GALO: For me, this mirror reflects back that we, as humanity, need an understanding that killing other human beings is wrong. Globally. Regardless of where we live. And that what The Act of Killing portrays is that as humans, we are all the same.

JO: I think the film fundamentally witnesses a downward spiral into a moral vacuum, because the perpetrators are trying to justify their actions, both at the level of a whole society and at the level of an individual — at the level of Anwar. And we see how humanity and our morality are actually implicated in the mechanisms of evil. It’s not something antithetical to evil. It’s not like there is a good part of us — a moral part of us — and an evil part of us. Even inside the individual. Our humanity, our morality can be implicated in the practice of evil.

Never for a second in the movie do we forget what Anwar did was monstrous, and what all of these men have done was monstrous, and that this regime as a whole, which the U.S. is supporting by doubling its military aid this past autumn, is monstrous. But we also never make the leap from that to saying these men are monsters, because we recognize that the moment we would do so, we’re fundamentally reassuring ourselves that we’re not like that. So while I would hope that I would have made different decisions had I grown up in Anwar’s family and 1965 came, I know that I am very fortunate never to have to find that out. And I also know that if we care to understand how and why human beings do this to each other, and what effects these actions and lies have on ourselves and on our humanity, we have to — as the starting point — see these men as human, because that’s what they are. Otherwise, we’re simply trying to reassure ourselves by lying to ourselves about what’s actually going on.

GALO: Your next documentary’s working title, The Look of Silence, is based on a family of survivors who confront the men who murdered their son in the plantation belt outside Medan. You’ve described obstacles you faced in filming survivors of the genocide, and that you had no difficulty filming the perpetrators. Did you strategically decide to finish and release The Act of Killing before The Look of Silence, or were there obstacles you had yet to overcome?

JO: I think the duty of any filmmaker is to somehow try and address the most important problems first, and the most important problem was that the army wouldn’t let the survivors talk to me any more. The survivors then said to try and focus on the perpetrators. And the perpetrators were boastful, giving me something that resembled much more than testimony. It was a performance long before they were doing reenactments. Just the simple act of boasting in front of their relatives about what they had done is somehow performative and begs the question: who is their imagined audience? What’s the purpose of this performance? For whom are they performing? Those were the most important questions, and it was then that I understood that if I could answer those questions, we would be able to expose a whole regime of impunity.

Once I started working with the perpetrators, the regime rolled out a red carpet for everything we were doing. And so long as we didn’t tell Anwar and his friends why I was going back to the countryside, I was able to continue filming with the survivors surreptitiously. I shot what’s really the bulk of the new movie after editing The Act of Killing, but before we released it and it was no longer possible for me to return.

GALO: What has been the response of the Indonesian government? Are you welcomed back? It doesn’t sound as if you are.

JO: By and large, the Indonesian government has basically met the film with silence. But, of course, there have been threats — some of our screenings have been threatened. A newspaper published a story attacking Pancasila Youth [one of Indonesia’s largest paramilitary organizations], saying the world condemns Pancasila Youth, and was then attacked by Pancasila Youth members. So there’s been some action against the film, but the government has also demurred from banning it. The Act of Killing has triggered an enormous conversation, changing the way Indonesia talks about its past as a whole and changing the way the media talks about the past. The film has not been banned. I have not been banned. I have not been told I’m not welcomed back. I think I could get in, but I don’t think I would get out safely.

GALO: In your production notes for one of your early films, The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase, you describe the creation of a new form of documentary — the fictional documentary — as a film that “writes fantasy as history, fiction as fact, adding an imaginary event to the historical record.” Have you achieved that in The Act of Killing?

JO: I think in The Act of Killing we intervene in reality to create, in a way, a reality that was immanent, organic to that reality — mainly perpetrators of genocide making a musical to expose a whole regime of impunity. A fictional story about death squad veterans making a musical is not a story you could write as fiction. It would probably not work and probably would not be plausible, because it’s ridiculous based on the story itself. But that’s what they do in The Act of Killing. And it becomes a kind of allegory for impunity. A kind of symptom — a kind of crack in the façade — that such a film could even exist. And within the film there are individual scenes that serve this function: when Anwar imagines his victim is in heaven thanking him for killing him and sending him to heaven; or the television talk show, which came about as a result of our filmmaking process, is, itself, a kind of unmasking of the regime and serves as a metaphor for what happens when killers have built their normality on the basis of terror and lies and elevate genocide as something heroic.

So, in a sense, maybe I would revise or update those production notes and say that by giving people a chance to play themselves, you are working with the inevitable self-consciousness that anybody will feel the moment he or she is being filmed. Non-fiction film has the opportunity to create not just documents of every day occurrences but documentaries of the imagination by tapping into the fact that we all know ourselves and stories, and we begin to perform those stories when we are filmed. The camera is a way of intervening in reality to make physical the role of fantasy in every day reality and the immanence of delirium in the every day.

GALO: What interests you most in being a filmmaker?

JO: In general, I see cinema as a medium — a prism — for making manifest the stories we tell ourselves, the secondhand, third-rate, half-remembered fantasies and stories by which we know ourselves…by which we make our reality. If only because the moment you begin to film anybody, they start showing how they want to be seen and then, underneath that, how they really see themselves. And in that sense, the camera is a way of intervening in reality to make visible all of these stories that are passed down. That’s fundamentally what I’m most interested in cinema.

Returning to that very beautiful Peter Weiss quote that you read, The Act of Killing is a film about the consequences of denial. The consequences of the stories we tell to justify our actions. Cinema is the great storytelling medium of modernity. And here cinema also functions as a prism to identify those stories and to deconstruct them and to undermine them. To subvert them and ultimately to find a way out, to paraphrase the quote you read earlier.

GALO: Thank you so much for talking with GALO, Joshua.

JO: Thank you.

“The Act of Killing” is currently available to watch digitally on Distrify and Netflix as well as in theatres nationwide. For screenings in your area, please visit The 86th Academy Awards will air on March 2, 2014 at 7e/4p on ABC.

Video Courtesy of: Final Cut for Real.

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Featured image: Director Joshua Oppenheimer. Photo Credit: Oliver Clasper.