Joshua Oppenheimer, director of the eye-opening and Academy Award-nominated documentary The Act of Killing, sits down with 4:3 editor Jeremy Elphick for an interview about the film and its almost immediate legacy.
Jeremy Elphick (E): To start off, I wanted to ask why you choose to open the film in the way that you do – with Anwar and Herman surrounded by dancers in a waterfall, giving that false sense of security and kind of misleading the viewer about the films content, in a way. I know in the commentary you said it makes us open to them, because they’re loveable and then suddenly we’re in the vulnerable position?
Joshua Oppenheimer (O): Indonesia is always shown as a tropical paradise and to open with this image of beauty and peace and happiness being constructed – we hear a voice shouting “beauty, peace, happiness; this is real natural beauty” – to show that kind of iconic image of cheery optimism that defines the Hollywood musical and then to hear them call cut and see that the dancing girls are all freezing cold, I feel this opens the film with the image with a lie being constructed, and this is a film about how we construct lies and the consequences of the lies that we tell.
Most people know Indonesia as Bali and imagine it as a peaceful tropical paradise, and of course it’s a tropical paradise built on top of mass graves. It’s telling that last winter in Australia, there was a large storm that hit Bali and everyone bunkered down in their 5 star hotels – I can’t remember which ones, maybe it was the Hyatt – and in the morning they all came out to inspect the damage on the beach, the tourists, they got out there and the headland staring out into the sea, there was a piece of the beach washed away and skeletons had tumbled out onto the beach. The tourists were left to confront, in bafflement, these skeletons lying beneath their perfectly manicured beach. That’s probably why I actually begin the film that way – it’s about false happiness, false joy and the construction of a lie.
E: The construction of this lie happens very subconsciously, where you talk about people quite forcibly – not consciously – but as a result of being too afraid to remember, creating a state of bliss that bypasses the past?
O: I think our imaginations wither for different reasons. When people are intimidated into silence, intimidated into not talking about some of the most important issues they face as human beings, as societies – they of course start to learn what’s dangerous to think about. And I think Dr Ariel Heryanto, an Indonesian professor based in Australia, wrote this wonderful thing about state terror in Indonesia and wrote that “state terror is most effective when people no longer realise how afraid they are” when people simply “know not to think about certain things”. In that sense, there’s an unconscious fear that can underpin peoples’ apathy. People become apathetic because they know it’s dangerous to think about the most important issues that can lead to real change in their lives.
In the United States, where I come from originally, the level of corruption is so bad that we have a legalised system of bribery and graft in the form of corporate funding of political campaigns – so nothing really gets done. All our politicians are permanently in debt to the corporations that fund them and they are never able to address the most serious problems in society and then our political institutions are sclerotic in their inability to address the most important issues and so people also become apathetic because they feel powerless. And then again, it becomes easier not to think about what’s really going on and to cling to a lie and a fantasy that things are okay when really they’re not.
E: Since it’s been over a year since the documentary first screened, I was curious as to how much the atmosphere towards the documentary has changed in Indonesia since the wider release and acclaim towards The Act of Killing?
O: I think it has changed. I mean, Indonesia is a vast country and a far more rural country than countries in the West, so a lot of people won’t have access to the internet or real news. Among the urban, among students, among younger people who have access online – I think the film is really well known. It has now screened thousands of times across the country which is more than we ever could have hoped for without a regular theatrical release. The film has been available for free download and for free streaming online in Indonesia. The film, of course, is the very first Indonesian movie to be nominated for an Academy Award. The film has now triggered, or helped to catalyse a transformational national discussion where ordinary Indonesians are now talking about the moral catastrophe of the genocide without fear. Almost more importantly, they’re also talking about the moral catastrophe of the regime built by the killers that has been in place ever since, and in which the killers are still in positions of power. This is really something wonderful and beyond our most audacious hopes from when we began this project.
