The Human Condition: An Interview with Joshua Oppenheimer

EDITORS’ PICKS, Features, FILM, Interviews
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Ahead of The Look of Silence’s date at the Oscars for Best Documentary Feature, a conversation with filmmaker and human rights activist Joshua Oppenheimer.

The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to the astonishing The Act of Killing, is no less powerful. Returning to the scene of the state-sponsored (and internationally sanctioned) genocide against Communists and Ethnic Chinese in mid-1960s Indonesia, the film centres on Adi, an ophthalmologist, whose brother was murdered during the genocide. From such a murky and fraught environment, the courageous Adi gently interviews the surviving perpetrators. Aided by a camera that is aligned with his viewpoint, Adi’s simple yet potent reproach is achieved by looking directly into the perpetrators’ eyes. One of the best films of 2015, it is set to garner further international attention on the back of its Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature.

The following interview was conducted with Joshua Oppenheimer last July when he was a guest of the New Zealand International Film Festival 2015.

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img_joshuaoppenheimerBRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: Why film?

JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: For me, film is my way of exploring some of the most mysterious and fundamental questions about what it means to be human. What existence is, what perception is, how we know ourselves—these basic, almost metaphysical things, which I feel can best be explored, not through the logical discourse of philosophy, but through experience. Film is my vehicle for that exploration and my way of translating the mystery of whatever I discover as an immersive experience for a viewer. I don’t see myself as a storyteller.

BG: Of course, in The Act of Killing, that was how Anwar used film.

JO: Of course, we used film together. It was me who said to Anwar, “you participated in one of the biggest killings in human history. I wanted to know what it means to you and to your society. You want to show me what you’ve done, so show me in whatever way you wish and I’ll film your dramatisations in whatever way you wish. I’ll film your fellow death squad veterans and your protégés discussing what you want to show and what you want to leave out and why.”

BG: Do you feel responsibility for these awful people—well to me they’re awful—but I know you have a much more complex relationship?

JO: Well, they’re human. That says something about all of our capacity to be awful. And certainly, not everybody. But certainly the people I take a journey with. I feel a strong sense of connection and ongoing responsibility to Anwar. We remain in touch, not as often as we did before, every couple of months, and we care for each other a great deal.

BG: I suppose documentary is not meant to be objective like law, but critics tend to impose those sorts of obligations on documentary makers. Have you felt an expectation in ‘fairness’?

JO: That’s an interesting question and it raises some big issues. Particularly in non-fiction films dealing with atrocity, there’s a kind of self-deception and there’s a compact between filmmaker and audience. If you can tally up the crimes and pass judgment, we’ve somehow dealt with something. Collectively, we use the mechanisms and the institutions of justice as the way of dealing with flagrant breaches of our social norms. But when it comes to film and art, this is self-deception. It’s not dealing with anything. Merely passing judgment, tallying the crimes of Anwar Congo or the men Adi confronts in The Look of Silence and saying they’re guilty, is pathetic. To do that would be a pathetic acceptance of an audience’s ignorance.

Every viewer of my films ought to know that these men, in terms of what they have done, are terrible and therefore if they were in a court they’d be found guilty of war crimes—really, crimes against humanity because there was no war taking place at that time. But ultimately when a filmmaker and an audience consent together to accept that easy judgment as having dealt with something, it’s self-deceiving and comforting because it’s a retreat to the lowest common denominator. To what we already know. It’s a congratulatory, “see, you already knew this was wrong, we can see that these people are guilty, and we are in a moral position to pass judgment.” We were right in our judgment and we are good and we can exempt ourselves from feeling in any way implicated. That of course prevents precisely what really dealing with these men would be, which would be to attempt to understand them.

In my two films, what we’re trying to understand is not the events of 1965 but the conditions of impunity today. The self-deception of the perpetrators that allows them to live with what they’ve done, and the experience, intimidation, and silence within which survivors are forced to build their lives, and survive and find moments of love and grace. To really explore those things would be to deal with those things.

