Working Through Empathy

An interview with director Josh Oppenheimer

by Elias Bresnick

Illustration by Frans van Hoek

published December 2, 2016


Josh Oppenheimer is an American documentary filmmaker best known for his films The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. The Act of Killing won the European Film Award for Best Documentary in 2012, both films were separately nominated for Academy Awards, and in 2014, Oppenheimer received the coveted MacArthur “Genius Grant." Regarded by many as a masterpiece of the genre, The Act of Killing propelled Oppenheimer into the esteemed company of investigative filmmakers the likes of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.

A highly inventive and idiosyncratic effort, the film takes for its subject the aging Anwar Congo, a former paramilitary leader involved in the massacre of 1,000,000 accused communists during the Indonesian genocide of 1965. The state-sponsored genocide has been largely erased in mainstream US history, despite the fact that it was largely a product of Cold War tensions between the US and Soviet Union. The genocide primarily targeted unionized Indonesian workers and ethnic Chinese residents, many of whom had no legitimate ties to communism. Rather than tracing the arc of the genocide itself, Oppenheimer focuses primarily on Congo himself. Congo, much enamored by classic Hollywood gangster films, agrees to allow Oppenheimer to shoot individual scenes of a hypothetical gangster movie based on him and other members of the paramilitary organization ‘Pancasila Youth.’ The resulting documentary is the combination of reenactments from the perpetrators and interviews with Congo and other killers. The film is surreal and unsettling in a variety of ways, perhaps none more profound than the way in which, as the movie progresses, the formerly unrepentant Congo begins to glimpse the full weight of the atrocity he and others participated in.

The Look of Silence, which Oppenheimer considers a sequel to the original, follows Adi Rukun as he confronts the men who brutally murdered his brother during the same period of genocide. The movies have had a huge impact within Indonesia, as the once taboo topic of the historical injustice has become the subject of a national dialogue. In November, Brown University’s Asian American Heritage series screened the two films and brought Oppenheimer from London for a series of talks and teach-ins. I had a chance to sit down with Oppenheimer to learn more about his films and the role he believes the camera can play in beginning to reckon with the past. 



The College Hill Independent: Anwar’s actions during wartime were harrowing and unconscionable…


Josh Oppenheimer: Not wartime, there was no war, that’s the first thing I interrupt you with. And it’s almost unique, to have that kind of genocide outside the context of a war. There was a war in Rwanda and there was a war in Germany, Bosnia, and Cambodia, so it’s interesting to note there was no war. It was a period of genocide. 


The Indy: Right, that’s a useful clarification. So, during the genocide, Anwar’s actions were totally unconscionable and devoid of any kind of responsibility to morality. The sense we get watching the film is that this is a man without a conscience. One might argue that Anwar’s reaction to the camera, his awareness of an external gaze, is what ultimately allows him to develop a kind of consciousness and a sense of self. I wonder what you see as the film’s role in constructing a kind of conscience in Anwar?


JO: I think that’s a good point. Many people do see a man with a conscience, struggling with that conscience very early in the film. But I accept your experience of the film as valid, and I think that you’re making an excellent point that this layer of self-consciousness which comes with being filmed can indeed activate a kind of moral awareness. And this is methodologically built into the filmmaking through the screenings, of course, where I’m screening back to him every scene we shoot, and he’s suddenly seeing himself on screen. Which as you know, and everyone knows—from looking at a picture or a video of yourself—is a very strange, almost uncanny experience. You’re meeting yourself—the one person you never see—for the first time. 


The Indy: I wonder how you negotiate the gap between what characters say and what they feel. Some of the most impactful moments in the film spring from your refusal to take Anwar at his word.


JO: Cinema is all about reading subtext. Cinema is a terrible medium for words. An interview, a shot of someone talking, becomes cinema the moment they don’t believe the words they’re saying, or there’s something else behind the words, or the pauses between words are betraying something else. As a filmmaker, my entire job is to be sensitive to those cracks and gaps. My job from the very beginning, when someone takes me to a roof and starts boasting and dancing where they killed people, and I’m feeling disgusted, is to look at that and think, “do they really… how are they feeling when they dance on this roof? Is he happy, really? Or is something else happening?" And in Anwar’s case you can see right away that other things are happening. I then have to read and interpret and guess and propose that the next scene that we create together be something I think will elicit some insight into the tension that I saw on his face in the previous scene. So I’m constantly analyzing—and it’s not because of philosophy I read—it’s because of the empathic work that we have to do when we’re working with other human beings in film.


