Q & A: Joshua Oppenheimer, Director of “The Act of Killing”
Earlier this month, we welcomed the director Joshua Oppenheimer for a panel discussion of his controversial documentary, “The Act of Killing,” a film that explores a country where death squad leaders are celebrated as heroes. Its focus is Indonesia, where a military coup in 1965 led to killings of more than 1 million alleged Communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals. Oppenheimer examines the culture of impunity that surrounds those killings through interviews with perpetrators, asking them to re-enact their crimes in the style of their favorite Hollywood genres: the gangster, the western, and the musical.
Clinical supervisor and filmmaker Amelia Evans, LLM ’11, sat down with Oppenheimer prior to the event to discuss the film. The interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
Amelia: I understand the film had a collaborative beginning—that you got feedback from different community members and those in the human rights community and others before really fully embarking on the project. Can you tell me a bit about that, and why you did that?
Joshua: We began this work in collaboration with a community of plantation workers on a Belgian-owned oil palm plantation about 60 miles from Medan, where we made the film. As we made a film with them about their struggle to organize a union, which had been illegal under the Suharto dictatorship, we found out that they were survivors of the genocide. It turned out that the biggest obstacle they faced in organizing a union was fear. And they said: “Please come back as quickly as you can after making this first film to make a film about why we’re afraid.” Namely, the co-existence between perpetrators who enjoy total impunity, and survivors who are still intimidated by them.
When we got back, word had got out that we were interested in what happened in 1965, which was of course the source of their fear—or at least the reverberations of those events into the present—and the local army stopped allowing us to film with them. Police chiefs would show up, army chiefs would show up, plantation administrators backed up by the army would show up, and not let the survivors talk. The people we were filming with, who we had been very close to because we had made a film with them already, said: “Look, go and film this neighbor or that neighbor”—pointing out several who were death squad leaders at the time—”and they may have information about how our loved ones were killed.”
We filmed them, and they were immensely boastful, and we didn’t expect that, and it was horrifying and shocking. We felt like this is perhaps how the Nazis would talk if 40 years had gone by and they were still in power. And our work on the Belgian oil palm plantation had taught us that this was in fact the dark underbelly of globalization. Indonesia’s not the exception to the rule. What we’re hearing in this boasting is perhaps the allegory for the rule.
We brought this material back, and were reluctant to show it to the survivors because it’s so confronting and painful. But they said they wanted to see it. And then they said: “Please, let’s go to Jakharta to talk to members of the human rights community there.” We met various human rights activists in Jakarta, and they all said: “This is so important. We’re sort of astounded, and not, because we know this is how people talk. Keep doing this, because when viewers see this, they will see why we’re afraid, and the whole regime will sort of unmask itself.”
And so we made this film feeling as though we were entrusted by survivors and the human rights community, along with a very strong Indonesian crew, to do a work that an Indonesian director could not do on his or her own.
Amelia: If I understand rightly, you decided to release it to the Indonesian public for free.
Joshua: Yes, that actually happened on the 10th of December last year, on International Human Rights Day. We had held our first big screening in Indonesia on the 1st of November at Sali Hara, a prestigious theater in Jakarta —it was an invitation-only screening, and I think a couple hundred people were there—and then on the 10th of December it became available for anyone for free by DVD, provided people would hold screenings.
As of July, there have been 1,100 plus screenings in over 118 cities; one community in Central Java held a screening at a mass grave. I would never imagine screening this film at a mass grave. But towards the end of Ramadan, families are obliged to go visit the graves of their relatives and pay respects, and survivors had not been allowed to visit that grave—they were pushed away by paramilitaries. Since the screening—which was held by survivors and youth members of an organization that had been involved with the killings, some of whom were children of perpetrators—survivors and perpetrators go together now and pray at that grave. So there’s been all sorts of very poignant stories like this from across the archipelago, from across Indonesia.
And on the 30th of September, the film became available for free download. And I just read that on the first day, it was downloaded 6,500 times in Jakarta.
Amelia: When you say you were entrusted with this project by the Indonesian community, did that change the way you made the film? It seems somehow you took on the role of being an advocate or speaking for a community or…
Joshua: At some point, I stopped seeing myself as an American filmmaker who’d come in from England, where I was living, to make a film about Indonesia for the rest of the world. I saw myself as working on behalf of a community of survivors, making a film whose primary audience was Indonesian. And the effects internationally, the praise internationally, it excites me, because above all, it raises the level of discussion in Indonesia. If the film is nominated for an Oscar, that will be news in Indonesia.
Of course, a collateral benefit is that it makes it easier for me to make my next film. But that’s a collateral benefit. And the way that audiences around the world have been moved by the film is also a collateral benefit, but really important, because it shows that audiences all over the world are willing to see that we’re all much closer to perpetrators than we like to think—which is sort of a fundamental challenge of the film, to say: Come close to this man, Anwar, he is human, and come close to him through Josh, who became close to him.
Amelia: You’ve been interviewed so many times. You must have been asked so many questions. What questions aren’t you asked often enough?
Joshua (after a long pause): I think I’m not asked often enough about what we can do in our own countries to look at the way we are perpetrators ourselves. I often get this question: “What can the West do to change things in Indonesia?” I very much understand the question, but there’s a kind of narcissism—imperial narcissism—to the question, that it’s our duty to go in and change things in Indonesia, when in fact we are the clients of this. You know, I’ve sometimes said, “We are the guests at Anwar and his friends’ cannibalistic feast,” but it’s false. We are the hosts of the feast. Every time we buy anything, part of the price tag goes to men like Anwar and his friends. We are their patrons. What can we do here to make ourselves less like perpetrators than we are?