trying to run away from the fact that although I'm extremely lucky... although I would hope that I would never do what these men had done, if I had grown up as they had grown up, and in the place where they grew up. I'm extremely lucky never to have to find out.  So I understood that the moment I make the leap, from feeling like they had done something monstrous to they are monsters, I'm simply reassuring myself that I'm not like them. And in that moment, I'm making it impossible to understand the awful truth of this situation, which is that human beings do this to each other.  Killing is a quintessentially human action.  We're really the only species that does it, and if we want to have a prayer of preventing these things from happening again, we have to look at that reality directly, and look at how human beings do this to each other, why human beings do this to each other, and the effects on ourselves, on each other and our society.
 
Nordling: As I was watching the film I was thinking that there may be a different title; this could be called THE BANALITY OF EVIL, because these are just ordinary people.  They have fantasies just like every other person; they want to emulate people they see in the movies, but the aspect that really struck me the most, as you said, they could be anybody. Who knows what position anybody could be put in to become this kind of person. As you were making the film, obviously, that must have entered your mind.  Was it really important to show both their... the warmth that some of the people had to other people, as much as the horrible nature of their crimes?
 
JO: Yeah, the whole film is structured as a kind of tightrope between repulsion and empathy.  And it reflects the two different projects that are at play there - one is my project; I was entrusted by a community of survivors and by the Indonesian human rights community to expose a whole regime of fear and thuggery, built effectively on mass graves, and built on the celebration of killing as something heroic.  So on the one hand there's an expose of what happened, and the shamelessness of the perpetrators in the present, and the nature of the corruption and violence and fear of the present.  
 
On the other hand, Anwar is somehow using the film - and I think I became more and more aware of this when he started to go into his nightmares, and especially in the editing - Anwar is using the film to somehow deal with his own pain and it's there from the beginning.  You know, in a way, when he dances the cha cha cha on the roof at the beginning, he says he was a good dancer because he was drinking, taking drugs, going out dancing to forget what he did in the years after the killings.  So in that sense his conscience is there from the beginning, and I think his conscience actually is what's fueling the entire filmmaking process.  He was the 41st perpetrator I filmed.  And I lingered on him because somehow his pain was close to the surface.  And it became clear that to go through him, it became clear that the boasting is not a sign that these men feel no guilt, but the opposite - a sign that they're desperately trying to convince themselves that what they did was right, and in that sense there's a tension in the film between the expose of the banality of evil, as you said - a whole system of corruption and evil, built on evil actions, on the one hand, and a human being struggling with what he's done and what it's done to him.  And that tension mirrors the tension between repulsion, as we're repelled by the horror of what they've done and the consequences it has to the present, and empathy for a man who is trying to deal with his pain.
 
Nordling: I want to get back to Anwar in a second, because he's obviously, at least for me, the centerpiece of the film, but... I put in my review that you not only wanted to expose these people to the light of truth, but that you wanted that light to catch in some of these people's eyes.  And what I meant by that was that you wanted them to understand what they've done - obviously Anwar does - but I wanted to follow up, the gentleman whose name escapes me, the one who is telling Anwar, "Just take some pills and you'll be okay-"
 
JO: Adi.
 
Nordling: He had his own way, to me, in trying to find a way through - maybe not to justify, but to try to make peace with what he had done.  One of the moments in the film that really struck me was when he was telling someone during filming, "Oh, we were absolutely cruel.  We were cruel people." Were there any other cathartic experiences with those people, other than Anwar?
 
JO: I think you made two very interesting points that I'd like to go back to, but to answer your question directly, I think that the film was Anwar's process.  We would never plan two scenes at once; Anwar would propose a scene, we would shoot it according to his specifications with him directing it and his friends writing it as much as possible, then he would watch the scene and react to it, and propose a new scene in response to what he'd just done.  So in that sense this was an emotional journey that he was collaborating, an emotional journey for him that he helped author and direct.  And so it didn't lead to the same kind of moment of awareness for the other characters as it did for Anwar. But Adi of course comes into the film saying "What we did was wrong." And I think he's trying to assuage his own guilt by actually playing at, or by acting like a good person by saying that it was wrong, that we need truth, that we need reconciliation, that we need a Presidential apology, all of which he says when they're fishing.  Then when he ses the reenactments, and the power that the reenactment has to overturn the official history, and the official narrative of this being heroic, and to reveal that this was awful, he gets cold feet. He has second thoughts.  He doesn't want to give up the power that he would have to give up if the whole history were really turned on its head.  So he changes his mind and decides to leave the film, and he warns everybody else about what the film will do, which in fact it has done, and leaves the film.  
 
