Joshua Oppenheimer Q&A: ‘The Act of Killing’
Director Joshua Oppenheimer, whose "The Act of Killing" won the BAFTA and is Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary Feature, originally intended to make a film about the survivors of the Indonesian genocide of 1965, but was eventually encouraged to turn the cameras on the perpetrators: "Everybody who saw [the footage] said, '… Anyone anywhere in the world who sees this will be forced to finally acknowledge the rotten heart of this whole regime.'"
was a surreal experience for the director, for whom listening to mass murderers boast about their actions was "as though I'd wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust only to find the Nazis still in power."
That's what usually happens when a government uses violence to suppress its people, he says. "We have this false sense that bad guys get their comeuppance or the perpetrators of crimes against humanity eventually face justice or get removed from power. I think that's a false sense. I think the situation in Indonesia … is not the exception to the rule. It is the rule."
But the 1965 genocide is not just an Indonesian problem. It's a global one. Oppenheimer explains that many businesses and industries dependent on the global south are built on such oppression. "The kind of fear and violence that we see in 'The Act of Killing' is the underbelly of our reality, it's the dark underbelly of who we are … I don't think it's fair to me, to you, to anybody listening to this that we have to depend on other people's suffering for our own survival."
"The Act of Killing" is not simply a condemnation of a brutal regime, however. It also depicts one perpetrator, Anwar Congo, who experiences a moral transformation throughout the film and has a fit of dry heaves at the scene of his crimes. Oppenheimer remembers his mixed emotions: "I had this impulse in that moment to put my arm on him … and say, 'It's going to be okay' … and I realized in that moment that no of course I can't do that because this is what it looks like when it really is not okay, and it really will never be okay."
But empathizing with Anwar may be as important as condemning his crimes: "If we want to have any chance of preventing these things from happening again we have to have the courage to look at what really happens: namely that human beings do this to each other …
"I think essentially empathy is the beginning of love, and that's something you can't have too much of."