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A Cannibalistic Feast: An Interview with Joshua Oppenheimer




By Daniel Lindvall.

Anwar Congo wraps a steel wire a couple of times around a pole, then around his own neck. He is demonstrating how he killed hundreds of “communists” on this very rooftop terrace somewhere in northern Sumatra almost 50 years ago. Now a greying playboy, Congo is one of all the small-time gangsters that were hired to physically carry out the genocide that followed Suharto’s coup in Indonesia in 1965. In the documentary The Act of Killing the murderers themselves tell their stories. I met the film’s director Joshua Oppenheimer in Stockholm during the Tempo Documentary Festival early in March 2013.

That 39-year-old, Texas-born American Joshua Oppenheimer makes films about genocide and class struggle seems like a natural choice given his family background.

“I grew up with these two stories. My father’s family escaped the Holocaust. One story from my father’s side of the family was that the end of all politics is to try to understand how something like the Holocaust could happen so that we can effectively prevent it from happening again,” he tells me.

“My mother and stepfather were labour lawyers and then quit being lawyers to be union activists. My stepfather used to say, rather flamboyantly, that the labour movement is the only bulwark against fascism. I was inculcated with that from a very early age.”

As a young filmmaker Oppenheimer started out making fiction films, but soon grew tired of “fake reality” and turned to documentaries. In the early 2000s Oppenheimer and his then collaborator Christine Cynn were sent to Indonesia by the IUF (the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Association) to help local plantation workers make a film about their working conditions. It was during their work on what was to become The Globalisation Tapes (2003) that Oppenheimer and Cynn first learned about the genocide. They discovered that they were in the midst of a community where victims and perpetrators lived side by side.

“In the very first interview, a death squad leader shows us, in front of his 10-year-old daughter, how he would drown people in irrigation ditches after beating them unconscious. That was the first glimpse of the story that is at the centre of The Act of Killing,” remembers Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer and Cynn realized that they wanted to return to tell the story of the genocide. Initially they intended to focus on the victims.

“There were art forms that had been very popular in the villages that were accused of being communistic or vehicles for communist messages, and the artists who practiced them had been thrown in concentration camps or killed. They include various forms of village theatre and opera. The idea was to work with survivors of the concentration camps who had been practitioners to revive these forms to tell the story of what had happened,” says Oppenheimer.

They set up rehearsals, but as soon as the music attracted a few onlookers the military and the police arrived to put a stop to it. People were arrested. Fear spread. Oppenheimer realized that the genocide was in an important aspect an on-going crime.

“The Act of Killing is a story not so much about what happened in 1965-66, but about the whole regime of terror and impunity and fear that has been in place ever since. It’s an economy of terror based in part on genocide. We understood how the people we were living with felt that it could happen again if their union was too militant, too demanding.”

But if the surviving victims were too afraid to talk, the killers were more than willing. For decades they had been lionized by the official propaganda-machine. Years after Suharto’s departure they were still celebrated as freedom fighters by presenters of popular talk shows on state television, as visible in the film. Feeling invulnerable they boasted freely, something that suggested an idea to Oppenheimer and Cynn. (Cynn worked “intensely” on the film initially, but “gradually less so,” and is credited as co-director).

“We discovered that that’s the way to tell the story. Go film the killers! Film the way they talk about it and the world will see the nature of this regime,” says Oppenheimer.

So they start filming the killers, one killer leading to the next.

“I felt compelled to film everyone I could find, because I knew that no one had ever documented the massacres in this region. Tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands were killed there and when men would grow old and die so to would the stories. So I worked my way up the chain of command to the commanders and finally to two retired CIA officials living outside of DC and some army generals in Djakarta. Along the way I met the characters in The Act of Killing,” explains Oppenheimer.

The CIA had already tried unsuccessfully to overthrow Indonesia’s nationalist president Sukarno in 1957-58, by arming tens of thousands of rebels, Indonesians as well as foreign soldiers of fortune, and giving them direct air support, with CIA pilots carrying out bombing and strafing missions (Blum 2003: 102-3). Sukarno’s independent foreign policy, including as host of the first conference of the Non-Aligned Movement in Bandung in 1955, his nationalist economic policies and his co-operation with Indonesia’s large, popular and peaceful communist party, which he tried to use as a counterweight to the US-influenced army, made him intolerable the Western powers.

How great a part the CIA played in the series of events that lead to Suharto’s coup in 1965 is uncertain, but once it was underway it was given full support. CIA officers assisted the new dictatorship in drawing up the death lists (Blum 2003: 194). Approximately one million people were killed during a few months in 1965-66. In line with cold war policy, the term “communist” was freely ascribed to anyone standing in the way of the unfettered rule of capital, some victims were party members, many were not.