The film has also triggered a response and a transformation in how the media talks about the past. Before the film came out the media was silent about the genocide and the film prompted the media to finally break their silence and talk about the 1965 killings as ‘the genocide’ and to talk about how this has led to a regime of fear of continued rule by the killers. So the media has broken a half-century silence on the most important event in the country’s history and begun to talk about how it continues to haunt and colour the present day reality. The Academy nomination led the government to finally break their silence about the film – the government’s strategy was always to remain silent in some kind of hope that the film would go away; the film is not going away, when the film was nominated for an Oscar I think they realised it wasn’t going away – they said look the 1965 killings were indeed a crime against humanity but we don’t need a film to help us deal with it; we can do that in our own time. The response was inadequate, and not a gesture of goodwill at all. It was, however, a 180 degree reversal on everything the government had maintained previously, namely that the genocide was heroic and justified, but now they’ve admitted – they’ve conceded – that it’s a crime against humanity. That again is not a kind of goodwill, but it is a barometer of just how transformed public discourse has been by the film since it was first released.
E: There’s a scene where you meet the man in charge of a series of large newspaper presses, Ibrahim Sinik, and he has a photo of himself with Suharto. You mention in the commentary that he had a photo of Sukarno, which he took down. Was there a public appeal to the right-wing, without an excessive disavowal of the previous leader in the private?
O: Everybody in Indonesia knows something awful happened in the 60s, and they know it was terribly wrong, and that it was what brought Suharto to power. Yet for decades and decades, people could not say what they knew, namely that it was wrong. There has been a public-private split in Indonesia for so long in Indonesia – particularly throughout the New Order – where there were many things people felt and thought about but could not say, but at the same time I think that silence has an effect – what I said earlier, about the withering of the imagination: I think if you keep silent for so long, particularly if you’re terrorised into silence for so long – your imagination withers because you’ve stopped thinking about the things that are dangerous to think about. It’s easier to forget them and cling to a lie; to cling to a myth. Once more, when you brainwash generation after generation of students and children to believe the lie, the silence stops being an unwillingness to speak and starts being an actual lack of knowledge, people simply not knowing anything other than the lie. So there were many things people couldn’t show like the photograph of Sukarno. I also want to say that peoples’ imaginations and convictions do not remain intact after decades of enforced silence, terror and brainwashing.
I also think that in the case of Ibrahim Sinik, the newspaper publisher, my sense is that he kept that photo, not because he had any loyalty to Sukarno – he certainly did not, he was one of the people who was most vocal in championing his overthrow by the military. I think he kept it out of vanity, as Sukarno remains the founding father of Indonesia and remains a national hero, even throughout Suharto’s rule. The national airport was still called Sukarno Airport under Suharto’s rule even though Sukarno died under house arrest – and his widow, who I met in Tokyo, told me she was fairly sure he was killed at the end. So I think more out of vanity, which is a deadly sin Ibrahim Sinik is particularly guilty of.
E: Herzog’s idea of “the documentary as forensic” seems to be a really intrinsic part of the overall film – especially in the scene where Anwar turns up with a wire to the killing site. I feel in this scene you mention that Anwar was one of the few killers who actually brought a weapon – the killing device – with them. I feel this whole scene is a perfect introduction of what Anwar is; when he’s smiling at a camera and showing how he choked someone to death, then he’s saying “now I must show how the victims die” and then he’s staring at the camera saying “I forced them to die”, and you have this contrast at the beginning of the film being present quite starkly. Did you feel like Anwar was a rare case where he still felt guilt unlike many of the other killers – you said his pain was close to the surface, which I thought was a perfect way to summarise it – but was this exclusive to Anwar?
O: I’d like to go back to what you said about forensic approach because in the early days of shooting, after the survivors who trusted me asked me to shoot the perpetrators, I felt like I had a kind of forensic responsibility to figure out what happened. So when I would meet perpetrator after perpetrator – Anwar was the 41st that I filmed – they would invite me to the places that they killed. Of course, I would always say yes, because I was finding out the details of a massacre that no one had ever documented. These men were old, and they would die, and with them the facts surrounding the deaths of tens of thousands – maybe hundreds of thousands – of people in North Sumatra alone would be lost. So I felt like I had a forensic responsibility.
One of the reasons it took me so long before I lingered on one character was because I felt that I had to first understand what happened systematically. I couldn’t just plunge into the psychology of denial through one character, one perpetrator, and the community of thugs and gangsters and politicians around him, until I had really tried to film everyone I could find. Yes, it was a forensic responsibility that we had in the first stage of the project. It was through Anwar that I saw that the boasting and trauma are two sides of the same coin in the sense that Anwar gave me some of the most outrageous material that I’d filmed thus far.
