Interview: Joshua Oppenheimer on the Ethical Dilemmas of ‘The Act of Killing’ and the Fiction of Observational Documentary

From 2013, Christopher Campbell interviewed Oppenheimer at length about his Oscar-nominated breakout documentary feature.

Joshua Oppenheimer
Drafthouse Films

This interview with Joshua Oppenheimer was originally published on the Documentary Channel Blog on July 18, 2013. It is being reposted now, ahead of the Oscars, with permission from Participant Channel, Inc.

Possibly the hottest documentary of the year, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing has been blowing audiences away around the world since debuting at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals last fall. Executive produced by immediate fans Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, it’s an incredibly original and strange work of nonfiction, exploring the infamous mass murder of communists and suspected communists in Indonesia in the 1960s while exposing the pride of a nation that not only condoned but still celebrates these killings.

What sets it apart from other docs on genocidal figures is how it gets these individuals to really consider what they’ve done, given that they’re already open about the killings, and boastfully so. Oppenheimer, an American-born filmmaker who spent many years in Indonesia, where he and co-director Christine Cynn also shot 2003’s The Globalization Tapes, had some of the original gangsters turned death squad leaders, Anwar Congo, Herman Koto and Adi Zulkadry, participate in reenactments of their acts from half a century ago in an effort to make them see the moral wrong of those deeds.

I talked to Oppenheimer on the phone last week about the film’s reception so far, especially in Indonesia and by the subjects of the film themselves, as well as about some of the ethical dilemmas of the film and the reasons he doesn’t actually consider himself a documentary filmmaker. Check out our conversation in full below.

Are you surprised at all with just how much acclaim and attention the film has received so far?

I’m not so surprised that it’s attracting attention from circles that don’t pay much attention to documentary because I never really thought of myself as a documentary filmmaker. I see my path as a filmmaker as someone who uses the medium to explore the world and try to make something previously invisible about the world visible. I’ve always been interested in the way our factual reality is composed of the stories that we tell. Everything is composed of fiction, essentially. We make our world through storytelling. And the whole message of the film is to kind of place the world through a prism and make visible those secondhand, third-rate, often half-remembered stories fantasies by which we become who we are.

I think the film is in this space between documentary and fiction. It’s a non-fiction film, for sure, but it becomes much more than a documentary, I hope. It becomes a kind of fever dream, in which we see the fiction that creates us, and that we create by which we create ourselves, sort of spiral out of control and to its limits, only to crash back into a kind of digestible reality. You know, when you spend ten years working in the wilderness and seven and a half years on one film, there’s a lot of time to have self-doubt. I certainly didn’t expect that this film would be received as well as it has been.

Where I really have been more gratified by the reception is in Indonesia itself, where the film is probably the most talked about and loved work of culture in any medium ever made about and come to Indonesia. It’s been welcomed and embraced as an Indonesian film. It’s a work of Indonesian cinema. The film has come to Indonesia like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” pointing to the king and saying, “Look he is naked.” In that sense it’s an expose on the nature of the regime that makes it possible to say what everybody knew but was too afraid to say. It opens a space for Indonesians for the first time in 47 years, starting to really talk about what happened honestly. Especially including the mainstream Indonesian media, which now is doing investigative reports and articles and special editions in national news magazines about the film and about the killings.

taok_waterfall Joshua Oppenheimer film

I want to go back to that idea of fantasy. There are a lot of documentaries about war crimes lately, but most are about redemption.

General Butt Naked for example.

Yes. And then, I don’t know if you’ve seen Enemies of the People. This film reminded me of that, but this has an extra cinematic quality to it that draws people.

Yeah. Normally when we have documentaries about perpetrators they either deny what they’ve done or they apologize for it. But both denial and apology indicate that the people have been removed from power. That is true of Enemies of the People. With the Khmer Rouge, there has not been a full transition to accountability but there are tribunals and the perpetrators are no longer in power and can no longer justify what they’ve done publicly. The difference here, of course, is that the perpetrators remain in power and, at least until The Act of Killing came out, have been able to justify what they’ve done.

