Interview: Oscar-nominated Act of Killing Director on the Humanity of Evil

An in-depth discussion with Joshua Oppenheimer about the process behind making one of the year's most acclaimed films, his thoughts on the nature of evil, and the conflict he feels about caring for his subjects.

by | January 17, 2014 | Comments

One of 2013’s most discussed and lauded films, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing takes a by-turns chilling, humorous, and insightful tour in the company of Indonesia’s infamous death squad leaders — the men behind a series of 1965 massacres that were among the worst in history — as they gleefully recreate their crimes through the skewed lens of old Hollywood movies and bizarre musical numbers. With The Act of Killing arriving on Blu-ray and DVD this week — and collecting an Oscar-nomination for Best Documentary — we spoke with Oppenheimer on how the film has generated new forms of dialogue with audiences, the nature of what he calls “the humanity of evil,” and his conflicted relationship with his “star” — charismatic mass murderer Anwar Congo.

It’s been a tremendous year for this film: people are still discussing it, it topped Sight and Sound‘s year-end poll — even though you got a bad review in the magazine. How does it feel to still be talking about The Act of Killing, all this time later?

Joshua Oppenheimer: Well, above all it’s been pleasing, and a great honor, that viewers and critics — but especially viewers all over the world, above all in Indonesia but everywhere — have opened themselves to the film’s painful, mysterious, and complicated message. By allowing themselves to approach men like Anwar Congo and his friends through my intimacy with them, through my closeness with them, they choose to become close to Anwar and his friends, and see a small part of themselves in men like Anwar. I think in that moment something else happens that I think is pretty radical — the whole paradigm in which we divide up the world into good guys and bad guys collapses, and people start to ask all kinds of questions about their own humanity and the nature of evil. I think that reaction, and the courage that it takes people to go through that, is really heartening to me. Especially when that reaction has taken place in Indonesia.

So yes, it’s a long time to be talking about the same thing [laughs], but I’ve learned a lot about the film through the audience. You finish a film not in the editing, but in the conversations that audiences have with themselves — and in that sense every viewer is making a slightly different film. And that’s wonderful. I’ve learned a lot. Of course, there is some repetition, but above all it’s invigorating, because the film that took eight years to make has grown millions of manifestations of itself when everyone sees it.

It’s interesting that you say the film invites a dialogue with the audience, because it doesn’t take the easy path of condemning these men. What’s something you learned about the film from that dialogue — say from an audience reaction — that you perhaps didn’t think about before?

Oppenheimer: That’s a really good question. How would I answer that? There’s so many things I’ve learned, but what’s the most interesting thing I’ve learned from an audience reaction? Two things, I guess, and they’re related. First of all, there was a very striking moment when someone said, “You have forgiven Anwar.” And I said, “I don’t feel that that’s my role. I don’t feel like either forgiving or condemning is my role. It’s not my purpose, for me to do that; I’m not a court.” And the viewers have corrected me there on a number of occasions, and said, “No, by seeing the human being beyond the actions, that is forgiveness. That is what forgiveness is.” And that left a pretty strong impression on me as I thought about who I am after making this film. And whatever viewer told me that — I don’t remember, for such a precious lesson it’s a pity I don’t remember who told me that — that left a strong impression on me.

The other thing that’s somehow related to that is about where Anwar is at the end of the film. I’ve resisted the notion that Anwar is in any way redeemed, and I think that’s correct — I don’t think that he is redeemed. I think that some people have been quick to say that there’s this catharsis at the end. It may be cathartic for the viewer to discover in Anwar that, despite everything, there remains this indigestible residue of humanity that physically and morally rejects what he’s done. Once I was asked very, very plainly, “Does Anwar regret what he’s done?” Instead of saying “Did Anwar feel remorse?” which would involve Anwar more reflectively considering his own feelings, the question “Does he regret what he’s done?” stood out as immediately easy to answer. I said, “Yes, of course he regrets what he’s done; he’s been tormented by it for years.” That also was a discovery.

And then of course, what I was trying to emphasize, the biggest discovery about the film was its capacity to stand as a mirror for people. The whole method is that it’s a dark mirror for Anwar, but it’s also a dark mirror for Indonesian society as a whole, and it’s a dark mirror for all of us. And perhaps that capacity of the film to stand as a mirror, and the willingness of people from all over the world to look into that mirror, however dark the image they see there, has been really heartening and, by implication, a real discovery for me.

It’s that familiar scenario that many have commented on: the banality of evil. Because the killers are very human, it makes it possible for an audience to see themselves in them.