I know I haven’t quite answered your question, but I think it’s related. Your question was about a notion of fairness, which audiences and critics and other filmmakers have, about dealing with non-fiction subjects in a ‘fair way’. I talked about judgment in this way, because they’re related. A tradition of non-fiction cinema, which claims for itself the moral authority of a juridical process in the absence of justice, encourages viewers to become accustomed to that tradition of non-fiction cinema. To expect a series of ethical norms and rights to be accorded similar to what one might have in a trial.

I think that the habit of avoiding seeing oneself in these sort of crimes by passing judgment is the same habit of self-righteous condemnation [we see in] viewers who watch non-fiction films dealing with difficult ethical issues and approach them] from the perspective of what ethical norms and orthodoxies the filmmaker has violated. It’s always the same viewers who pass judgment on Anwar and say he’s a rotten human being—sorry—who also say the filmmaker has done something rotten to Anwar. Or the filmmaker has violated the norms of good practice. And the reason it’s the same person is because the viewer is watching from the position of self-righteous judgment.

That said, I take very seriously my obligations to the people with whom I work, the people who take long journeys with me. I do everything I can to make sure that the overall space is a safe space. For two reasons: I care deeply with the persons with whom I work and I don’t want them to be harmed by working with me. Secondly, if the space isn’t safe, they won’t open up. They’ll know it’s not safe and they’ll endanger themselves by opening up about an emotion or an experience. So within the overall safe space of making a film, I try to collaborate and rub reality against the grain and make visible fault-lines and fractures that we’d try to paper over with fictions and fantasies. It’s closer to how we normally function and normally know ourselves.

img_lookofsilence4BG: That makes Adi such a fascinating character. He doesn’t fall into the trap of self-righteousness. He tries to talk, to figure out, to reconcile. Did you get that sense of Adi’s personality right from the start, that he’d be a subject in order to express these viewpoints? Obviously it would be a very traumatic thing for him to work through—to confront people like his uncle, for instance, I imagine was extremely difficult. How much did you get from Adi?

JO: The confrontations were very painful. For all of us, but especially for Adi. No one has the courage except for the daughter of one, to apologise, to accept that what they’d done was wrong. Of course the daughter had no need to apologise because she didn’t do anything wrong. I would never have undertaken this journey with a character who was seeking revenge. It would have been too dangerous. It would have led them to be very badly hurt. The perpetrators would have felt that and it would have been an excuse to fight back. Adi’s not seeking revenge. He’s trying to end the conditions of fear in which his family has been living. Of course if he came out for violence and revenge, the cycle of violence would just continue to the next generation. And I learned very much from Adi to see the perpetrators as human beings.

There’s an early scene in The Look of Silence where Adi’s watching footage—if viewers realised—of the same man who opens the film singing the song. He’s showing his wife how he killed women. I remember when I was editing the film and re-watching the clip after many years as I hadn’t seen it again for a long time, I thought, “whatever I’ve said about Anwar being a human being—as I’d just released The Act of Killing—this man is really a monster.” And then I saw Adi’s reaction. “This man must feel so guilty about he’s done, otherwise he wouldn’t be so numb to talk in this way.” [That was] Adi from the very beginning. No matter how awful, or monstrous the way the perpetrators spoke, Adi would always insist in finding the humanity there.

And I think it’s the only way. It’s a survival strategy for him. It’s hard to live as a survivor, disempowered, surrounded by monsters gobbling you up. It’s much easier to feel the people around me are human beings like me, and there must be some basis for reaching out to them. I think in general when I release The Look of Silence in places where there were atrocities and the perpetrators were vanquished, like Germany, this isn’t difficult to accept. In the United States, people imagine their role in the world is to ride on a white horse and a white hat and be the good guy: it’s very hard for people to accept. They’ve never had to live as survivors because they’re living as perpetrators. It’s easy to think that people around us are monsters. But the men around Adi, Primo Levi is right when he says there may be monsters among us—speaking of the perpetrators of the Holocaust—but they’re too few to worry about. What we really have to deal with are ordinary human beings.