Now Herman Soto, Anwar's sidekick, the younger guy who plays in drag, he, through making the film, I think came to realize resentfully and angrily that he's been a tool for a corrupt, violent paramilitary movement that's been his bread and butter, but that the whole thing is built on something awful, on mass killing and its celebration, and I think he's become very disillusioned as a result, by spending five years digging into the rotten heart of what it's all about.  Because we filmed for five years together.  I think in a way Herman went through a real change.  I would also just say that you said something beautiful, that the light of truth - I wanted it to be in the eyes of the perpetrators too, I wanted them to see what they had done.  That's a really important point, because the film has totally transformed the way Indonesia sees its past, in exactly the way that Adi says it will, he says that this film, if we succeeds, will turn the history around 180 degrees - he actually says 360 degrees, but he means 180 degrees -  and it has done so, and I believe it has done so because it's the perpetrators themselves who are revealed to be - not only who tell what happened so it's undeniable,no one can say they're lying, that its victims were exaggerating or lying, but also because they recognize that if it were truly heroic, if the national myth of this being a heroic chapter in Indonesia's history were true, then these men would go on to be enjoying the fruits of their heroic victory in peace.  Instead they're utterly destroyed by what they've done.  Adi is a hollow shell of a human being.  And Anwar is tormented, ravaged, by what he's done.  And I think it's the fact that it's the perpetrators themselves who recognize the truth of what they've done  it's precisely that fact that has made this film so transformative in Indonesia.
And more than that, it's also why it touches all of us.  We recognize that all of our societies are built on the glorification of mass violence.
 
Nordling: It's like the metaphor of the frog in boiling water - you throw the frog in the boiling water and it hops out but if you slowly turn the heat up, the frog doesn't even know the difference.  THE ACT OF KILLING  reminded me of that metaphor, that these people have no idea that they're living in the wrong kind of way, but then, how am I to judge? I have no idea... just from how the outside looks at America.
 
JO: It's worth pausing on that for a moment, in that everything we buy, including the phone through which we're speaking, is produced in places where there's been mass political violence, where perpetrators have won, where they build regimes of fear so oppressive that the people who make everything we buy for us are too afraid to get the human costs of what they make included in the price tag in what we pay.  In that sense we all depend on the Indonesia in THE ACT OF KILLING, or in China, of a film that could be made in China like THE ACT OF KILLING... we all depend on the reality we see in THE ACT OF KILLING for our everyday living.  
 
The only thing that perhaps is unique in THE ACT OF KILLING is that the perpetrators are so shamelessly open about what they've done, and the reason they're so open, I think, is because our country supported what they did while they did it.  The whole Western world supported what they did while they did it.  So in a sense, we depend on Anwar and his friends for our everyday living, and I think that damages us, just as THE ACT OF KILLING has destroyed them.  It's not quite the same, of course, because we're all not personally guilty in quite the same way.  We're complicit.
 
Nordling: I did want to briefly ask you, how you became involved with the project.  You were involved with the families of the many Indonesians who had died, is that correct?
 
JO: Yeah, I made a film in a community of survivors actually about the exploitation they faced at the hands of a Belgium-owned oil palm plantation company. I went there to make a film collaboratively in this community about their struggle to organize a union in the aftermath of the Suharta dictatorship when unions had been illegal.  It turned out they were afraid to organize a union because their parents and grandparents had been in a union, until 1965 when they were accused of being Communist sympathizers because they were in a union, and then had been put in concentration camps by the army and then had been dispatched out to be killed.  And they were afraid that this could happen to them again.  
 
After making that film - which we did quite quickly, that was a very different kind of process - they said, "Please come back, let's make a film about what happened here in 1965," and when we got back, we found immediately that word had leaked out as to what we were doing, and every time we would try to film with the survivors about what had happened, the army would come and stop us.  They were not allowed to talk about what happened to them.  
 
Meanwhile, I'd met perpetrators in the village who were totally open and boasting, saying things that were far more incriminating than anything the survivors could have said, and I had this realization as if it were though I had walked into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust to find the Nazis still in power. And because I came to Indonesia to make a film about how something as banal as palm oil was produced, I recognized that this horrible, important situation is by no means unusual.  That this is how this situation, like the Nazis had won, is a situation all across the globe.  I knew then that I would have to give this however many years of my life that it would take.
 
Nordling: The families of the many who died, who have seen this film now, I'm sure... how do they feel about how the empathic nature of the portrayals - like how Anwar is portrayed - how do they feel about how that came out?  Were they surprised?  Or were they expecting total villainy?
 
JO: I think that just as I was surprised by it, they were surprised by it.  You know, the most passionate advocates for the film, the people that have organized the most screenings in Indonesia - there have been a thousand screenings, across the country, and the average screening size seems to be about 200 people,so it's a big screen, bigger than our average American screens.  The survivors are organizing more screenings than any other group.  I think the way that the film portrays Anwar and his friends as human beings rings true, because they're living side by side with these people.  They don't have the luxury of having them half a world away.  They're living next door to them; they know they're human.
 
