Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer discusses the making of his film, The Act of Killing.
Read an interview with The Act of Killing Editor Niels Pagh Andersen »
Read an interview with The Act of Killing Producer Signe Byrge Sørenson »
POV: For those who haven't seen the film, can you give us a description of The Act of Killing, the thumbnail sketch of the film.
Joshua Oppenheimer: Well, in 1965, the Indonesian military launched a coup-d'etat basically took over the government of Indonesia and inaugurated a military dictatorship and immediately they went after all opponents or potential opponents of the new dictatorship rounding them up, accusing them of being communists, artists, intellectuals, journalists, educators and leftists, and killed them. And the people who did this, civilian death squad leaders and army people have been basically in power ever since and because they've been in power, they've never been forced to admit what they've done is wrong. So when you speak to them, instead of denying, instead of them denying what they've done, or indeed apologizing for it, they boast about it.
The Act of Killing is a film about perpetrators of genocide who've won. And who in their victory have built a whole regime that celebrates crimes against humanity as something heroic. How to understand this and to understand the corrosive effects of this grotesque denial of the meaning of genocide, the meaning of what they've done, I let these boastful and seemingly unrepentant perpetrators of genocide dramatize what they've done in whatever ways they wish, to reveal how they want to be seen, how they see themselves, what this means to their society, what this means to them and thereby intervene in this context of impunity, to expose a whole regime in which normality is built on terror and lies.
POV: How long have you spent in Indonesia and how did you become involved in this particular topic.
Joshua Oppenheimer: Well, about twelve years ago I went to Indonesia with my colleague Christine Cynn to facilitate, to help plantation workers make a film themselves documenting their struggle to organize a union in the aftermath of the Suharto dictatorship and it turned out they desperately needed a union because they were spraying a herbicide and the women workers were made to spray a herbicide, a weed killer with no protective clothing that was dissolving their livers and killing them in their 40s and yet they were afraid to organize a union because their parents and grandparents had been in a strong plantation workers union and had been killed for it. And that was my first encounter with Indonesia and my first encounter with the 1965 genocide.
When we finished making that film, it was called The Globalisation Tapes, it came out in 2002, when we finished making that film the survivors said come back right away and let's make another film together about why we are afraid. That is to say, what it's like for us to live wit the perpetrators all around us still in positions of power. We went back immediately, but the army would no longer let the survivors participate in the film. The army found out we were talking about 1965 and would detain us or them whenever we tried to film.
The survivors then said okay, if you can't film us, before you quit, before you go home, try and interview the aging death squad leaders in our village, perhaps they will tell you how our loved ones were killed. We approached these men, unsure if it was safe to talk about the killings with them at all and to our horror, each and every one of them responded with boastful, detailed, grisly accounts of mass killing which they would tell often with a smile on their face in front of their wives, their children, and even their grandchildren.
In this contrast between survivors who are forced into silence and perpetrators who are boasting, I had this queasy feeling that I'd wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust only to find the Nazis still in power and I knew I would spend as many years of my life as it would take to expose this horrific situation of fear, corruption and impunity.
I showed that early material to those survivors who wanted to see it and to the broader Indonesian human rights community and everybody said you're on to something terribly important, keep filming the perpetrators because with this material you can expose the whole nature of this regime. Film the perpetrators and make a film that comes to Indonesia like the child in the emperor's new clothes, and forces everybody to acknowledge the rotten heart of what's going on here. And that's essentially what we spent seven and a half years doing.
POV: So you started talking to perpetrators in the villages. Talk a little bit about that process, how you approached them, how many people you spoke with, and then the process of narrowing that down to your main characters.
Joshua Oppenheimer: Well at first I approached them cautiously because I really wasn't sure if it was safe to ask them about the killing so I would ask very general questions like tell me about your youth or tell me what you did before your retirement and they would within seconds come to their role in the killings because that was the most important thing they've done, it's the thing that has haunted them the rest of their lives although they wouldn't admit that and it was the thing by which they defined the rest of their lives and it was the basis for whatever career they had afterwards. Men who were elementary school art teachers who were promoted because they participated in the killing to be the head of the ministry of education for that region or the manager of a whole plantation from being a low level security guard because they'd killed hundreds of people.
