Interview: Joshua Oppenheimer, Director of THE ACT OF KILLING

I got to chat with The Act of Killing’s director Joshua Oppenheimer when the film opened in my home city of Philadelphia. Since then the film has gone on to win over critics and bring even more awareness to the atrocities discussed in the film.

This interview previously ran on Geekadelphia in a more condensed edited form, but I am presenting the full interview here for the first time. I hope this interview not only answers some questions if you have seen the film, but if you haven’t, encourages you to check it out!

Dan: What was the germ behind the idea of The Act of Killing? I heard it originally started out as a documentary on the survivors.

Joshua: Yes, and every time we would film with the survivors the military would stop us, take our equipment and detain us. Meanwhile the survivors had us film their neighbors who were perpetrators, living in the same communities. They hoped they would reveal, if we filmed them, how their loved ones had died.

So while filming the perpetrators, we found them boastful and incredibly open about the killings. I found the survivors were being intimidated into silence by the military and that was really the beginning of the journey. In that moment I realized I was in Germany 40 years after the Holocaust only to find the Nazis were still in power.

At that moment realized 2 things: I would give to this story the period of my life it took, but also that this is fundamentally not a story about what happened in 1965.

If you wanted to address what it would be like to go to Germany 40 years after the Holocaust and to find the Nazis still in power, the big issue would be what kind of regime had been built on this basis and impunity on the basis of terror, lies and mass graves. The film I set out to make is about today and about how we as human beings live with the consequences of our actions. How we lie to ourselves and how we draw from 2nd-hand and 3rd-rate fantasies half remembered to create ourselves and live with who we are.

So that is how the film began. The survivors and human rights committee said don’t give up you must continue to film the perpetrators. Because when the audience sees they are boasting, they will understand why we are so afraid and from their pride they will understand the dark heart of this regime.

So then I filmed every perpetrator I could. I reached Anwar as I moved up the chain of command from the countryside, to the city of Medan and reached Anwar who was the 41st perpetrator I filmed.

Dan: How did the idea of the theatrical re-enactment component of the killings come into the film?

Joshua: Well it wasn’t a lure to get them to open up. It’s a response to their openness.

It was a way of trying to understand why these men are so open. What is the nature of their boasting? What are the consequences of their boasting? How do they want to be seen by the rest of their society? How do they want to be seen by their grand children, by me, by the rest of the world? And ultimately how do they see themselves?

As I met the 40 perpetrators I filmed before I met before Anwar, they were all inviting me to the places they killed. They would tell me what they did in their homes and then they would say I could show you where it happened and I would accept those invitations, because I wanted to know what happened. I felt it had a real world historical importance.

We would get to these spots and they would launch into these spontaneous demonstrations of what happened, perhaps because they have seen a lot of movies where it had that drama, but had they seen a lot of documentaries? I am not sure.

When I am speaking about spontaneous demonstrations, I am referring to what you saw with Anwar on the roof with the wire at the beginning showing you what he did. Afterwards they would typically complain they forgot to bring a prop, a machete or a friend to play the victim. Anwar thought to bring both for his first scene. That was the very first time I filmed him, up on that roof, so he did bring the wire, he did bring a friend to play the victim.

I would to say to them, I am trying to understand the nature of your boasting and how these men imagined themselves and how they want to be imagined. I started to say “you participated in one of the biggest killings in human history, your lives have been shaped by this and your society is built on this. I want to know what it means to you as a society and you want to show me what you have done, so go ahead and show me what you have done in whatever way you wish and I will film the process and reenactment. Together we will combine these things and try to answer these questions”. In that sense, I was saying that long before I met Anwar, I meant to only film these very simple reenactments, like Anwar on the roof with the wire in the beginning.

But because in Medan the killers were recruited from the ranks of these movie theater gangsters who loved American movies they started to propose these embellishments, I think as a way to run away from their pain and to run away from what they already knew from the beginning was true, namely what they did was wrong.

Me as a filmmaker, I am somebody who has always been interested in how people imagine themselves and making visible stories, sort of unconscious stories we identify with, the narratives and identities we identify with, which are usually secondhand, that make us who we are and make our world what it is. So I see my filmmaking as a kind of prism, through which this aspect of reality, this fantastic, this fictional aspect of our factual reality can be made physical.

That is how the method developed.

Dan: So Anwar was the 41st perpetrator you met, what made you decide to focus on him and how truthful do you think he was?

Joshua: Well I think he was fairly truthful in the sense he didn’t remember exactly how many people he killed.

But it was pretty easy to make sure he was factual, because there were four people who were together working in that same office where they were killing people. There was the newspaper publisher, there was the journalist who pretended at some point that he didn’t know anything about it, there was Adi and there was Anwar. I interviewed them all separately first, so I could sort of corroborate their stories against each other’s.

I focused on him, because I could see his pain was so close to the surface in the very beginning. There was a sort of paradox in him; he was the most stridently boastful of all the perpetrators that I filmed in the sense that nobody else would have danced in the place where they killed, right after they showed how they killed.

Yet at the same time there was this pain on the surface, Anwar said on the outset he was having these nightmares and he was going out dancing and drinking to forget what he’s done. Also at the beginning he was drawn to play the victim, which I think haunted me a lot.

When he is dancing in the very first scene, he has a length of wire around his neck; you sometimes miss it in that scene, because after he showed how he killed he felt compelled to show how the victims died.

Dan: Finally how did Werner Herzog get involved in the film?

Joshua: We had the same producer, and he introduced us. I gave him a copy of the film and I knew that he might not watch it if I just gave him a DVD. So I asked Andre Singer to introduce us in London and we had 20 minutes together so I showed him 10 minutes on a laptop and he was very interested and I gave him the DVD, he watched it and came back and said it was amazing.

He asked what I was doing now, and I told him I was cutting it shorter and he said don’t do that. I told him I had to do it for the theatrical release and he said he was happy to look at cuts while I cut it down to a theatrical cut, because you have to be so blind after this three year editing process with over 1,000 hours of material.

He wanted to tell me if I happened to take out any vital organs and since he has become a passionate advocate of the film. Last week we did the DVD commentary together for the longer director’s cut that will come out in the United States after awards season.

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