Oppenheimer: You made a leap there, which is good, but I think that it’s worth pausing and reflecting on. The film shows something by approaching Anwar and his friends as human beings. Unless we see them as human we won’t be able to understand how we do this to each other, and the effects — how we as humans, after having done such things, live with ourselves, and the effects of the stories, the lies, we tell ourselves to justify our actions because we’re human. You talk about the banality of evil, but what I think the film is really exploring, somehow, is the humanity of evil; the involvement of our humanity and morality — not immorality — in the practice of evil. And what I mean by that is, I think one of the most frightening things the film witnesses, and you see it all the more starkly in the longer director’s cut of the film, is the way that because we’re human, after we commit atrocities we have to lie to ourselves to justify what we’ve done. And that is not a sign of our immorality, that’s a sign of our humanity, and our morality — our vulnerability to the tormenting effects of guilt.

Anwar and his friends have won, and in having won they’re been part of writing a victor’s history. As one of them says in the film, If you can get away with killing and you get paid enough for it, go ahead and do it. But then you must make up an excuse so you can live with yourself afterwards, and you must cling to that excuse for dear life. Well Anwar and his friends — and there’s a whole section about the anti-communist propaganda in the longer version of the film — have clung to the lies justifying what they’re done for dear life, so that they can live with their selves. Although they know they’re false, they’ve acted as if they’re true, because that’s the only way that they can live with themselves. To maintain those lies, it inevitably leads to a downward spiral of further lies and corruption that can only end, somehow, in a moral vacuum. Now they have to blame their victims for what they’re done, because that’s what the propaganda says — that it’s the victim’s fault. They have to dehumanize the victims, because it’s much easier for them to live with themselves if the victims are not fully human in their eyes. And above all, they must kill again, or torture again, because the government now says to Anwar and his friends, “Kill this group of people, for the same reason that you killed the first group.” If they refuse, it’s equivalent to admitting it was wrong the first time.

So the repetition, this hypothetical repetition that I’m talking about, happens not because Anwar is a sadistic monster who carries on blindly committing evil, but because he’s a human, and being human he knows what he’s done is wrong and he can’t cope with that. So we see here, in the longer cut of the film, in the terrible sequence of film noir scenes that culminates in Anwar playing the victim at the end. In that movement through sadism, before Anwar finds himself in the victims’ chair, I think we somehow start to feel that remorse that he starts to feel in the nightmare sequences when he burns down the village. Remorse is painful for Anwar. Instead of reacting to it with more remorse, he reacts to it with sadism. He pushes it away. He gets angry, because he feels hurt. Having killed has damaged him, and who does he blame for that? He blames the victims, and throws himself all the more readily and despairingly into his sadism, and finds himself playing the victim. If there’s a single omission from the shorter version of the film, it’s that sequence. The whole rhythm of the director’s cut, the pace, the peculiar pauses that allow you to rest after moments of real violence, the whole structure and pace is all building up to that final descent into Hell.

But both versions of the film witness that so much of what we call evil may stem from our morality. And this is counter-intuitive and it’s very frightening, because it shows that not only are there not evil people among us who we could somehow deal with if we could find them, but evil is not a sectioned-off part of ourselves — it is an integral part of who we are, and it has something to do, I think, with despair, and surrender, and anger. It ultimately comes down to humanity, and in witnessing that last act in The Act of Killing, certainly in the long version, viewers are seeing “Oh no, this is who we are” in a very frightening way.

Next, Oppenheimer on how he got access to the death squads to tell their stories, and his thoughts on the relationship he’s developed with Anwar Congo.

The scene is frightening because, like a lot of the film, it’s mixed up in not only real terror but a very dark humor at the same time. There’s something I did want to ask you about, for the people who perhaps haven’t read this before. Going back to the beginning, you originally set out to make a documentary on the survivors of the massacres, before you were put in touch with these guys. Did you come up against any resistance? Weren’t they suspicious of you?

Oppenheimer: Oh yeah, that’s right — when we began making the film. Did I come up against resistance when I started working with the perpetrators? I started this whole project working with survivors in this small plantation village, and when the army got wind of the fact that the survivors were participating in the film, they told them not to participate any more. They survivors with whom I was living said, “Okay, Josh — if you can’t film with us, before you give up you should try and film the aging death squad leaders living around us, because they may be able to tell you how our loved ones were killed.” So I approached these men — one of them was living directly across from where I was staying — I approached these men cautiously, unsure if it was safe to talk to them about the past and the killings, but to my horror every single one of them was immediately open and boastful about what they’d done. I don’t know why those first perpetrators I met weren’t suspicious of me, given that I was living with the relatives of the people they’d killed, but perhaps that coexistence was so normal to them that it didn’t signify much. Perhaps the army, not wanting to worry them, hadn’t told them that I was exploring that stuff that happened in 1965.

In any case, we got away with it in the first village. Then, when I showed that footage to those survivors that wanted to see it, and the human rights community, they told me to continue. They said, “Keep filming the perpetrators, you’re on to something terribly important. Through this material you can expose the entire regime.” So I obliged and filmed every perpetrator I could find over two years, by which time I’d moved far enough away from the orbit of the small community of survivors that there wasn’t so much of a risk of people finding out what I was up to. If I was being monitored by the military or the government, I had worked myself so far up the chain of command of the perpetrators that I thinking the low-level intelligence officers — if they were monitoring me — wouldn’t dare raise suspicions with such powerful men at that level. Some of them will be in my next film, which is forthcoming. So through the process I don’t think there was much suspicion of me.