He’d killed hundreds of people, was the most horrific symbol of impunity, and it was clear that Anwar’s pain was feeding his bravado. He said “look, I’ve been going out drinking and taking drugs and dancing to forget what I’ve done because it haunts me – and hey, I’ll show you what a good dancer I am” – and not only is he talking about his trauma as he goes into the dancing, but to dance there is to deny the moral meaning of what he’s done. And, presumably, also reinforces the distancing of himself from the original trauma; from the trauma of what he did. I suddenly realised that here’s one of the most grotesque things anyone has ever done and he’s doing it because of trauma and the boasting is the flipside of the trauma – at least in this man, in this scene. Then I started to think of all the boasting I’d heard in the last two years filming leading up to this point. I started to think, wait a minute, very often I’d probably assumed that the boasting is the sign of villainous immorality – a sign of pride – which is what it appears to be on the surface; that these men lack any conscious and are proud of what they’ve done. I thought “that makes sense if you see people through the moral paradigm that underpins most of the stories that we tell in cinema” – if you divide the world into “good guys” and “bad guys” – protagonists and antagonists – it’s obvious that you’d interpret these people as antagonists and then you would see them as villains and see the boasting as lacking conscious and without remorse. As a non-fiction filmmaker, and seeing that this man is traumatised, it’s my job is to see what’s really there – and not to kind of rearrange the world into a shooting and editing process to fit conventional dramatic structure and the moral paradigm.
A villain might feel no remorse, but human beings must know it’s wrong – and Anwar acknowledged this by admitting that he needs to drink and dance to forget the pain. They all are human. They all know it’s wrong, and the boasting is a defensive effort to convince themselves that what they’ve done is right so they don’t have to live with image of themselves as being mass murderers. Isn’t it plausible that the boasting is therefore a sign of their humanity and the flipside of their trauma and that the trauma and the boasting are two sides of the same coin? How horrible is it that – in trying to convince themselves what they’ve done is right; trying to foreclose any possible demands of justice – it’s possible that they’ve horribly imposed this view of themselves as heroes on the whole society, backed up with the threat of further violence?
E: Towards the end, when Anwar says “I understand what they felt” and you remind him that they actually died and he was simply acting, I was reminded of a Shohei Imamura film – A Man Vanishes, which is heavily concerned with the role of the director in interacting with the documentary. Until that point you’d been very removed from the documentary, however, in that scene I felt you stepped in with this sense of moral arbitration and created what I felt was one of the most poignant scenes in the film. Do you often have a certain philosophy with how much you want to involve yourself in the documentary and have limits to how much you can involve yourself without affecting the subjects you’re working with?
O: I think throughout the process I was involving myself quite a lot. Whenever you film anybody you’re creating reality with that person and I feel it’s our responsibility to create that reality that most insightfully addresses the most important questions in any given situation. I think there’s a question in there as to how much you show and the effect of showing it.
One thing we had to take care of with this film was asking them [the audience] to immerse themselves in the world of death squad leaders, thugs and former killers; we knew that it would be very tempting for the viewer to cling to the story of “how Joshua made this film” and “what did he tell them/what didn’t he tell them” and “what danger did he face?”. If the viewer finds themselves fascinated with that story – “how is Joshua making this film?” – that would of course undermine the [film’s] main purpose.
The very practical issue of the editing of this film was to recognise how the whole story of this filmmaking and my evolving relationship with them was important in so far as it was advancing the journey of Anwar and the gradual excavation of the unfolding horror. Equally, it was important not to make me some kind of hero; although I could make statements like the one you mentioned, which reflects what the viewer may be thinking (consciously or unconsciously), it was important not to do that so often that the viewer just clings to me like the film’s moral anchor.
E: It feels that at times Anwar almost seems to be like a child playing around in a sandpit pretending to be a killer, not entirely aware, possibly forcing himself to ignore what he’s actually done. Were there many times where he showed this sense of dissonance with maturity?
O: I think that is a pretty telling description of Anwar’s character in a way. At the time of the killing I think Anwar used ‘play’ to distance himself from the meaning of what he was doing. In the sense that coming out of an Elvis Presley musical dancing his way across the street and killing happily, ‘play’ was a way that Anwar distanced himself from the act of killing while he was killing and that, therefore, enabled him to kill.