BG: Did you find your family’s history with the Holocaust played into your reaction to Adi and his reaction?

JO: Maybe, yeah. I certainly grew up with the lesson that the aim of politicking and the aim of all culture is to prevent these sorts of things happening again. Not in the sense of never again to us—which could imply we just have to identify the potential perpetrators and defend ourselves against them, and become strong enough to kill them or neutralise them—but never again for anybody, including people who might otherwise be perpetrators. Never again to anybody is the widest possible approach. Let’s say you take all of the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide into another context where they have not crossed this threshold, where they haven’t committed atrocities, beyond the culture they’ve had to erect of interlocking fictions that justify, normalise, and naturalise what they’ve done, ensuring those atrocities could easily happen again. Meet the perpetrators and the survivors in another context, you would find that the perpetrators are just as caring, just as loving, just as humane as those who in this situation have become survivors.

It’s tempting to think that in terms of human morality, we know the difference between good and evil. It’s tempting to think that simply there is a good part of our soul that prevents us from harming one another. I don’t think you can divide the soul into a good part and a bad part. There’s no angel on our shoulder and the devil on the other. If the perpetrators grew up in families where for the first 20 years of their lives… they were nurtured and they learned to take care of one another, when they’re incited to kill, and told they should betray all they’ve learned to kill this person, it’s a threshold. If they can be incited to cross that threshold, human morality that tells them the difference between right and wrong no longer helps them to be moral human beings. It encourages them to become worse. Now they have to justify what they’ve done to themselves. Because they’re moral, because they’re potentially haunted by guilt, they have to cling to lies and fantasies. They need to inhabit persona to live with what they’ve done. That of course leads them to kill again. It prepares them to kill again.

If the government encourages them to kill somebody and they’re haunted by guilt, the commanders in the army tell them what they did was right—don’t worry, it was hard but it was the right thing to do. It’s exactly what Himmler said in his speech to the SS. They may have nightmares at night, but by day, they will cling to that lie and if the next week this commander says, “now kill this whole room full of people for the same reasons,” they have to do it. Because to refuse the second time would be to admit it was wrong the first time. So we have human morality, but once you have passed the threshold, it actually leads people to do worse. Human morality is as much a part of the mechanism for evil as it is part of the mechanism for good.

BG: What your films also powerfully show is just how unfixed the concepts of morality are. What would have been perfectly moral as far as the Indonesian government and American foreign policy, is now through a different lens, completely different.

JO: But I think the reason those events can be reframed in The Look of Silence through Adi’s gaze, or the gaze of the camera which is aligned with Adi’s gaze, is because in the beginning, everybody knew on some level that it was wrong. I had this ongoing debate with my friend and one of my producers, Errol Morris on this issue, where I feel somehow when you commit atrocities, there is a stain that is left.

I don’t think it keeps the commanders awake at night. I think the commanders find it pretty easy, as there’s one degree of separation from what they’ve done. The killings are somewhat abstract. They’re being undertaken in the name of grand narrative policies and they’re being undertaken in the name of stories about what should happen next in a society. Because they form part of a story, it’s easy to explain them away as part of that story. But still, it leaves a stain.

I think everyone involved, knows. Even for the men in the Pentagon and the State Department to do the bidding of their corporate sponsors… the reason they needed ideological anti-Communism to do that is because they couldn’t bring themselves to do that without that rationalisation. Because ordinary people know that these things are wrong, the human capacity for evil depends on our ability to lie to ourselves. Self-deception and cognitive dissonance is how people are able to do things that are wrong.

img_lookofsilence3BG: Indonesia is a very complex society, with lots of ethnicities, islands, and historical narratives. How difficult is it differentiating between what was ‘universal’ and the regional aspects of where you were filming?