So immediately I would get these awful stories and then feeling entrusted by the survivors and the human rights community to do a work that they could not safely do themselves, to speak to the killers, I then would ask them to introduce me to any other remaining, any other death squad leaders whom they knew and I worked from plantation to plantation, death squad to death squad, up the chain of command from the countryside to the city. Each and every perpetrator was boastful, usually they would invite me to the places where they killed and I would of course accept those invitations because I could document what happened that way. And then when we'd arrive they would launch into spontaneous demonstrations of how they killed and complain afterwards that they hadn't thought to use a machete for example as a prop in the reenactments or they hadn't thought to bring along a fellow death squad veteran to play a victim.
And after filming five or ten people going through this process, I started to really want to know not just what happened but why are they boasting. I was getting something much closer to performance than I was getting to sober testimony, the kind of sober testimony we're used to in human rights related documentaries. And performance is always oriented towards a spectator, towards an imagined audience and I was thinking who is their imagined audience? How do they want to be seen and how do they see themselves?
So after filming five or ten perpetrators do this I started to ask them very directly or propose to them very directly, look, you've participated in one of the biggest killings in human history. I could be that open with them because they were that open with me. I want to know what it means to you and to your society. You want to show me what you've done so go ahead and show me what you've done in whatever way you wish. I will film the process, I will film your reenactments, but I will also film you and your fellow death squad veterans discussing what you want to show, what you want to leave out, and your reasons for it and combine these things to create perhaps a new form of documentary, a kind of documentary of the imagination but that one which answers these fundamental questions of how you want to be seen, how you see yourself, what this means to you, what this means to your society.
In that sense, the reenactments in The Act of Killing are not for a separate film that's within the film. They're not making a second film. There is no film within the film. Everybody involved with the movie knows that they're making scenes only for The Act of Killing. The method of the film is not a lure or a trick to get them to open up. On the contrary, it's a response to their openness.
Now Anwar was the main character of the film. Anwar Congo was the 41st perpetrator I filmed. I'd spent two years filming every perpetrator I could find by the time I met him. Now I should emphasize, I don't think of that two year period as a casting process. I lingered on Anwar because somehow his pain was close to the surface and the very first day I met him is this early scene in the film where he takes me up to the roof where he's killed hundreds of people, shows me how he went about it, and then explains that to forget these traumatic memories, he's spent a life as a playboy drinking, taking drugs, going out dancing and he starts to dance the cha-cha-cha where he's killed hundreds of people. And for me that moment was this horrific nightmarish allegory for the impunity that the survivors and the human rights community entrusted me to expose.
But I also saw that in that sense it was one of the most grotesque and boastful things that I'd filmed up to that point, and yet his pain is already present there. His conscience is present. He says he's trying to forget what he did. And I started to wonder, wait a moment, is it possible that all of this boasting that I've spent two years filming and seeing as a sign of pride, as something else? What if it's a sign that these men know what they've done is wrong and are desperately trying to convince themselves otherwise and insisting through their fearsome reputation that the rest of the society acknowledge it as something heroic too so they don't have to face their consciences, which as human beings they all have.
POV: I want to come back to the reenactments in a little bit. So you met Anwar, he was the 41st person you met, and was he the person who introduced you to Herman and to the other characters in the film?
Joshua Oppenheimer: Yes. When I reached the city of Medan I found that the army recruited its killers from the ranks of these gangsters and the gangsters had been in the '60s hanging out in movie theaters and scalping tickets, alongside much more serious criminal activity, and all of the death squads operated out of different movie theaters. That was serendipitous and shocking to me because suddenly as I talked to these aging death squad leaders I found that cinema and their love of Hollywood cinema played a role in the way they imagined the killings at the time of the killings and indeed the way they performed the killings. And I initially thought okay I will have different death squads operating out of different cinemas dramatize or show me different aspects of what happened. But gangsters are nothing if not territorial and competitive. They're all in this paramilitary movement that you see in the film called Pancasila Youth but actually they hate each other. They're competing over turf. They've spent a lifetime competing over turf for drug traffic, for all sorts of illegal activities they're involved with. Anwar typically would say well, if you film that guy again I don't want to be in the film and the other guy would say the same. So I realized I had to focus on one death squad and so I chose Anwar's death squad in part because I found Anwar really interesting and also it happened to be, and this was lucky, the most notorious death squad in the city of Medan and it operated out of the most glamorous and significant cinema in Medan where we made the film and then I realized to show structure, given that I couldn't film people in multiple death squads or I couldn't make a film with people in multiple death squads, to show structure and institutional embrace of what they did both at the time and in the present I should show the hierarchy around these men, the paramilitary movement they founded, their protégés and so Anwar started to introduce me to all these associates of his. His best friend and protégé Herman Koto who plays a very important role in the film. His fellow death squad leader Adi Zulkadry who flies up from Jakarta to participate in the film, the publisher of a newspaper and interrogator of the prisoners who is still one of Indonesia's biggest publishers and was the head of the Indonesian film festival for many years. A man named Ibrahim Sinik who comes into the film to help write the scripts for some of Anwar's reenactments on Anwar's behalf.
