Berlin Q&A: Director Joshua Oppenheimer
American filmmaker and human rights advocate Joshua Oppenheimer has made numerous shorts and experimental documentaries, but The Act of Killing will likely be seen as his big breakthrough.
As Werner Herzog said after seeing an early cut of the project: “I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal and frightening in at least a decade.“ (Herzog later signed on as an executive producer)
Originally from Texas and a graduate of Harvard and Central St. Martins, London, Oppenheimer was at work on a film about the plight of Indonesian farm workers in 2003 (what would become The Globalization Tapes), when he began to encounter survivors of Indonesia’s 1965 ‘communist purge’ – a historical atrocity that resulted in the concerted extermination of over one million Indonesian leftists, intellectuals and ethnic Chinese.
Oppenheimer says he was interested in telling the victims’ stories but found them too traumatized and intimidated to speak out. Instead, he managed to arrange introductions to many of the actual perpetrators of the mass killings living amongst the victims – local toughs, gangsters, paramilitary leaders and corrupt businessmen – who were openly boastful of their role in Indonesia’s atrocities (unlike the genocides of Rwanda, Cambodia or elsewhere, Indonesia has undergone no official reconciliation process, meaning the perpetrators still occupy positions of power across Indonesian society and government, and have been free to write this dark chapter in the country’s history as they see fit).
Oppenheimer tentatively began interviewing all of the aged killers he could find and eventually focused on a small crew of former executioners – led by a charismatic retired gangster named Anwar Congo. Rather than basing the documentary on interviews and reenactments aspiring to accuracy, the director gave the killers free reign to make their own “movie” portraying their actions during the purge as death squad leaders. The result is a frightening and revealing portrayal of how these men imagine -- and have reconciled themselves to -- the horrific crimes they committed.
In October, The Act of Killing was picked up for U.S. distribution by Drafthouse Films, which is planning a 30-market theatrical release, as well as an awards season campaign for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 2013. Before it’s European premiere in Berlin, Oppenheimer connected with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss his unconventional documentary process and why it’s important to recognize the humanity of mass murderers.
The Hollywood Reporter: Errol Morris and Werner Herzog are both credited as executive producers on The Act of Killing. How did they become involved and what was their role?
Joshua Oppenheimer: My U.K. executive producer, Andre Singer, is the U.K. co-producer on some of Werner’s documentaries, and he told Werner about the film. I happened to be in London at the same time Werner was there with his film Into the Abyss and Andre suggested we meet. I showed him some footage and he was very intrigued. Later I sent him the fine cut of the film and two months later, he contacted me with his reaction and said he wanted to do whatever he could to get the film out to the world as widely as possible. He’s been very wonderful ever since. There was a director’s cut of 159 minutes and that’s what Werner first saw, but there are television stations involved in the financing, so we had to cut it down to 90 minutes. Werner thought very hard and deeply about how we might do that in the best possible way. It’s always a painful process cutting down a director’s cut, and it was really important to have Werner’s help and support – and his mind. It's an amazing mind. So he’s an ambassador for the film and I think he’ll be very instrumental in the U.S. release.
Errol is friends with one of my film school professors. I showed him scenes back in the beginning of 2010 and he also said he wanted to be involved, and has been an equally energetic ambassador. He gave really useful notes too. Errol is a real investigator. He’s really taken it upon himself to dig into the Indonesian history and he’s talking to experts and writing a long piece about the film and its relationship to this unknown history.