If you or I had killed and got away with it and been encouraged by the government to say to the world and to ourselves that it was good, the right thing to do, we would justify it. Because otherwise we would have to wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and see a mass murderer. Therein lies the paradox of the whole film in a way; what appears to be a sign of lack of remorse — boasting, the celebration of killing seems to be a sign of lack of remorse, at least in the beginning — is not necessarily so. In fact it can be the opposite. It can be a desperate effort to reassure yourself and to insist to the whole society that what you did was right.

The tragedy there is of course that you suppress your victims and the survivors. They don’t challenge your version of the story. So you blame them for what happened to them, and that then justifies your extorting them, stealing their land, shaking them down in marketplaces, all of which you see in the film. It also almost demands that you kill again, because if you killed one person and then the government says for the same reason kill that [other] person, if you say no it’s tantamount to admitting it was wrong the first time.

Of course, that’s what Anwar and all the men are desperate to avoid doing, admitting that what they’ve done is wrong. And in that sense every reenactment is a kind of insistence that what they’ve done is right. To reenact, to make a scene about the killings is to deny the moral meaning of it being in bad taste, and it is an outrage. I film it as a symptom of impunity. But every reenactment therefore is a sort of insistence on that denial, that this is not what it was. This is not what it means. It’s only a movie. It’s not so bad. It was justified. The method was to shoot a scene, show Anwar the scene, he would respond, shoot the next scene.

In so far as that’s the case, the motive for the whole process was actually from the very beginning I think from Anwar’s conscience. So, ironically, I’m filming these things as insistences of impunity; he’s trying to run away from the moral meaning of what he’s done. And showing these things back to him somehow becomes inevitable. Even if it was not my conscious intention, I think it became inevitable that reenactments would become the prism through which he would recognize the true meaning of what he’s done. Even if only in his mind, if unconsciously.


The point made in the film that stayed with me till the end is when one of the men brings up the U.S. and Native Americans, and all I could think about was how Hollywood westerns perpetuated the myth that what we did to the Indians was justified.

That’s right. We have a whole genre dedicated to the celebration of genocide. We shouldn’t forget that.

So for them to reenact what they did reminded me of that. It’s their western.


I read that you felt you had to keep your disgust with the killings quiet so that they thought that you were on their side. Is that true?

I think it was much more that, at the very beginning, I felt as though I was on a mission for the survivors to document what happened and expose the killers’ boasting and thereby expose the nature of this whole regime that they’ve built. But as I found they were so open, I was able to be very, very open in the sense that I could say the whole method of the film, the whole form of the film, is a response to their openness. It’s not an effort to lure them to open up.

Anwar was the 41st killer I met. Every perpetrator I found, everyone I met was boasting about what they had done and offering to take me to the places where they killed, whereupon they would launch into these spontaneous demonstrations of who they killed. So what I was saying is, look you have participated in one of the biggest killings in human history, your whole society is based on it, your lives are shaped by it, you want to show me what you’ve done, I want to understand what it means to you, what it means to your society, how you want it to be seen, how you see it, how you really see yourself, so show me what you’ve done, in whatever way you wish, whatever process, and I’ll film the reenactments and make a film out of that.

Of course, when you’re first meeting someone you have to listen. I felt I was entrusted by the survivors and the human rights community in Indonesia with a very important work. The last thing I was going to do was endanger my crew and stop the whole process and say, “Oh, how could you do that? That’s so awful.” That doesn’t reveal anything. We would learn nothing from it. We would be presumably arrested, and then nothing would be made.

It’s true there was a quiet, a holding back of my view, but once I was able to be very open about what I wanted them to talk about, I was able to say, “I want you to talk about how you exterminated the communists.” Because “exterminated” and “kill” is heroic for them, even though the words are that straight. They weren’t using euphemisms. Once I got to know Anwar, I was able to be fairly open about the things they were showing me.


So in the end, Anwar and the other men knew about the angle of the film?

I’m sorry, but I think “angle” is a trivial term for what the film does. The film doesn’t have an angle, it’s not a condemnation. Journalism has an angle. The film is an exploration. Anwar, by the end of the film, knows what the film is going to be, and he’s seen what’s in the film, and he said to me for a long time, “I’m not ready to see it yet. It’s going to be too painful.” Then at some point the film was big news in Indonesia and he said, “I now need to see it. Because I’m in the news.” He watched it and was very moved. Very silent but tearful for a long time after. Then he said, “This film shows what it’s like to be me. I am proud that I was able to be so honest. And I will stand by the film.”