The Indy: It really strikes me, and I’ve talked to a lot of people who feel this way, that if you hadn’t directed this film, it easily could have wound up as a kind of forgettable PBS documentary or something. Werner Herzog made the observation while speaking about your movie that facts don’t necessarily constitute truth and that directors must understand this in order to make good documentary. I wonder about what your thoughts are on using directorial control versus allowing things to just happen.


JO: No one allows things to just happen! It’s just not how films are made. It’s how we’re told films are made so that we can forget about the making. Just like in fiction, we sit down to watch a fiction movie and we forget about the making to imagine we’re seeing something just happening. It’s suspension of disbelief. Good films are made when the filmmakers and the participants collaborate to create occasions that are designed to reveal previously invisible things relevant to the questions the filmmaker’s asking. If these things have been invisible hitherto, there’s a reason for it. Therefore, invariably we’re trying to create occasions where people are pushed beyond their comfort zone even in what appears to be a fly on the wall documentary. It’s always made that way. And it’s very important. Especially when I’m speaking to young filmmakers I stress this, because you cannot become a good filmmaker by trying to disappear into the wallpaper. 


The Indy: At some points in the movie you come off as a kind of spy behind enemy lines. We hear these brutal and totally immoral statements coming from the perpetrators, and I imagine you standing there behind the camera, and what your reaction must have been at the time and having to keep that at bay in order to allow them to reveal themselves. I’m wondering how you deal with not taking a stand in the moment. 


JO: Well, you’re aware of the consequences of taking a stand in the moment, which is that your crew will be arrested, you’re going to be arrested and deported, and there will be no more film. So it’s an easy calculation, especially when you have fear pushing you in one direction, you think to yourself, ‘I might just about get through this and be able to make an amazing film if I keep quiet here. Or, if I get really upset I might be arrested and my dear friends who are working with me possibly beaten up or worse,' and that fear will keep you quiet in that moment, because you know you’ll have your day, you know you’ll have your moment to reveal this to the world and to Indonesia.


The Indy: Were you at all afraid while making the film? 


JO: I wasn’t afraid when I was hearing them describe horrible things, in a kind of physical sense. I was emotionally afraid as I found I was much too close, much too intimate with people who worked despairingly, knowing that they somehow can’t avoid acknowledging their own guilt, [who are] throwing themselves into the worst, the darkest possible image they might have of themselves. That gave me nightmares and insomnia. There were a few moments in which I was physically afraid, when the characters would start questioning my position. There’s this very important scene where Adi Zulkadry says, ‘you know if we succeed in making this film, it will show that we’ve been lying. And everyone already suspects it but this will confirm it.’ And just before he launches into that speech I heard him through his radio microphone during a break in the filming telling the others, ‘don’t you think Joshua is a communist?’ Now in that kind of moment I’m afraid, and I go up to him and say let’s talk about it. And that’s a kind of confrontation that’s scary, but you have no choice. It’s scarier to stay quiet and let that brew around you, and so again it’s fear that drives you.


The Indy: To go back to this idea of the fear of being emotionally connected to characters who really have perpetrated unimaginable evils… I’m reminded of In Cold Blood and Truman Capote. Capote goes to write a piece on two death-row inmates and ends up becoming very close to a man who committed an unthinkable atrocity for no reason. Watching your movie, Anwar comes off at a lot of times as this very sympathetic character, crazily enough, and I can’t imagine what your relationship with him was like. 


JO: He is a sympathetic character. I guess the scary thing about Anwar is that there’s some threshold beyond which he’s no longer sympathetic. As deeply as I feel for him, and I actually believe he feels for me, I always was wondering what would it take for him to turn against me. And is it that he would never have killed someone he was close to, and would only have gone after his enemies and people he didn’t know? Or could he have easily turned against people he loved? I never really knew the answer. But I actually think he’s someone who would turn against people he loved no more easily than you or I would. It’s more that he easily dehumanizes people he doesn’t care for. 