What was your pitch?

My pitch was very simple. As I filmed perpetrator after perpetrator they would tell me stories, often with smiles on their faces, often in front of their wives, children or little grandchildren, and then afterwards say “Hey, I can take you to the place where I killed?” and the next day we would go. At the location they would tell me what they had done and then launch into these sort of spontaneous demonstrations of how they killed, and often they would bring along props. If they’d forgotten to bring along props they would complain: “Oh, I should have brought along a machete.” Sometimes they’d bring along friends to play victims, as well. So the scene on the roof with Anwar, where he shows how he killed the wire and dances the Cha, Cha, Cha, that in fact was the very first day that I met him; that was typical of a first day of filming with a perpetrator in North Sumatra. Anwar was the 41st perpetrator I’d filmed, so by that time I’d filmed dozens, and long before I’d said to them, “Look, you’ve participated in one of the biggest killings in human history, I want to understand what it means to you and your society; you want to tell me what you’ve done, so go ahead and show me in whatever way you wish. I will film the process, but I’ll also film you and your fellow death squad members talking about preparing those reenactments. In that way I’ll make a film that shows what this means to your society, and how you want to be seen.”

I could be that open with them because they were that open with me — if not about their feelings about what they’d done, but at least about the facts of what they’d done. The method was not a trick to get them to open up — this method of reenactment — it was a response to their openness, a way of trying to understand why they’re so open. I lingered on Anwar, not because I was looking for the right main character, but because his pain was close to the surface — even if he was doing something as grotesquely boastful as dancing where he’d killed hundreds of people. In fact, it’s not boastful — it’s a manifestation of radical denial. I started to intuit that his boasting was not really a sign of pride, but a sign of the opposite — that all of these men know what they’ve done is wrong. They’re boasting because they’ve never been forced to admit it was wrong by some invading army or a court.

The oblivion that Anwar and Herman exist in often makes them come off like big kids. It reminded me a little of Idi Amin. Did you ever see the Barbet Schroeder documentary on him?

Oppenheimer: Yeah, it’s wonderful. One of my very, very favorite films.

In that film, even though you know what Amin’s up to, you can’t help but laugh because he’s very charming — albeit in an entirely deranged manner. I felt a little of that in Anwar, although, as you say, you can see the denial bubbling under.

Oppenheimer: I’ve always talked about that humanity, but I think with Idi Amin there’s something else going on with his enjoying an act. There’s a way with which Idi Amin is filmed enjoying an act. And Anwar is enjoying his act, and enjoying acting in the film, but because he’s told us that he would walk out of the cinema, out of an Elvis Presley vehicle in 1965, and enjoy the intoxication of his cinematic identification with Elvis and dance across the street and kill happily, there’s a kind of radical denial into which Anwar slips, into which I slip with him, as he enjoyed the act of making the film much in the same way as he would have enjoyed the act he had to throw himself into in order to carry out the act of killing.

There’s a very strong sense that you’re empathizing with Anwar as the film progresses, and I know that you’ve stayed in touch with him. Did you find yourself at a point where you were enjoying making this film? Not in the sense that you were enjoying the subject matter, but that perhaps you had warmed to Anwar’s company.

Oppenheimer: There were many levels of enjoyment in making the film. I had the most wonderful Indonesian crew. They were my second family and dearest friends. We had a lot of fun making this film, although it was very painful as well. The making of this film gave many of us pretty tough nightmares and insomnia and so on. Of course I could enjoy Anwar as another human being: he’s funny, he’s charming; you’ve seen it in the film. That open view to Anwar is an essential part of how the film works. We open to Herman and Anwar because they’re funny, they’re generous, they’re charming — and then they do something terrible, and we’re forced to confront the humanity of evil. I opened to him as well. I think I had to, in order to deal honestly with him as a human being. I made a decision that I would never make the leap from thinking because Anwar has done something monstrous I will treat Anwar as a monster at all times; I will treat him as human at all times. And to treat someone as human is to be open to them and allow yourself to be close to them and be charmed by them or to like them. So of course I liked Anwar at times; of course I liked parts of Anwar. The frightening aspect of that is what that reveals: that liking somebody — whether someone’s likeable or nice — is wholly immaterial. In fact, being likeable and nice may make it easier for some people to commit evil. It’s the very thing I was saying earlier: committing evil does not depend on being a monster. And yet I will say one thing as well. I would feel a deep internal resistance every time I would have to go back to Anwar unexpectedly. If, say at the end of a day of shooting I’d forgotten something at his house and I had to go back and collect it, or if I had to call Anwar an extra times, or if I had to go visit — and even now I stay in touch with him; I want to stay in touch with him; I care for him — I’m conflicted about it.

The Act of Killing is released on Blu-ray and DVD this week, and is available through iTunes, Netflix and VOD.