But of course he said it because he knew that the paramilitary group has to feel he’s to blame for the film. He has been loyal to the film since he saw it on the first of November of last year. He and I are in touch every three to four weeks. I care about him. We may always be in touch. We’ve been through a very, very important and intense and long journey together. I don’t know if I like him, and I wouldn’t call the relationship a friendship, but I think Anwar is trying to work through his pain and I’m trying to expose a whole regime for impunity, and these are projects that are much bigger than the relationship. In fact I think somehow the motor of the film lies in the tension between those two projects. But I have a love for Anwar, and I think he has a kind of love for me. We will remain in touch.

Herman loves it a lot, the way he discovered acting and discovered an actor’s loyalty to the truth, and he plays this very important role throughout the whole process of bringing Anwar back to his pain and to the heart and the truth. Whenever Anwar would get cold feet and start to withdraw from it. Herman in the end sees that the film is a kind of truth bearer. He even likes the scene where he’s campaigning running for office. He says, “I’m really lucky I lost, because otherwise I could go to jail for the things I admitted to there. But I am very glad I told these truths.” Herman is very angry. He feels used by the society. So he was happy to have the chance to express the bitter truth of the society.

Then Adi. I haven’t shown him the film. He’s very connected to high-ranking paramilitary officers. I felt it would endanger the process of screening the film in Indonesia if he were to see it. In the film he sees what the film will do. First he says he wants there to be truth and reconciliation about how what they did was wrong. In hindsight I think he was showing off the fact that he’s able to admit it was wrong and still sleep easily at night. Essentially he’s showing off the death of his own conscience, his numbness, to the others. He’s making very good points about the hypocrisy of human rights discourse as applied selectively by the West. He leaves the film knowing what the film will do, and the only thing he said of the film since it’s come out is that he never got rich making it.

The high-ranking politicians in the film, I’m sure they all feel betrayed by the film. They should, otherwise I haven’t done my work. And I’m sad I can’t go to Indonesia. I don’t think I’d get out again, so I can’t go back as a result.

Act of killing 2

You were there for a long time, so that must be really upsetting.

Yeah, it’s a loss for me. I love Indonesia. And the Indonesians above all have said this film is like a love letter by someone who really loves Indonesia to Indonesia. It is that. My Indonesian crew, some of whom gave up eight years of their lives knowing they could never put their name on the film, they’re my best friends, they’re my second family. I miss them a great deal. There’s nothing that makes me sadder than that I can’t be there to be a part of this moment where something I’ve made is helping to catalyze a real change. And also that they can’t come with me to present, in this age of Instagram and Twitter, they can’t come to screenings for the film as my collaborators. It is sad for me that I can’t go back.

Do you think there will ever come a time when those collaborators can be named?

Of course it’s my great wish that one day there’s the change in Indonesia required so that I can take off that credit roll and put a new credit roll on that has everybody’s names. That’s the hope of the film, and in a way that’s why we made the film. It’s the first reason why we made the film. It turned out to be an exploration of much more than that.

What exactly was the role of the co-director who is credited only as “Anonymous”?

He was my production manager, my assistant director, my second cameraperson, he worked on the editing. But more than that, he was my main creative sounding board. That dialogue we had is why the film has this authenticity in such that Indonesians welcome it as a work of Indonesian cinema as opposed to a stranger’s eye view by a foreigner to make Indonesia look bad. That is so important to how the film is working and to achieving our primary goal, which was to create a stage for Indonesians themselves to start talking.

But also explore the implications of that, recover what was lost, struggle for truth and a reconciliation process, tribunal, political change and impunity for gangsters and politicians and businesses and corruption. That was so important to how the work is and how it works in the world that I needed to acknowledge that this film would not exist without him. Of course it wouldn’t exist without all the crew, but he had this role that transcended, that was greater than the sum of all the parts of what his official role was during the shooting. Hence his credit.

Well, now I really want him to get the full credit he’s due.

I wish so, too.

taok fish Joshua Oppenheimer film

A lot of the genesis of this film came about thanks to your work on The Globalization Tapes. I know it’s on YouTube but I assume not officially. Is there a legal way to see it for fans of this film?