So Anwar introduced me to this whole network of people around him ranging from the governor of the province, the vice president of the country, the head of this enormous three million person strong right wing paramilitary leader and his close associates in the killings and in the gangster movement.
POV: So you have this military regime. And you have the paramilitary groups, the Pancasila?
Joshua Oppenheimer: Yeah.
POV: The Pancasila youth who are essentially being subcontracted by the government, by the military regime to exterminate these groups of communists, be they intellectuals or farmers or whatever they may be. Is that kind of the structure?
Joshua Oppenheimer: Yeah, but maybe I should just say a little bit more about the context.
The United States at the time of the 1965 coup and then genocide was providing weapons, money to the army, training to paramilitary groups, radios so that the army could coordinate the killings across this vast archipelago of 17,000 islands. And there were State Department officials who've gone on the record and CIA officials who've gone on the record describing how they compiled lists of thousands of names of Indonesian public figures, intellectuals, journalists, union leader whom the U.S. gave to the army, these lists and said, we want these people killed.
The same time, the U.S. produced propaganda seeking to drive a wedge between Indonesia and China. Basically saying that the Chinese Indonesians, which were an ethnic minority in Indonesia for several hundred years, that they were somehow because of China itself being a communist country, were somehow the brains of the Indonesian communism. And that little act of geopolitics, trying to drive a wedge between Indonesia and China led to 50,000 Chinese being killed simply by virtue of being Chinese.
Now this is largely forgotten in the United States. And I think there's two reasons for that. The U.S. media in fact reported on the killings with surprising accuracy, but in very confusing ways. For example, publications like the New York Times and Time magazine came out with headlines, the west's best news for years in Asia. A gleam of light in Asia. Over stories of rivers running red with blood, choked with bodies and hundreds of thousands of people being killed. This is hard for ordinary people, anywhere in the world, to assimilate. How do you remember a story....It makes no sense. How do you remember and make sense of a story about the mass killing of hundreds of thousands of people, it, when it's presented as good news?
So that's I think one reason why we in the west don't remember this, because we were, it was reported, it's good news and consequently made no sense. And the other reason is that this was in the lead up to the Vietnam war. It was during the Vietnam war, the U.S. was increasing its involvement in Vietnam. And the Vietnam war was being sold to the American people in terms of the domino theory, that communism could spread from China, right across southeast Asia and perhaps even to Australia. Now the most important domino in southeast Asia by far is Indonesia, because it straddles the shipping lanes between Europe and Asia. Any, any material, anything that comes from Europe to Asia, or vice versa has to pass through Indonesia.
And it has all the resources and population of southeast Asia. It has the oil, it has gas, it has minerals, it has forests. It has an enormous supply of cheap labor. And this was the domino that the U.S. didn't want to fall to communism. Now from 1965 onward, onwards, early in our involvement in Vietnam there was no chance of Indonesia becoming communist. The communists had been exterminated. So it fundamentally undermined the story that the U.S. government was telling the media and the public about why we were in Vietnam. And therefore, it wasn't discussed.
POV: So let's go back to the film. You use some very innovative formal devices through these reenactments. Can you describe how those, how those evolved and how you used them as part of the narrative?
Joshua Oppenheimer: Well what starts in the movie is a very simple demonstrations of killing, where somebody takes me to a place where they've killed and shows how they went about it and explains it while, while sort of telling, while showing. And evolves into increasingly elaborate genre inspired Hollywood inspired dramatizations. And the process was organic as you see in the film. It's compressed in the film. But it was an organic process and it had fundamentally one, there was fundamentally one mechanism involved. We would shoot one scene and we would screen it back for Anwar, to see how he would respond. He would respond emotionally and say what he wanted to do next.