But although Oppenheimer traced the chain of command all the way to Washington and the Indonesian military top brass, he chose not to use the interviews with the CIA agents, nor those with the generals in Djakarta. An important reason for this was that they simply weren’t boastful in the same way as the hired killers. There lies a risk in allowing the perpetrators alone the spotlight. They can end up presenting their perspective so convincing, in such an apparently reasonable fashion, as to win our sympathies. But as opposed to media savvy ex-spies or former generals, the killers we see in the film lack entirely the self-understanding and self-criticism – real or pretended – necessary to come off as anything other than what they are. Nevertheless, the ruling class does figure in the film, in the shape of representatives of the younger generation that has built its power on the regime of terror put in place by the genocide. We see both a local governor and a minister cheerfully rub shoulders with the main characters. In a particularly chilling speech, the minister – a man considered “a moderate,” Oppenheimer points out – praises Indonesia’s gangsters as an invaluable service provider to the nation’s business community.

The film’s driving trope – allowing these men not simply to tell their stories but to re-enact them in a series of ever more complex and grotesque roll playing games influenced by their love for Hollywood genre films – evolved organically from that interview with Anwar Congo on the roof top terrace.

“Anwar takes me to the roof. He dances the cha-cha where he killed a thousand people… That was the beginning,” remembers Oppenheimer.

Anwar Congo was the 41st killer that Oppenheimer interviewed, but with his gentle smile and his air of aging but well preserved charmer – who loves to dance and drowns his nightmares in a bottle – he soon became the central character of the film. He boasts just like the others, but Oppenheimer sensed something more, a faint crack in the façade that widens gradually during the film.

“I sensed in Anwar that there was a stone in his shoe when he was dancing the cha-cha. The past was there. When he enters the roof there is a short moment when he exhales nervously. He knows he’s about to go into something unpleasant. It tells us he’s not at ease. Film is about subtext, it’s about facial expressions. It’s not a good medium for words, text is a good medium for words. Film is great when the characters don’t believe the words they are saying and you can see that on their faces,” says Oppenheimer.

This outwardly visible inner conflict sets Anwar Congo off from the old friends that surround him. His eternal sidekick, the short and stout Herman, parades around in drag and stages a glamorous musical number in front of a waterfall to celebrate the absolute happiness that rules in the “free” Indonesia he has killed for. The cynical Adi, with his business man-front, faces up to the truth but brushes off any feelings of guilt with the help of a Nietzschean philosophy of history wherein victory justifies anything.

Herman can deny the truth, Adi can dismiss it. But Anwar Congo can do neither. He puts his trust in an old propaganda film that portrays “the communists” as sadisitical murderers, a film that every school child had to see once a year during the dictatorship. Without this film he could never have done what he did, he explains. It gives him a false image of himself, an image he clings to, all the time knowing, on one level, that it is fake.

“One thing I discovered is that what you know as a fact and what you believe can be totally different. And you can act on that belief and ignore what you know,” says Oppenheimer.

It could be said that The Act of Killing is a film about Anwar Congo’s gradual acceptance of the truth; his five-year journey to the point where he can no longer emotionally deny the facts that he already knows to be true. In the meantime, we have seen him take part in a series of ever more absurd re-enactments of the past – as gangster movie, as cowboy film. Along the way he goes from acting the part of executioner to taking on the role of victim. Initially it all looks like an attempt at adopting the aura of the Hollywood hero to cover the cracks in a self-image constructed entirely of lies. Towards the end Anwar Congo seems to be looking for catharsis through identification with his victims. Ultimately he thinks he has succeeded. He believes he now understands the victims’ experience. At this point Oppenheimer intervenes.

“I point out to him, ‘You’ll never be able to contain the horror. You’re acting in a movie. These people were being killed.’ That’s when he sees the abyss…”

The film ends where it began, on the rooftop terrace. Anwar Congo’s emaciated body is shaken by cramps. He tries to vomit, loudly and violently, time after time.

“It’s as if he’s trying to vomit up the ghosts haunting him and nothing is coming up. He is the ghost. We are our past and there is no catharsis for him. It was a very painful moment, because on one level I love Anwar as a human being. We’ve made a long journey together. And I had to choke my instinct to go put my arm around him, to comfort him, because I realized that there was nothing I could say to comfort him that wouldn’t be completely dishonest.

“The final shot of him in the stairs, it’s like he’s in purgatory. Maybe a thousand people have died up there. He stays there on that landing for so long, because he knows that there is no escape. There is no escaping into fantasy no more. He is of that world, of the dead.”