JO: If you approach people intimately and as a human being, they will respond to you as a human being. You can see quite quickly people are pretty easy to understand. They have slightly different body language and of course a different language, but you can learn to read people’s emotions quite quickly. People who watch my films understand the emotions of my characters even though they come from very different backgrounds. I’ve lived my life in-between many cultures—I’m American but I live in Denmark, and my husband is Japanese. I spent the last ten years working in Indonesia. Before that I lived in the United Kingdom, which I find more culturally different from the U.S. than Indonesia. Indonesia is closer culturally to America in many ways. Building these close relationships across different cultural divides for as long as I’ve been an adult, means I see the specificities of where I was working as largely political.

So, I felt the situation in North Sumatra was like walking into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power and the rest of the world had supported the Holocaust while it took place. Then, of course, I felt that perhaps the boasting of the perpetrators in North Sumatra was more public and more extreme than the rest of Indonesia, not because of cultural specificity, but because it was a region that was dominated by the gangsters who came to power with their collaboration with the army during the genocide. When Indonesia’s Tempo Magazine sent 60 journalists around the country to see if The Act of Killing was a repeatable experiment, they found everywhere they went, perpetrators were boastful. It was less specific than I thought at first. I don’t think everywhere in Indonesia you’d have Indonesian state television producing talk-shows such as the one you see in The Act of Killing. The regional government is captured by the gangsters, so the regional state television studios are the gangster owned TV studios. I think those are political rather than cultural differences, which are easy to understand if you engage with the power structures of a place.

BG: That’s almost discourse and power in play…

JO: There are cultural issues at work, of course, but I want viewers around the world to see my work as a mirror, rather than a window into a far-off place. Therefore I do not emphasise them. I think this is the first film about Indonesia made by a Westerner that has no gamelan music. I want you to feel Adi as your brother, Adi as you, and his children as your children, and the perpetrators as your neighbours. That’s not going to happen if the cultural differences between you and these people are being explained to you all of the time. How many of the cultural differences between you and your neighbours in Wellington are being explained to you all of the time?

BG: In New Zealand in the 1960s, our government supported Indonesia. We supported Indonesia when it invaded East Timor, and putting in the barriers of difference and Others would defeat our own involvement…

JO: It’s part of our history. I hadn’t known that New Zealand had participated in the Vietnam War. This is part of our history. For better or worse, you can go to Indonesia and pay for a cup of coffee with a Visa card. It’s a global civilisation. Seeing cultural specificity and singularity in what’s really a global murderous policy masquerading as economic progress and globalisation is again self-deception and to deny our own implication in this.

BG: The Look of Silence felt quieter than The Act of Killing. Did it change much in the editing, or the approach change after The Act of Killing?

JO: If you’ve seen the short version of The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, you could say that they’re different, but if you see the uncut The Act of Killing, you’ll see they’re very precisely complementary. In the uncut The Act of Killing, every sequence culminates in an abrupt cut, this haunted silence where you see one character, one or two figures surrounded by derelict buildings, in these haunted landscapes. With these types of abrupt cuts in The Look of Silence, you feel this haunted space in which the perpetrators’ fever dream is unfolding. I would say the uncut The Act of Killing is not a documentary at all. It’s a non-fiction fever dream. The Look of Silence is in some ways not a documentary either, but a non-fiction poem. These abrupt cuts to silence are a shift from the perpetrators to the absent dead. In The Look of Silence, I wanted to take the viewers into any of the haunted silences that punctuated The Act of Killing and feel what it is like to have to build a life there as a survivor. To live there, unable to mourn for all that has been lost. What is it like to live there surrounded by all of the still powerful perpetrators? What is half a century of fear?

What is jaw dropping in the The Act of Killing is encountering the boasting of the perpetrators for the first time. People who have seen The Look of Silence before The Act of Killing—which is many, particularly in France, where The Act of Killing never took hold—are encountering that boastful, performative dramatisation. It’s a desperate attempt to sugarcoat awful memories with the glorious language of a victor’s history for a first time, and it’s almost more shocking. It depends on what you see first.

‘The Look of Silence’ is nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 88th Academy Awards.