POV: It's hard to call them reenactments because in some ways they're, they're so fantastical. They're not purporting to reenact a reality, they are fantasies in some fashion. I wonder if you have another term that you use for that device.
Joshua Oppenheimer: Well You have to remember that my fundamental goal was to understand how these men want to be seen and how they see themselves. So my proposal to them was make scenes about the killings in whatever way you wish. So I see them as scenes, as fiction scenes. Some of them are fantasies. Some of them embody Anwar's feelings about his life. At his desperate hope for redemption in the afterlife.
And I think that one of my principles, one of the things I deeply believe about our reality, about history, about who we are is that the past is beyond our reach. There's a tradition of reenactment in documentary which is about sort of illustrating what the past might have been like. And we, and those reenactments I think strive to make the past something which is beyond our reach, present to us. I'm not trying to do that in the, in the reenactments or in the fiction scenes in The Act of Killing because I really believe that the past is beyond our grasp and what is essential about the past is something unspeakable.
I think, ironically, the fact that Anwar and his friends are talking about what they did and describing what they did and showing us what they did, although it's horrific, it actually tames the past. By reducing something unimaginable, unspeakable, horrible beyond description to description, to these contained words, gestures, actions, scenes. The past recedes even further. And I think that's part of what makes it surprising and unexpected when it erupts with a vengeance at the end of the film.
POV: You are one of the directors of this film. You have other collaborators in Indonesia who are anonymous. Can you talk a little bit about you role working with them, how you worked together?
Joshua Oppenheimer: Well first of all, in general, there's, at the end of the film, we see 60 names credited as anonymous. These are the people who, these are people, some of them, who gave eight years of their lives to make this film with me, knowing that, and risking their safety to make this film, knowing that unless there's real political change in Indonesia, they would not be able to take credit for their work. So it is a real sadness for me that you can't have in a chair right next to me, particularly a man who I've credited as my anonymous co-director. He's someone who was working with me long before I met Anwar, in that period when I was filming every perpetrator I could find. He was my production manager, my assistant director, my second camera person, an assistant editor on the film. But above all, throughout the shooting process he was my main creative sounding board. And as I, we put the film together and I recognized that that dialogue is responsible for the film having been welcomed as authentically Indonesian, and the film having been welcomed as a work of Indonesian cinema, which has been so important to its impact on Indonesia, and my being welcomed as an Indonesian director, I recognize that given the importance of that dialogue, he really should be considered a co-director of the film.
And he has been one of my very dearest friends, remains indefatigably involved with the release of the film in Indonesia and making sure it has the most important, makes the most effective impact there. I mean he lit what was a very long and painful journey, a nightmarish journey at times, he lit that dark journey with laughter and with love and with support. He never failed to remind us all why this is so important, why this is so important.
POV: So talking, spending years talking to perpetrators, spending all this time with Anwar and Herman and their cohorts had to have an effect on you, on your co-directors and the rest of your crew and listening to all of these stories. What was that, you have to keep them engaged, as a filmmaker you have to maybe suspend your reaction. How did you cope with, with that part of the process?
Joshua Oppenheimer: I never for a second forgot my condemnation of their acts. Indeed that was why we were making the film. But I also refused to condemn them as human beings. I refused to make the leap from saying these men have done something monstrous to these men are monsters. Because I recognize in doing that I'm probably simply above all, reassuring myself that I'm not like them. And while if I grew up in Anwar Congo's family in 1950s Indonesia, I would hope that I would make different choices come 1965. I know that I'm extremely lucky never to have to find out.
And that meant approaching Anwar always as a human being. When I was overwhelmed and felt hatred or total disgust I would have to withdraw, take a few days off and then re-approach him as a human being shortly after. And when you approach someone as a human being, truly and try to be as open as safety allows, some of the bigger reenactments with a whole army of paramilitary people participating, I couldn't say my feelings openly in front of everybody, without it being dangerous for my crew and for all of us. But when I was alone with Anwar on the morning to (INAUD) reenactments, I could say exactly what I felt. And you hear me doing that in the film from time to time.