I think that one of the reasons why we have a feeling like he’s playing in a sandbox in a childlike way as he’s recreating what he did – representation as dramatisation, acting at the time of the killing – is that he’s distancing himself from what he did with this strange quality of play. Even as they approach the most horribly realistic affectation of what he did they are also distancing us from the original horror by representing it, and in that sense they also take on this strange surreal version of reality inconsistent with the real horror of what’s been talked about. I think that’s why it becomes so devastating and surprising when at the end of the film we crash back into a bitter, indigestible, unrepresentable reality that’s beyond words.
E: That sense of surrealism in substitute of an inexpressible horror is one of the defining features of the film. Dusan Makavejev was your mentor, was that influential for you?
O: Dusan was my mentor and is now 81 years old, he’s a dear friend, and he hosted the Belgrade premiere of The Act of Killing. Dusan, in his greatest film, W.R. Mysteries of the Organism, combines fiction with documentary in ways that fundamentally do something very strange, where fictional narratives no longer work, where you intercut them with long sections of documentary, where you don’t relate to the fiction in simple identification to the protagonist hoping they will accomplish what they need to accomplish and get what they want. You start seeing fiction and the non-fiction as kind of allegories – systems with a very deep pathos – and that was something I was playing with in my very first film – The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase – which I made when I was Dusan’s student at University.
From there I became very fascinated with this space between documentary and fiction and how, particularly in non-fiction, whenever you shoot people start staging themselves and reveal how they want to be seen. Beneath that, hidden behind that, you can extrapolate how they’re afraid of being seen – what they’re trying to hide. Both of those things – how they want to be seen, how they see themselves or how they fear they will be seen – both of those things are conditioned by numerous interlocking second-hand, third-rate, half-remembered, fragments of stories that come from movies and television and culture; images that we have of ourselves; images that we aspire to. And so in that sense, in any non-fiction film shoot, when you film someone “being themselves”, they start actually making visible the fiction that makes them who they are.
That’s something I became very fascinated in, particularly after having Dusan as my mentor. I then discovered Jean Rouch who coined the term cinéma–vérité and would let people play themselves, make up stories and act out fantasies on film and they would – not unlike The Act of Killing – watch those scenes and comment on them. For me, how I started on this exploration of not just the space between documentary and fiction, but how non-fiction film on its most fundamental level – filming people and allowing them to stage themselves – is a way of making visible the fiction in what appears to be our factual reality.
E: I feel that a parallel exists between you and Dusan in that fusion and investigation into non-fiction and fiction. I feel that Herzog describing The Act of Killing as a new form of cinematic surrealism is a fairly appropriate way to describe it. Looking at something like Mysteries of the Organism as something so surreal yet so political yet entirely focused on the meta-level; then The Act of Killing, less overt, yet still political yet with this same sense of surrealism.
O: I’m not sure if I’m as enough of an expert on the history of surrealism in cinema to know whether The Act of Killing is a new form. Each of their fictions, whether the nightmare musical number or the dramatisation of atrocity in whatever genre; I struggle to make as powerful as possible in accordance with their wishes and then I encourage them to go to the limit of what they can imagine – whether it’s Herman, who starts eating the liver. That was not something I asked him to do, but I created the space where he could go really to the limits of whatever impulse he had. In doing that, I feel I produced fiction that was more powerful, with deeper emotional and poetic truth, than the more observational moments of documentary as they go about trying to make the film.
That means that once we understand all we need to understand in the first half about the context of Indonesia – the killers in power, the paramilitary troops, how these men are making a movie – once you understand all that, you can start to leave all the observational material behind and the fictional scenes are able to consume the film as it becomes a kind of surreal fever dream. In this, we’re lost with Anwar in his nightmare where very real moments become a part of that. After they burn down the village, Anwar is on the fishing platform at night, talking about his fear of karma, and then we see the dark sea and he says “it’s almost like the end of the world.” This has just cut from a night out fishing, and he talks about these things, and then we cut to the shopping mall. It’s a very real simple thing, but somehow it becomes this dreamlike and horrifying and nightmarish as the fiction on either side of it.
The whole nightmare evolves out of the documentary’s reality and then starts to ingest the documentary’s reality. That’s something, a great formal gamble, and that may be new – but I wouldn’t dare say that; Werner knows a lot more about that history than me. I’m just a newcomer.
E: When you described that moment when Anwar is stumbling in the dark, being the killer and the victim at the same, as the “first dip into the fever dream”. Did you originally set out to have this progression or did it move in this direction after you began working with the footage you had?
