Berlin Q&A: Director Joshua Oppenheimer

Joshua Oppenheimer P

"The Act of Killing" director discusses winning the backing of Werner Herzog, his daring documentary methods, and why it’s important to recognize the humanity of mass murderers.

American filmmaker and human rights advocate Joshua Oppenheimer has made numerous shorts and experimental documentaries, but The Act of Killing will likely be seen as his big breakthrough.

As Werner Herzog said after seeing an early cut of the project: “I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal and frightening in at least a decade.“ (Herzog later signed on as an executive producer)

Originally from Texas and a graduate of Harvard and Central St. Martins, London, Oppenheimer was at work on a film about the plight of Indonesian farm workers in 2003 (what would become The Globalization Tapes), when he began to encounter survivors of Indonesia’s 1965 ‘communist purge’ – a historical atrocity that resulted in the concerted extermination of over one million Indonesian leftists, intellectuals and ethnic Chinese.

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Oppenheimer says he was interested in telling the victims’ stories but found them too traumatized and intimidated to speak out. Instead, he managed to arrange introductions to many of the actual perpetrators of the mass killings living amongst the victims – local toughs, gangsters, paramilitary leaders and corrupt businessmen – who were openly boastful of their role in Indonesia’s atrocities (unlike the genocides of Rwanda, Cambodia or elsewhere, Indonesia has undergone no official reconciliation process, meaning the perpetrators still occupy positions of power across Indonesian society and government, and have been free to write this dark chapter in the country’s history as they see fit).

Oppenheimer tentatively began interviewing all of the aged killers he could find and eventually focused on a small crew of former executioners – led by a charismatic retired gangster named Anwar Congo. Rather than basing the documentary on interviews and reenactments aspiring to accuracy, the director gave the killers free reign to make their own “movie” portraying their actions during the purge. The result is a frightening and revealing representation of how these men imagine -- and have reconciled themselves to -- the horrific crimes they committed.

In October, The Act of Killing was picked up for U.S. distribution by Drafthouse Films, which is planning a 30-market theatrical release, as well as a 2013 awards season campaign for Best Documentary. Before its European premiere in Berlin, Oppenheimer connected with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss his unconventional documentary process and why it’s important to recognize the humanity of mass murderers.

The Hollywood Reporter: Errol Morris and Werner Herzog are both credited as executive producers on The Act of Killing. How did they become involved and what was their role?

Joshua Oppenheimer: My U.K. executive producer, Andre Singer, is the U.K. co-producer on some of Werner’s documentaries, and he told Werner about the film. I happened to be in London at the same time Werner was there with his film Into the Abyss and Andre suggested we meet. I showed him some footage and he was very intrigued. Later I sent him the fine cut of the film and two months later, he contacted me with his reaction and said he wanted to do whatever he could to get the film out to the world as widely as possible. He’s been very wonderful ever since. There was a director’s cut of 159 minutes and that’s what Werner first saw, but there are television stations involved in the financing, so we had to cut it down to 90 minutes. Werner thought very hard and deeply about how we might do that in the best possible way. It’s always a painful process cutting down a director’s cut, and it was really important to have Werner’s help and support – and his mind. It's an amazing mind. So he’s an ambassador for the film and I think he’ll be very instrumental in the U.S. release.

Errol is friends with one of my film school professors. I showed him scenes back in the beginning of 2010 and he also said he wanted to be involved, and has been an equally energetic ambassador. He gave really useful notes too. Errol is a real investigator. He’s really taken it upon himself to dig into the Indonesian history and he’s talking to experts and writing a long piece about the film and its relationship to this unknown history.

BERLIN REVIEW: The Act of Killing

THR: Your website says you’ve worked for over a decade with militias, death squads and their victims. What first drew you to this almost superlatively dark area of interest?

