As a student at Harvard, I began my exploration of the space between documentary and fiction – and the maelstrom of stories that we tell ourselves to justify our actions. What are the effects of these stories? My Harvard thesis film, The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase, was the start of this exploration, and my first apocalyptic fever dream. The director’s cut of The Act of Killing is my second.
With my Harvard collaborator Christine Cynn, we began investigatin nonfiction filmmaking methods that put reality through a kind of prism, revealing the interacting fantasies that make up the surface ‘factual’ reality. By allowing people to stage themselves, we make manifest the way they wish to be seen – and the vulnerabilities and fears that these fantasies mask.
The tradition of cinema is dominated by films about good versus evil, ‘good guys’ fighting ‘bad guys.’ But good guys and bad guys only exist in stories. In reality, every act of evil in history has been committed by human beings like us. When we make the leap from ‘a human being who commits evil’ to ‘an evil human being,’ we denounce an entire life, a whole person. I think we take pleasure in denouncing people. Perhaps because, in feeling entitled to make the denunciation, we reassure ourselves that we are different, we are good.
In The Act of Killing, I ask you to see a part of yourself in Anwar, a man who has killed perhaps 1,000 people. Empathizing with a killer does not mean we empathize any less with the victims. In fact, the contrary is true. Empathy is not a zero-sum game. Empathy is the beginning of love – and I think we can never have too much of it. The moment you identify, however fleetingly, with Anwar, you will feel, viscerally, that the world is not divided into good guys and bad guys – and, more troublingly, that we are all much closer to perpetrators than we like to believe.
Without exception, the perpetrators of the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide who I filmed were eager to tell me what they had done. Usually, they would insist I film them in the places where they had killed, and they would launch into spontaneous re-enactments of the killings. They would then lament that they had neglected to bring machetes to use as props, or friends to play victims. I knew their openness was a consequence of – indeed a performance of – impunity. But why were they boasting? How did they want me to see them? How did they really see themselves?
Perpetrators on film normally deny their atrocities (or apologize for them), because by the time filmmakers reach them, they have been removed from power and their actions have been condemned. Here, I was filming perpetrators of genocide who won, who built a regime of terror founded on the celebration of genocide, and who remain in power. They have not been forced to admit what they did was wrong. At first, I took their boasting at face value: they feel no remorse, they are proud of what they did, and they have no conscience. I came to understand, however, that the killers’ boasting may betray their awareness that what they did was wrong and may be their desperate effort to escape that fact.
The Act of Killing asks hard questions about what it means to be a human being. What does it mean to have a past? How do we make our reality through storytelling? And how, as a crucial part of this, do we use storytelling to escape from our most bitter and indigestible truths? – Joshua Oppenheimer
The Harvard Film Archive is pleased to welcome Joshua Oppenheimer to discuss in person one of the most acclaimed, most disturbing documentaries of recent years.
This program is co-presented with the Film Study Center and the Sensory Ethnography Lab, with support from the Provostial Fund Committee for the Artsand Humanities, Harvard University.
Special thanks: Maria Kristensen – Final Cut for Real.
Film descriptions by David Pendleton
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer with Cynthia Cynn and Anonymous
Denmark 2012, digital video, color, 158 min. Indonesian with English subtitles
A failed coup in Indonesia was blamed on the country’s Communist party and led to military rule in 1965, as well as organized death squads that targeted the country’s leftists. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer profiles two of the leaders of a Sumatran death squad who boast of their crimes and are eager to re-enact them for the camera. This screening will feature the “director’s cut” of The Act of Killing, more than half an hour longer than the version released theatrically, which represents, in Oppenheimer’s words, “the film in its most terrifying, dreamlike, and intimate form.”
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
US 1997, 16mm, color, 50 min
The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase is an imaginative and innovative film essay which combines faux and real documentary with lyrical fiction to paint a monstrous yet beautiful portrait of America at the end of the millennium. With unflinching originality, the film meditates humorously on faith, myth, scapegoats, the idea of the alien, the end of the world, and the beginnings of redemption…. Oppenheimer's monstrous yet charming 'history of my country' is written by a poet, sweet and dark, joyous as the wet rats who save themselves from drowning in the film's last sequence…. It opens a genre of film as revelatory and intelligent dream, stimulant of social memory, and means for re-examining the relationship between fact and fiction, historical truth and social myth.
– Dusan Makavejev, May 1997