O: I think that there was a sense that it was going to take us somewhere that was beyond words, and that was kind of the first moment of that. We thought “something is happening to his body, between his body and this space”. It’s interesting because this scene in the rubber plantation at night, the space is also very important. It’s a fixed wide shot, and he’s stumbling, a small figure in it. At first, we wonder if he’s drunk, then he buckles over and we realise “oh no, he’s re-enacting and he’s playing the victim and the killer at the same time”. I think this is the first glimpse of some unspeakable trauma that comes to the surface there. It’s one of the scenes in the film where the space around Anwar is a very real terror.
The other scene is the unregarded final scene in the film, Anwar on the roof – even the very final shot of the film, the Fish at Lake Toba. I think we had a feeling that those moments of trauma would bubble to the surface. I think we had a sense that those moments of trauma would take the journey into a place that’s beyond words.
In Australia, you’ve never seen the shorter American theatrical cut of the film. The scene in the shopping mall comes after the victim in that. The reason we don’t have it there in the directors cut is that somehow after Anwar plays the victim in the long version we are in a place beyond words and that has no place in that version. There should be no words. There should be no comment. There should be no talking. The next time we really have words is when Anwar watches the scene in his living room and we’re being violently ejected from the nightmare to crash into a much more nightmarish reality – we’re waking up from a bad dream into a reality that’s even harder.
E: The final scene at Lake Toba and the music video at the waterfall where “Born Free” is playing both feel very removed from the rest of the film. They’re very deep in the imaginary and the characters are presented in a very different light, with characters saying “thank you for executing me and sending me to heaven” while Herman is dancing. Both of the scenes have the most fascinating presence in the film, but how they ended up there has always befuddled me. How did those scenes come about? Were they your idea?
O: Anwar wanted to shoot two musical numbers and we had to help him stage the scenes because he’s not a filmmaker so the mise-en-scène is mine, but according to Anwar’s specifications. There are two musical numbers we shot. One is “Born Free” and it comes near the end of the film right after Anwar plays the victim. After he plays the victim, Anwar felt as though he had been possessed by ghosts and he wanted to cleanse himself of the ghosts somehow, so he staged his own redemption ‘in Heaven’. I was, actually very disappointed when he proposed that scene because I felt Anwar was really starting to change. Throughout the scene where he plays the victim, I could see he wasn’t. I agreed to shoot the scene because it would be an appropriate punchline of this whole military regime, where they kill a million people and the people celebrate it. And the people should be thanking Anwar for it, thanking the killers for killing them and “sending them to heaven”. It’s kind of the underlying horrible logic of this entire regime. Anwar staged his own redemption that way because he wanted to somehow show, to somehow cleanse himself from the horror and hauntedness that he felt while playing the victim.
I had a choice with that scene, I could certainly have shot it like a cheap south-east Asian karaoke video and still Anwar probably would have been satisfied with the result. I also had that impulse that it should be beautiful, majestic, seductive; because, if we want to talk about how a lie can seduce us we have to make the lie as beautiful to the audience as it might be to the brainwashed.
Anwar had proposed somewhere in the middle of the production that he wanted to shoot his favourite song as a musical number – “Is That All There Is” by Peggy Reid – you should listen to that song if you don’t know it. It’s a song about disappointment, because Anwar never reached the same pinnacles of power and wealth that his paramilitary fellows did. So he wanted to stage this song about disappointment and we were looking for a location for it, we were driving on a narrow road and off to our right, suddenly, was this five story, concrete gold fish. If you have anything at all as a filmmaker at that moment you stop the car, and you pull over and you look at it as a possible location because it’s so extraordinary. When Anwar saw the fish he said it was the perfect location for the song.
I loved the fish because it’s the product of human superfluity that’s just sitting there, decaying, it’s persisting with the ongoing human tragedy. That’s really what the film is about. Anwar said he liked it because it’s “so disappointing”, where everything was once so beautiful and now everything is decaying. Great, I thought, if he wants to shoot there, let’s shoot it there, because I think it embodies the scenes of the films so beautifully. As we shot the musical number, there were these moments of pure poetry in the making of that scene that, for me, embodied what the whole film is about in a very powerful way; how we get lost in our fantasies, in the stories we tell, and in that, we dance right over the abyss. That for me seemed what the whole film was about.