We’re just making it available now. In England, where the reaction to the film has been really wonderful, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London is screening my older work alongside the release of The Act of Killing. And it’s coming out on DVD. If we don’t find a taker for it in the U.S., it’ll be second-run DVD, putting it out worldwide. It will be for that and my previous film, The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase. All my other work.

You’ve done a lot of shorts, too, right?

Yeah. The key there is that I don’t come from a documentary background, as I said. I come from the space between fiction and nonfiction in the sense that whenever we film anybody we create reality with that person. So-called observational documentary has very wrongly been given the name cinema verite, which comes from Jean Rouch, who I think is the direct opposite of what the Maysles brothers and Frederick Wiseman and so forth were doing. Although they share a technological genesis.

The so-called fly on the wall documentary is a fiction. If I film you going about the day, the big event of the day will be me filming you, not your day. I think that by pretending that’s not the case, by saying, “I’m just a fly on the wall, capturing reality,” we’re actually denying the way documentary really works and then denying some essential insights into the form, which is that a camera operates as an occasion. It provides a space in which people come out with things that they wouldn’t otherwise come out with. They show contradictions, they show conflict, they show emotion that they would otherwise suppress.

Even when people are self-conscious, which we think is bad for filming, that in fact can be a resource. Because in the moment the self-consciousness is a stage for oneself to be fake. Therein lies the possibility of seeing how people want to be seen. How they would like to be seen by the rest of the world. Also there lies people’s sense of deficiency. “I want to be seen like this because I’m not adequate in who I am.” We in nonfiction have not sufficiently exploited the resource of self-consciousness on the part of the people we film. We need to understand the nature of documentary by insisting that we’re documenting reality.

My other work, The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase and The Globalization Tapes, both of these films engage with these questions. And that is why for me there was nothing unorthodox as far as I was concerned in The Act of Killing. I see it as an observational documentary of the United Nations as opposed to an observational documentary of everyday lives.

taok strangle

Well, one of the questions I was going to ask you was about your biggest ethical dilemma while making The Act of Killing, but I don’t know if it makes sense or fits if you don’t see yourself as a documentary filmmaker.

Two things: there are some apparent dilemmas in the film, like people can think, “With the village massacre it looks like you traumatized people.” In fact, there I know I didn’t. I know that it was very fake. All of the children and the grandchildren of the perpetrators in the shots, it was a set, and the violence was very fake and was over very quickly. Yes, some children cried, because they auditioned for their ability to cry, but they also are instantly comforted by their families and don’t have any real sense of what it’s about. Because the violence was so fake. The woman who fainted is in fact the wife of the paramilitary leader who says “God hates the communists” on television just before that. That’s a scene that people think is a problem.

When I filmed the Chinese being extorted, there I said, “I can’t film this.” Because the market sellers will feel like Herman and Safit and the thugs are more powerful than they are. They’ll think, “Oh my gosh, they have their own TV crew. They can do this on TV boastfully.” That would make them more afraid. So what I did to deal with that was tell Herman and Safit, “Look, you move ahead, move on, when you’re done shaking down this market stall. Wait for me and I will get a release form signed.” What I really did was explain why we were there and I paid everybody back. There were things I did all along the way to ensure that people were not harmed.

My biggest dilemma, in fact, was ensuring that Anwar does not look like a lone psychopath. Such that he would be scapegoated and become a vessel for the much bigger regime. In so far as I couldn’t go into the details of how the United States was complicit with all of this, because fundamentally to do would involve having experts and countering people’s denials and turn the film overall into a historical film as opposed to an expose about the present, which is what it is.

Somehow it was really important therefore to ensure that America and consumerism and the global capitalism of which this is the underbelly — this isn’t a distant reality separate from us — this shows the violence and fear and impunity underneath everything we buy and produce, every article of clothing we’re wearing. Given that I couldn’t get into the role of the United States in all of this I had to make globalization, consumerism, alienation, the transforming of everybody, even our human relationships, into objects to be consumed — you see it in the way they treat the women, the paramilitary leader treats women — that that would be a kind of haunting the whole film.

This is re-printed with the permission of Participant Channel, Inc. © Participant Channel, Inc. 2014.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.