One of the very first victims of the genocide, his daughter is living in exile in France.  She lost her father, she lost her country, she lost her citizenship, she became stateless.  She's separated from the rest of her family.  She watched the film, and she wrote me right afterwards.  And after talking about the film and her feelings about it, she wrote at the end of her email, "How's Anwar?"  And I wrote back, and two weeks later I get another email, asking, "How's Anwar doing now?"  Three weeks later, another email, "How's Anwar?"  
 
And I think the film has added fuel to the Indonesian human rights community's demand for a national apology, for a truth commision, for a reconciliation process, for tribunals for the leading perpetrators of the killings, but it also has provided a kind of road map - not a road map, a blueprint, or rather I should say that it's also provided a space for people to say, "Okay, we need actual reconciliation, we need to acknowledge that we need justice for the highest ranking perpetrators as a way to return these kind of crimes to the realm of the forbidden.  We also need to be able to move forward and have healing."
 
Nordling: I have two more questions for you.  One, I wanted to get back to Anwar for a bit.  Obviously the moment in the film where he's showing his grandkids that scene, and then you come out and make the statement that obviously this is acting, and the real people obviously knew they were going to die.  And how it affects him in that moment... was that the first moment for you that penetrated Anwar, do you feel, or were there other moments?
 
JO: I think there were other moments where Anwar was trembling at the recognition of what he'd done; a good example was when he plays the victim in the film noir scene just before that, what he's watching in that scene.  Or when he's in the plantation at night.  There's a moment where you see him talking about he cut off the guy's head and the eyes were left open, he didn't close the eyes and that's the source of his nightmares.  But always there's a kind of effort afterwards to somehow make it okay, to put it right.  
 
For example, the scene at the plantation at night, he's able to say, "This one killing is the source of my nightmares."  And that's a way of not looking at the reality, that actually the source of his nightmares is what he did to everybody.  Similarly, after he plays the victim in the film noir gangster scene, he then, to cleanse himself of that experience comes up with the idea of this waterfall scene, this grotesque scene at the waterfall with "Born Free."  This was the first time where I think, where he's watching, is where the bottom dropped out for him, where he realized no amount of lying, storytelling, acting, will be able to bridge the abyss between his image of himself and the unimaginable horror of what he's done.  So I think it was unprecedented.
 
Nordling: I couldn't really tell about your voice at the time when you were telling him, "Anwar, this is not right."  Was that the first time for you when you said something to him like that?
 
JO: Throughout the whole film you hear me talking to him, for example, there's the scene on the fishing platform after they burn down the village, he's in the middle of the sea on this fishing platform in the middle of the night, and I say, "Anwar, you talk about karma.  What are you afraid of?"  And you hear me confronting Adi in the car, "What if you were brought before the Hague?"  Throughout the film you hear me playing this role of trying to speak truthfully about what I'm seeing.  Early in the film when he's watching himself on the roof, where he dances the cha cha cha, and he's clearly disturbed by what he's seeing there but he doesn't dare say what the problem is.  Instead he says he needs to change his clothes, change his hair, change his acting.  And he proposes the first real fictionalized embellishment.  It's interesting to point out that the engine, or the fuel of that process from the beginning therefore can be seen to be his conscience.  He's disturbed but he doesn't dare say why he's disturbed, so he blames it on the scene.  And in that scene, I say, "Yes, but Anwar, how do you feel seeing this?"  So it wasn't the first time, but it was a very important time.
 
Nordling: The reaction of people seeing the film has been tremendous.  Tell me when you got the first phone call from Tim League.
 
JO: It was after Toronto, we had a few distributors interested.  And it wasn't a phone call from Tim League, I got an email from Tim League.  I lived in Europe, and I didn't know about Drafthouse Films, I didn't know about the Alamo Drafthouse, since I'd been living out of the country since 1997.  I get this email that says basically, "We need this film.  I will roll over and die if I don't get this film."  And, you know, if there's a distributor that passionate about your movie, you know they're going to do the very best job they can.  So that pretty much sealed it for us.
 
Nordling: He's one of my favorite people on the planet, so I'm so happy he was able to get this film the release it deserves.
 
JO: They've been really exceptional.
 
Nordling:  I have to tell you, I was profoundly moved.  I was watching this on my laptop - my wife is really reticent about watching films like this; she gets really upset.  So when I was watching it, and the moment with Anwar comes on, I'm sitting there, and I have my headphones on and she's watching TV, and I just burst into tears.  And she asks me what's going on, and I said, "You can't watch this right now."  It was a very emotional film for me to watch, and I just wanted you to know that your film is amazing, it shines the light on so much, I hope the best for it, and I am very honored to be interviewing you about it.
 
JO: Thank you for your time and interest.  I appreciate it.
 
See this movie.
 
Nordling, out.
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