I knew at once I can use these beautiful moments like the opening shot where they come out of the fish, or when Hermann sings the song about going to the movies, or tells the girls he can be more hot, or the final scene in the movie; I could either use those, or, I could use the musical number in its totality. In doing that I knew that would demystify those moments of pure poetry and I knew I had no choice. When you have moments that poetically embody the core of what a whole movie is about you have to use those moments. I didn’t use the whole musical number and I hope they appear as beautiful to the audience as they did to me when I shot them and when I was going through the material.
E: When Anwar plays the role of someone who is being killed, which I think you described in the audio commentary as a “crime to cut” in any measure – which I feel perfectly sums up that scene – I remember you saying that you were having nightmares around some of these filming periods. I was curious as to the degree to which these, or if, these nightmares continue today – or if you still think about it?
O: I still think about it all the time. All the time. I think that the nightmares lasted really intensively for about 8 months, and they started… I can remember it, I can pinpoint it exactly, when we filmed the scene with the teddy bear. That was for me… I don’t know if I told this story in the commentary or not, but I was filming Anwar from about half a meter away, his radio microphone was rubbing while he was butchering the teddy bear. I had to call cut because his microphone was rubbing and when I called cut he noticed that I was crying, and I hadn’t noticed myself starting to cry. It was the only time in my life I had been crying without realising it. He said “Josh, you’re crying” and I said “Yeah, I guess so” and he said “what should we do?” and I said “well, we should continue” and for me that was the beginning, that scene I felt intensely tainted. I felt as though the boundary between past and present was starting to blur. That became horrific because it meant the past – these awful crimes – were rushing into the present. That was overwhelming, I felt as though I created the condition for these killings to occur – although they weren’t occurring, we were just making a movie. I couldn’t herald my own advice, there’s a difference between what really happened and what was happening there, we were making a movie. I isolate and locate that day as the start of many months of terrible nightmares. It went on badly for about 8 months and tapered off and I although still think about it all the time I’m not haunted in the same way. I’m still in touch with Anwar very regularly, but I had to have 8 months leave or so.
E: I remember when I last spoke to you, you were still speaking to him quite frequently because you were shooting The Look of Silence there – unbeknownst to him, I think you mentioned. Are you still, even now, not being in Indonesia, able to keep in touch with him?
O: Yeah, I’m still in touch with him. I was in touch throughout the American release of the film and then again a little bit recently when the film was nominated for an Academy Award. I wanted to be sure that Anwar wasn’t blamed by the paramilitary movement for disgracing them and indeed he hasn’t been. But I still am in touch and I think that’s because we went through something very intense together that we will spend the rest of our lives, I think, somehow trying to unpack, in different ways.
E: Has he changed at all, I guess, do you think, since the end of filming –
O: Has Anwar changed?
E: I don’t mean… exactly “changed” – I think a lot of the film shows that he’s permanently in this process of having to embrace an imaginary and constructed view of his history and involvement to try and deal with the true horror of his actions – but I guess, does he show any sense of remorse at all?
O: I don’t know that Anwar has the moral courage to, every day in a consistent way, acknowledge what he did was wrong. Someone asked me, I think in Sydney actually and the answer was, it was so clear to me, that yes, he regrets what he did. Does he have remorse, though? I think that involves more self-awareness than I think Anwar has the courage to live as a daily mode of being. But I think Anwar does somehow feel…
The film and the release of the film and the reaction of the film in Indonesia was that it told perpetrators all across Indonesia that it is not acceptable to boast about these atrocities – that this was a crime against humanity. I think that whole reaction has meant that the fantasies that allowed Anwar to deal with his guilt have become far less easy to inhabit. I think somehow that he’s lost his swagger, he’s lost his bravado, and he’s a little more delicate, and I think he’s certainly not proud anymore.
E: I guess it is, on a lot of levels, quite a personal film for you – not only because of the relationship with Anwar that was developed. But also, when you were in the bag shop in Germany and questioned “shouldn’t these places be left empty forever” to kind of remind humanity of the horrors they are capable of committing. Did you feel any parallels between your own personal history and your own family’s history in Germany?
O: All the time. I felt that early on when I was told that the survivors who had been threatened by the army weren’t able to be in the film anymore or they would come to real harm. I felt in this contrast between perpetrators who were boasting and survivors who were forced into silence that I’d wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust only to find the Nazi’s still in power.