I'm often asked, do you forgive Anwar? And I always have said, you know it's not for me to forgive or to condemn, I'm a filmmaker. I'm trying to understand how human beings do this to each other and what are the consequences for our society? And how do we tell lies to ourselves to justify what we've done and what are the consequences of those lies? But actually maybe I also recognize that in turning empathy into a practice for many years, by turning, by forcing myself to separate at some level the humanity of a human being from his or her actions and recognizing that sometimes, even the the moral aspects of a human being can contribute to immoral behavior. For example when a killer kills and justifies what they've done to themselves, and then to maintain those justifications, they have to act on those justifications and do more immoral acts. If Anwar is asked by the army to kill again, Anwar has to do it, or had to do it because to refuse a second time would be to admit it was wrong the first time. But the further evil actions are not, may in fact be engendered by his humanity, by the fact that he knows what he did was wrong. And so that, that's one of the most painful and sort of counterintuitive things the film witnesses, but to come back from that digression, I guess realizing that the human being is separate from the, his, his or her actions, or that the humanity of a person, that there's not a bad part of a person that you can cut out like an apple, like the bad, rotten part of an apple, and that there's not bad people and good people out there, to realize all of that I guess is to forgive somehow.
It is actually to say, wait, there's someone there, there's a humanity there maybe that we don't expect that bears forgiveness. And I'm not, I'm not a Jesus figure. But at the end of the film, when Anwar's humanity erupts violently on the scene, I don't think it's a catharsis for Anwar at all. It's not a redemption for Anwar at all. In fact it is, it is the sign that he's broken, that he's destroyed himself by what he's done. He will be stuck with that humanity and with that guilt for the rest of his life. How much easier his life would be if he didn't have that humanity. It may be a catharsis for the viewer that we are relieved to discover that in a human being who's done even the most inhuman things there remains this residue of humanity that's resistant, to that evil and knows what he has done is wrong.
So this whole journey has made me more forgiving I suppose, less judgmental, more committed than ever before to the cause of human rights. And in that regard, more committed than I ever could have been before to the need of all of us everywhere to face up to our most difficult and painful truths.
POV: I think there is a tendency in the kind of reductive media to categorize things as good or evil and people as good or evil. And essentially you're saying those categories are wrong because first of all, we all have an ability and a complicity within these structures, an ability to flip on one side, on one side or the other. By categorizing someone as evil, that it's too easy for us just to create a distance, sit in the corner and go, that's not us.
Joshua Oppenheimer: And that's why we do it. That's right. And we, and yet it is so important. That, that's not, that's not therefore to say, okay, so everything goes. On the contrary, that allows us, that makes it all the more important to be able to say, this is wrong. This is wrong. Killing is wrong. Mass killing is wrong. Our government's support for this mass killing is wrong. Our reliance on the structures that are put in place in the aftermath of this mass killing is wrong. So to say that we can't divide the world up into this kind of Star Wars morality of good guys versus bad guys, the dark side and the light side and we can't divide the individual soul up that way either, is to demand that we identify and condemn evil actions and our complicity with them whenever we, whenever we encounter that.
POV: What do you say to people who, who may watch the film and say yeah, I understand that intention, but you're giving a platform to perpetrators. In this film, these are perpetrators' voices we are hearing. And we are not hearing the other side. And yes, you have points in the film where you challenge them on some points, but the film is driven by their, by their voices, by their perspectives.
Joshua Oppenheimer: I guess I'd say three things. First, there's not a single viewer who's seen this film and comes away thinking these men look glorious. So the film, if it's a platform, it's not a platform in which they glorify themselves. It's a platform in which they condemn themselves. And they show how they have destroyed themselves by doing what they've done. Secondly, I'd say that it's precisely because it's the perpetrators that this film and its message has been so impactful in Indonesia. The people who don't want this film broadcast on POV is the Indonesian government. It's the perpetrators' organizations. It's the Indonesian army. And the people who do and are happy for this broadcast are the survivors, the human rights community, and the people who are saying, finally the rotten heart of this regime has been exposed.