The Indy: Right, and one thing that your films comment on so powerfully is the influence of propaganda and its capacity to allow perpetrators to absolve themselves from guilt. The central source of anti-communist propaganda during the ’60s was, of course, the US media machine. So I wonder how accountable you feel the US is for exporting this propaganda that inspired mass-murder, and, to move to the contemporary, I wonder whether and where you think analogous models of propaganda are at work today.


JO: Yes and yes. I mean, we’re very responsible. This didn’t just happen in Indonesia, it happened again and again and was rationalized in the American media. In Guatemala, as part of US intervention there, 200,000 people were killed. That’s more than all the other Latin American dirty wars combined. There was the overthrow of Allende in Chile, the dirty wars in Argentina, the military junta in Brazil, the overthrow of Mossadegh and installation of the Shah dictatorship, which is what led to the Islamic government and theocracy in Iran. Again and again and again all over the world, the US has rationalized this kind of mass violence, and celebrated it and justified it as necessary if not heroic. We have a president elect right now who’s talking about not only water-boarding’s not being so bad, but out-and-out torture being appropriate for anyone he decides is a terrorist. And this is our president elect! The United States has a whole Hollywood genre, the Western, dedicated to celebrating and mythologizing Native American genocide. 


The Indy: I was also thinking about the movie within the context of the election. In both of your movies there are clear victims and clear villains, and the two groups understand very little of each other. And one of the miraculous things about The Act Of Killing is that it’s able to, in a sense, convert Anwar from the one camp to the other. Anwar ultimately begins to see his own actions as the children of these murdered accused communists might have seen them. And I can’t help but think of the dialectically opposed political camps in the US who see and understand increasingly little of each other, and I wonder what you would say about the potential of artistic projects like yours is to bring about understanding, or empathy between the two.


JO: Well, I think certainly film works through empathy. I mean, it ought to work through empathy; of course there are well-crafted works that actually inspire hatred—whether it’s Birth of a Nation or the films of Leni Riefenstahl. But I think that one thing that The Act of Killing shows is that Anwar as a perpetrator has destroyed himself. And I think it’s worth asking to what extent, when we close our hearts to whole segments of the population around us and refuse to see their humanity—which maybe both sides of the American political divide actually do, but certainly the so-called alt-right does when they look at anyone across an ethnic or religious difference—we destroy ourselves. Because we hollow ourselves out. Our humanity rests in our ability to empathize with one another, to understand one another, to put ourselves in each other’s shoes. That basic sense of ‘I couldn’t hurt you, because how would it feel to be you being hurt, and how would I violate myself if I could do that’ is what keeps us—when we are peaceful with each other—peaceful with each other. And it’s what gives us our ability to live with all sorts of people and to care for one another, and to feel sickened when someone you don’t know is hurt in front of you. And when you have a political culture which is about vilifying and demonizing and making yourself feel strong by asserting your supremacy over others, you might feel strong, but you’ll only be a strong monster. You’ll only feel strong as a kind of hollow shell of what you could be. I think to look at the brokenness of the perpetrators and those who champion their legacy in America, just as I look at the brokenness of Anwar and the paramilitary protegées in Indonesia, would be a very important project. When I showed The Act of Killing in Indonesia, the first screening was a secret screening before it was shown thousands of times around the country, at the National Human Rights Commission, and we invited all of the leading news editors in Indonesia. The editor of Tempora Magazine called me the next morning and said, ‘I saw your film yesterday. I’ve been censoring stories about the genocide for as long as I’ve been in this job. I’m not going to do it anymore because your film has taught me that I can no longer continue to be a perpetrator, I don’t want to grow old as a perpetrator.’ He identified with Anwar’s brokenness. And if you could make a film that would show the brokenness of someone like Donald Trump—because he’s broken, it must be unbearable to be him, no matter how much power and wealth he has—that would be a moral warning to anyone who would be otherwise moved by his message.