I knew that actually our whole economic system depends on the global south, the developing world, the people who make everything we buy and rely on to feed ourselves and clothe ourselves, to put petrol in our tanks – they’re all too afraid that we rely on gangsters and thugs to keep people who make everything we buy, too afraid to successfully struggle. That’s the real cost of what we buy, included in the price tag that we pay.
I began my journey in Indonesia in collaboration with plantation workers who were working for a Belgian company about 60 miles from Maydana, Belgium Plantation Company. About 60 miles from the Gahn the women workers were being forced by the company to spray herbicide with no protective clothing and it was dissolving their liver tissue. They were afraid, somehow, of organising a union because their parents and grandparents had been killed for being in a union. In that sense, when we buy anything – a tube of skin cream made out of palm oil, or hair conditioner made out of palm oil – we pay a few dollars for it, but the real cost of those products should be unimaginably high because they cost my friends their lives to produce. Included in this very small price that we pay is a small surcharge that we pay to men like Anwar and his friends to keep the people who make these products afraid and we depend on them for our everyday living. For me, it was personal not just in the sense of my family’s background but in the sense that this is our nightmare – and maybe the wrenching at the end is my wrenching by proxy.
E: Have you always had some kind of socio-political involvement throughout your life? This idea of social justice – has it informed you in the past?
O: Yeah, I think that I very much grew up with a message from my father’s family that the aim of all politics, and probably all morality, and maybe even the aim of all culture, is to prevent something like the Holocaust from ever happening again. My mother’s family raised me with a very simple idea, which sounds a little strange in that era with the labour movement so emasculated, but really, the labour movement is the only real bulwark we have against fascism. If you have capitalism with no organised labour you actually have a form of fascism because you have only corporate interests representing politics and represented in the political process.
That’s something I grew up with, I come from a political family, my mother and sister are activists, labour lawyers, labour educators; my father was a political scientist, it was something that was, yes, full on. But I don’t see my filmmaking as activism, I see filmmaking as art – and the aim of all art is invite and encourage or force viewers to confront the most painful, mysterious, difficult, strange and unimaginable aspects of who we are.
We face some pretty enormous problems as a species and if we hope to surmount them and survive – at least to survive with any sort of justice – we have to face those problems. Of course, therefore, if art’s job is to help us face those problems – then once we face them, activism becomes possible. Art, ideally, is there for a kind of antidote to the apathy we were talking about to the beginning of this interview.
E: How did you feel looking at the treatment of women throughout Indonesia? Anywhere between the Pancasila Youth leader and the waitress, the scene where they discuss the rape – which is an incredibly haunting scene – was this systematic throughout the country?
O: There is a horrific misogyny that I witnessed – not so much from Anwar, he doesn’t really articulate anything – but that I encountered with the paramilitary leadership and it’s a misogyny that underpins so much of the anti-communist propaganda in Indonesia; so many of the lies told about the communists were explicitly misogynist. Stories of ‘communist women’ who were trained to participate in sadomasochistic orgies where they were intending to capture religious leaders and army generals who were opposed to the communists and cut off their genitals with razorblades.
It was insane – the misogynistic sadomasochistic fantasies about women has not only underpinned a lot of the anti-communist propaganda but it has been taught to really little children. There are 5 year old kids hearing stories like that at school. You’ll see more of that school essence in my next film that will be coming out, but somehow, not only was misogyny germane to this paramilitary base – the milieu – but it was adding an additional, nightmarish dimension to the regime discourse. It was adding the quality of nightmare to the stories that the regime was telling. It was adding the quality of nightmare to the victors’ history and I felt it was really important somehow. I felt that the misogynist stories which were told about the communist women really reflected the fantasies of the perpetrators. Saffy Adree talks about how happy he would be raping a 14-year old girl. I felt that misogyny not only lends a nightmarish quality to the victors’ history, it also has been a kind of nightmare for generation after generation of Indonesian children who have to heard these stories and it reflected and was a projection of the misogyny of the perpetrators themselves.
E: Thank you so much for giving me so much time. The Act of Killing was one of the most phenomenal films from last year, and one of the most affecting documentaries I’ve seen in my life, so thank you for agreeing to do this.
O: Thank you so, so much for organising it. I hope we can speak again under better circumstances soon.
The Act of Killing is on Netflix, DVD and digital in Australia from Madman and for readers in the USA it can be purchased as physical or digital media from Drafthouse Films.