The Act of Killing paints what might look like a hopeless, and terrifying, picture of a nation still run by gangsters and mass-murderers. Does Oppenheimer see hope at all?

“The film holds up a dark mirror to Anwar, to all of Indonesian society. But it also holds up a dark mirror to all of us in that we are all much closer to perpetrators than we like to think. The reason we consume so readily documentaries where the main protagonists are survivors or victims of some great wrong is partly because it is nice to be reassured, through identification, that we are also like victims and survivors,” says Oppenheimer and looks around the bunker-like basement conference room we’re sitting in at a hotel in central Stockholm.

“Everything in this room is haunted by the suffering that made it. This phone [Oppenheimer holds up his Iphone] is made in a factory where workers retire at night to a dormitory, where they have netting on the balconies so the workers don’t throw themselves off in despair. Just like the workers on the plantation in Sumatra, the workers who made this and all of our clothing are afraid because there are men like Anwar Congo paid by the companies to keep them afraid. And we depend on this system to clothe ourselves and feed ourselves. I’m not saying there is no other alternative, but at the moment we depend on that. We eat that, we consume that, we live that, and that takes a toll on us. In a sense we are guests at a cannibalistic feast and we know it. We may not be as close to the slaughter as Anwar and his friends, but we’re at the table.”

But in this proximity between us and Anwar, Oppenheimer also locates hope.

“I think, the hope and the horror are the same thing in the film; that the killers are human,” he explains.

If the Indonesian genocide, and all the other horrors of modern history, were not the results of congenitally evil people, but rather of social conditions, then evil can also be overcome.

“The hope is that we can overcome this by creating social conditions that discourage people from making the kind of choices that Anwar made. Every killer I met killed for the same reason. They were given an opportunity to kill for money and power and were going to get away with it. I think that goes all the way up the chain of command to Suharto,” says Oppenheimer.

Another reason for optimism is the impact the film has had in Indonesia. During the autumn of 2012 the films was screened to leading intellectuals, including journalists, historians, filmmakers and human rights activists.

“They, I think, uniformly loved the film and started reporting on the genocide as a genocide,” says Oppenheimer.

He does not believe they actually learned that much new from the film. It was more a question of the film helping them to bridge that gap between what they knew and what they wanted to believe in.

“This film is about exposing the truth that everybody already knows but is to afraid to admit. Everybody always knows everything, as a principle, I think. Almost always,” states Oppenheimer.

Since December 2012, 270 screenings for the public have also been arranged around the country. They have been free and held in other locales than cinemas in order not to give Indonesia’s political censors a chance to ban the film, which would then make any screening of it illegal. Hopefully such screenings will also encourage the victims to speak out. Before our time is up Oppenheimer tells me that he has, in fact, continued filming the victims as well and that this will shortly result in a second film, a companion piece to The Act of Killing.

But fear is still great. As we stand up Oppenheimer takes a look at my note pad and spots the word “Anonymous,” which is frequently repeated in the film’s credits, including as co-director.

“‘Anonymous’ means afraid. My anonymous co-director is my best friend, the most creative guy I’ve ever worked with. They were the most wonderful people I’ve ever worked with, all these anonymous.”

Daniel Lindvall is Film International’s editor-in-chief.

Reference

Blum, William (2003), Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, London: Zed Books.

3 Comments for “A Cannibalistic Feast: An Interview with Joshua Oppenheimer”

  1. Christopher Sharrett

    Superb, Daniel.

  2. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

    Brilliant interview, Daniel. This film is indeed harrowing and very unusual; and the connection to Hollywood fantasy is both horrifying and important. But there is one stand-out comment by Oppenheimer that is worth emphasis:

    “. . . we are all much closer to perpetrators than we like to think. The reason we consume so readily documentaries where the main protagonists are survivors or victims of some great wrong is partly because it is nice to be reassured, through identification, that we are also like victims and survivors.”

    We human beings prefer to think of ourselves as victims and survivors, not killers and perpetrators, even when it has little basis in reality. This film is not only about the people of Indonesia. It is about the human race.

  3. Wheeler Winston Dixon

    This is an amazing and really unsettling film — and a great interview. Oppenheimer has made a harrowing and genuinely horrific film, much more terrifying than any fictional construct could ever be. The killers could be any one of us, for as Oppenheimer notes, “Every killer I met killed for the same reason. They were given an opportunity to kill for money and power and were going to get away with it.” This could apply to just about anyone. Once again we are confronted with the banality of evil, but also its close proximity to our daily lives. I’ll be really interested to see what Oppenheimer does next — in the meantime, this is an excellent piece on film – congratulations!!

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