And we, it's not deniable because it's the perpetrators themselves showing it. Thirdly, I'd simply point out, this isn't a platform for them at all. What is a platform, what is a podium? A podium is something you walk up to, you say what you want to say and when you're finished, you leave. Anwar and his friends knew from the beginning and accepted that they were making scenes for me to edit into my film. The human rights community and the survivors in Indonesia said, Josh, do this with the survivors, do this with the perpetrators because with this material you can create an expose such as we have never had before and which we desperately need. If it were a podium, they would be editing the film. They would be making their own decisions about what should be in the film and what should not be in the film. They're not. That's not to say that all of them reject the film. The paramilitary group institutionally, Pancasila Youth hates the film. The military hates the film. If they didn't it would show that I have failed in my work. But Anwar Congo has been deeply affected by the film and stands by the film. He saw the film. Was tearful, was silent for a long time and then said, Josh, this film shows what it's like to be me.
He paused for another long time and said, I'm relieved to finally have been able to show what this means and not just what I've done. Adi, his fellow death squad member in the film warns him and everybody in the film to stop making the film. He says, if we succeed in making this film, it'll turn the history around 180 degrees and undermine our position in society. Stop it. Anwar decides to continue. And I think the reason he decides to continue is because he's not trying to glorify himself, he's not trying to shore up his position in society, he's trying to deal with his pain and he's being listened to. He's being heard. And actually what Anwar has to show is what this does to a human being. In the final scene of the film, we see maybe for the first time in movies we see what this actually does to a human body to live with having killed so many people and not ever been able to face what that means.
POV: So obviously this is a very difficult film to distribute officially in Indonesia. Just tell us how you're approaching that. And what the impact of the film has, you're hearing what, what kind of impact it's having on the ground there?
Joshua Oppenheimer: One of the sad things for me is that I cannot go safely to Indonesia anymore. So in, it's been really painful for me given how much I love Indonesia and how in a way the film is my love letter to Indonesia. That I haven't been able to be in Indonesia for the release of the film, because the film has come to Indonesia just like the survivors and the human rights community said, hoped it would when they first told me to film the perpetrators. It's come like the child in the Emperor's New Clothes. It's totally transformed the way the media in the country talks about the genocide. It's led the mainstream media in Indonesia, the news media to break what had been decades long silence, a 47-year silence when they first broke it on the killings to break that silence and to report on the genocide as a genocide. And thereby open a space for ordinary Indonesians to confront and face their most painful problems. Now that's not activism in its own right, because once it opens, the space for Indonesians to start addressing problems that they couldn't address if they weren't able to articulate them, if they were too afraid to articulate them. Our whole strategy for releasing the film in Indonesia has been to avoid it being banned because we knew that if the film is banned it becomes a crime to watch the film. If you simply, we wanted it to come out in theaters the way it came out in the United States, you have to first submit to the censors. And it was likely to provoke the film being banned. If it's banned, as I say, it's a crime to watch the film, then that's an excuse for the army or the paramilitary, any number of paramilitary movements, not least Pancasila Youth to physically attack screenings and with impunity. So to avoid that, after the film had its international premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2012, we very quickly held screenings at the National Human Rights Commission in Jakarta for Indonesia's leading news publishers, news editors, filmmakers, celebrities, human rights activists, survivors, historians, writers, artists, educators. Everyone who saw the film said, essentially, everyone in Indonesia must see this film as quickly as possible. So we said, okay, take this film back to your communities and hold closed screenings.
We suggested they hold closed screenings because again, we thought that was less likely to propose a ban, or to provoke a ban before the film really takes root. So on December 10th, 2012, that was International Human Rights Day, all these people who'd seen the film at the National Human Rights Commission in Jakarta that autumn, took the film back to their communities and held closed screenings. Now there were 50 screenings in 30 cities on that day. Now these were not, although closed, they were not small. They averaged in size 200 people. So we're talking perhaps 10,000 people seeing the film on that day.
From there it grew. It grew. People who saw the film, then wanted to hold their own screenings and by the summer of 2013, there had been 1,100 screenings in 118 cities. Now many of the screenings by summertime were public. And the reason for that shift was because the media reacted so positively to the film. Just an example, the editor of Indonesia's leading news publication, Temple magazine, he's also the editor of a daily newspaper associated with Temple magazine called Temple Newspaper, contacted me after he saw the film at the National Human Rights Commission in Jakarta, he phoned me and he said, Josh there was a time before The Act of Killing in Indonesia, now there will be a time after The Act of Killing. I've been censoring stories about the genocide ever since I've been in this job. I'm not going to do it anymore because your film has shown me above all that I do not want to grow old as a perpetrator. We are going to break our silence about the genocide. We're going to send a team of 60 journalists around the country to find men like Anwar who will boast and thereby support the film by showing that the film is a repeatable experiment that could have been made anywhere in our country. That the problems it shows, the corruption, the fear, these are systemic problems. And that there's maybe 10,000 Anwars out there.