Oppenheimer: My father’s family was mostly obliterated in the holocaust and I grew up very much with the sense that the central moral and political question is how do we prevent these things from happening again. And I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of answering that, because they do keep happening again – over and over. But the mantra of “never again” – which is certainly kind of a cliché in my community – has far too often been interpreted to mean “never again to us.” Implicit in “never again to us” is this very sad tendency to divide the world into us and them: human beings and monsters; good guys and bad guys. That’s what cinema usually does. So it feels really important to recognize that there are no evil people. You can’t say there’s an evil person. That’s a judgment that perhaps only god is entitled to make – and I don’t believe in god. Even courts don’t make that judgment. What there is are human beings who make bad choices and commit evil acts. Hitler wasn’t a monster; Hitler was a human. That’s both terrifying and hopeful at the same time. It’s terrifying because it makes us ask whether we might commit evil in a similar way. I’m not saying that because the perpetrators of evil are ordinary human beings, that every human being is capable of evil. I’m just saying that if we are going to take seriously the challenge that genocides and atrocities must never happen again, we must also take seriously the fact that the perpetrators are human beings and look at them as such, and try to understand them as such – and be willing to get close to them.

There’s another side of this, which is darker, and that’s the pleasure of killing – the human pleasure. I think Anwar and his friends never felt so exorbitantly powerful as they did in the moment when they were taking lives. I think we are fascinated and scared by evil at the same time. I think it’s important not to suppress our fascination but to walk into it with open eyes.

THR: How did you strike upon the idea of having the perpetrators reenact their killings – in costume and campy Hollywood genre?

Oppenheimer: Well, Anwar was the 41st executioner I filmed. I had filmed 40 other killers since my first trip to Indonesia. And I found that all of them had no idea what a documentary was – no sense of the propriety of delivering sober testimony. Because they had been celebrated for what they did. Testimony always comes from people who are in some way disempowered. I think that when perpetrators win and remain in power and can write their own history, you don’t get testimony; you get some kind of boastful performance. So here I am meeting these men who have never really seen a documentary, who have no sense that it would be appropriate to sit down and offer sober testimony with almost forensic details about what they did. Instead, they have been celebrated and have a very strong notion of what a Hollywood movie is, because they’ve seen all kinds of Hollywood films and spent their youth working as movie theater gangsters selling black market tickets, and killing the so-called “communists” and leftists who had boycotted the import of American movies at that time. So I come in as an American moviemaker, and they have a vague feeling that they’ve murdered on behalf of American movies and they just assume I want to make a film that really shows and dramatizes what the killing was like for them.

But for Anwar, I think the real story of why he wants to make these fiction scenes about what he’s done is more complicated. I think he’s trying to work through his pain and remorse – and his disgust in himself. He just didn’t have the language to put it that way. He’s trying to do it by transforming this horrifying and traumatic set of memories, into contained, ideally heroic film scenes – to replace this miasmic, unspeakable horror, which is haunting his dreams.

STORY: Indonesian Death Squad Doc 'The Act of Killing' Acquired by Drafthouse

He starts off on a journey, a very long and convoluted one – which begins, as he says, in the goal to create a beautiful family movie about mass killing – but the journey is really his way of coming to terms with this remorse, which was there with him at the beginning, and which totally overwhelms him at the end of the film.

THR: What were the advantages of this method for you as a documentary filmmaker? Why do it this way, other than the spectacle?

Oppenheimer: Truthfully, another facet of how this method came about is that I didn’t have any preconceptions about what a documentary should be either. I don’t think of myself as a documentary filmmaker. I know I’ve made a non-fiction film, but I’m someone who believes that the moment you film anybody, you create reality with that person. If you film a little boy going to school, the big event in that boy’s day and all the classmates’ and teachers’ day is you being there filming, not the school. And most of the time observational documentarians actually create a fictional reality with their characters, and the fiction is precisely this: they simulate the filmmaker’s absence. We essentially tell everyone to act normal and ignore the camera, but that’s acting.

So I think, if you’re going to create reality every time you film with someone, why not create the reality that is most insightful to the questions you’re trying to answer. Here the questions we’re trying to answer are mostly questions of the imagination. I had met and filmed 40 perpetrators of crimes against humanity before I decided to focus on Anwar, and I’m asking: how do they really see themselves; how do they see me; and how do they want the world to see them? And I realized that if I could give these men a chance to stage what they did, and how they feel about it – which are two different things – and document the process, I would be able to answer those questions. So I think what I did was create the conditions for an observational documentary of the imagination, rather than an observational documentary of everyday occurrences. So in that sense, we make something previously invisible, visible.