Joshua Oppenheimer on what awards really mean for 'The Act of Killing'
By the time Oscar night rolls around on Sunday, it'll have been over 18 months since "The Act of Killing" -- Joshua Oppenheimer's searing, inventively constructed documentary about Indonesia's vast anti-Communist genocide of the 1960s, and its ongoing aftermath in the country today -- had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. Since then, the film (which boasts Werner Herzog and Errol Morris among its executive producers) has become one of the most celebrated non-fiction films of recent years, racking up critical plaudits and awards, topping Sight & Sound's poll of 2013's best films and, of course, scoring an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature.
Usually, documentaries that earn such widespread approval are less abrasively challenging than Oppenheimer's film, the most surprising twist of which is that it addresses a large-scale atrocity -- one that claimed the lives of over half a million individuals -- from the perpetrators' perspective rather than that of the victims. In allowing the killers a forum to explain and replay their actions (not necessarily with regret or apology), "The Act of Killing" emerges as a unique human and political document, one that takes the long way round to a compromised catharsis -- particularly for initially remorseless Anwar, who becomes Oppenheimer's improbable protagonist.
Hours before the BAFTAs -- where he'd go on to pick up the Best Documentary award -- I sat down with a fresh-off-the-plane Oppenheimer at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, where the film has completed a record-breaking run. We talked about how the film took shape, what its impact home and abroad has been, and what all this awards attention really means.
HitFix: "The Act of Killing" began travelling the festival circuit well over a year ago; you've amassed a vast range of honors and accolades since then. At this stage, what do awards mean for you, and for this film?
Joshua Oppenheimer: Every time “The Act of Killing” wins an award, the film and the issues of impunity that it raises become front page headlines in Indonesia. And that encourages ordinary Indonesians to find the courage to hold their leaders to account, both for historical crimes against humanity and for present-day kinds of corruption – which they get away with, of course, because they know that the ordinary people whom they’re supposedly representing are too afraid to do so. So every time we win an award, that fear diminishes bit by bit. It’s palpable.
When the film was nominated for an Oscar, there was so much coverage and so many wonderful editorials in the Indonesian press that the government finally felt they needed to respond. Previously, they'd sort of kept quiet, hoping, I think, that the film would go away. And when we got the Oscar nod, they kind of realized that wasn’t going to happen. So they decided to make a statement about it. The president’s spokesman for international affairs said, “We know this was a crime against humanity, but we will deal with it in our own time. We don’t need a film to force us into reconciliation, much less a film by a foreign filmmaker.”
Now, the reaction to that government statement was wonderful. My anonymous Indonesian co-director wrote a beautiful statement saying, “This is not a film by a foreign filmmaker. This is a film by 60 Indonesians who worked with Josh. Some of us were university professors. Some of us were filmmakers. Some of us ran human rights NGOs. We left our careers – some of us for eight years – to make this film knowing that we couldn’t put our name on it. Risking our safety, knowing that we could never take credit for this work until there’s real change. And we’re not going to let the government try and get away with saying this is a foreigner’s view of the country, designed to make the country look bad.”
But what makes the country look bad, of course, is not the crime in 1965, but the ongoing refusal of the government to address that crime. So the government's statement wasn't a sign of goodwill, but it was a barometer of how much has changed that they can now say this was a crime against humanity. And that's an about-face: until that point, the government had maintained that the genocide was heroic, something to be celebrated. They continue to teach young children in Indonesia that that’s what it is.
Meanwhile, another thing the awards have meant is that the discussion has grown beyond Indonesia: this past week we had a screening on Capitol Hill in Washington for senators and congressmen and their staffers, with the discussion very much about what America’s role in this was, and what kind of justice is possible given that the international criminal court can’t address crimes that occurred before it was constituted. Could an international criminal tribunal of the sort that happened for the former Yugoslavia be constituted for this? The problem is those tribunals are always constituted through an action of the Security Council of the United Nations. In this case, two of the permanent members are perpetrators of this crime: the United Kingdom and the U.S.
So a discussion is starting to occur in the United States about how, if it wants to take leadership on these issues, it needs to declassify all documents pertaining to covert operations in Indonesia from that period. If the U.S. wants to have an ethical relationship with Indonesia or so much of the global south in similar situations, they need to acknowledge the crimes of the past and take collective responsibility for their role in supporting, participating in and ultimately ignoring those crimes. That discussion is starting to happen because of all the awards attention to date.
As a South African viewer, I was actually reminded of the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which Mandela devised as a way of admitting and processing past injustices that could not be legally addressed.
Yes. You could say they traded justice for truth.