Well in two weeks they gathered nearly a thousand pages of boastful testimony. They published 75 pages of this stuff, essentially replicating what I did in the first two years before I met Anwar. They published 75 pages, plus 25 pages about the movie in a double edition of Temple magazine that came out on the first of October, 2012. It sold out immediately. They reprinted it, it sold out again. They reprinted it, it sold out again. Now it's come out as a book. But Indonesians were astonished that this holocaust that underpins the whole social structure that the media never talks about, and that they feel they're not allowed to talk about publicly was suddenly filling an entire double edition of the nation's biggest news publication. That of course led the rest of the media to respond, to break their own silence, one by one, and start talking about the killings as mass killings.
And the army's reaction has been to threaten some of the people holding screenings. The paramilitary groups' reaction initially was to try and to physically attack a newspaper that reported on the film. But overall this screenings have gone forward without problems. And this space, this huge national discussion has opened up to finally talk about these issues. On the 30th of September, 2013, on the anniversary of the start of the atrocities we made the film available for free download and free streaming for anyone logging online from Indonesia. And the film has made the discussion go even wider.
POV: And that's amazing. Has there been an official response to the film?
Joshua Oppenheimer: Basically the government has been quiet about it. And this year, 2014 is an election year in Indonesia. And there's a very real risk of the country backsliding towards military dictatorship. And it's a really important time for the film to be, or for the issues of impunity that the film raises to be in the headlines in Indonesia, because the leading candidates, some of the leading candidates in the, in the presidential election this year are some of Indonesia's most notorious human rights abusers, former generals involved with torture, killing, disappearance and publicly known for that.
Recently the Indonesian embassy in Washington made a statement saying, they wish The Act of Killing would go away and not get any further attention. I think it's not going away and it's being seen more and more and more by Indonesians and discussed more and more widely. And it also won't go away because The Act of Killing was always intended as the first film in a diptych, in a pair. A second film will be forthcoming this year about a family of survivors of the killings who find out who killed their son, through my first, through my interviews with the first 40 perpetrators that I filmed. And they go, the youngest brother in this family goes and confronts one by one the men involved with his brother's death. And the film kind of opens up. I think walking into some of those few spaces in The Act of Killing, there's sort of two or three of them, where Anwar and his friends, the perpetrator—it's different perpetrators. There's none of the same perpetrators in the new film. It's called The Look of Silence, but it's like walking into these spaces where the perpetrators encounter a survivor. And feeling that tension and making a whole film in that space of tension and silence. The film is kind of a poem to a silence borne of terror. And it's the necessity of breaking that silence and also the trauma that comes with breaking that silence.
POV: This is your first film on PBS, on POV. And this is a film which has gotten so much well-deserved recognition, attention, brought to light an issue which had been set aside in a drawer and ignored for 50 or 40 years. My math is...Fifty years, right. How, what does it mean to you as a filmmaker to have this particular film on public television, on POV, to get it out to a wider audience?
Joshua Oppenheimer: The Act of Killing is really a film about the consequences of denial. And, and about the dangers of transforming, of filmmaking becoming increasingly escapist fantasy. Anwar talks about how escapist fantasies enabled him to kill and live with killing as an individual. Public service broadcasting, PBS is one of the few spaces that we have in a democracy and in the United States which we must defend and fight for and protect, to actually address our most serious problems. Because we have no chance of overcoming those problems if we're simply escaping from them. It's a space for reflection and a space for looking at who we are as individuals and as a society, so that we can move forward positively and overcome our problems. When The Act of Killing came out in the United States, theatrically, I was really heartened by viewers all over the country, after the film saying, how does this have to do with me? Where are we in this? What did we do to support this genocide? They read at the beginning of the film that the United States did support the genocide. They want to know. People want to know. And showing the film on PBS in one of the most important spaces that a democracy can have for speaking to its citizens, for speaking to each other about what we are as a people is a way of taking that necessary process of self-reflection that this film has encouraged people to do all over the world, but particularly in America. It's a way of taking that process to a whole new level and it's so important.