EXCERPT: Joshua Oppenheimer on "The Act of Killing"

Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer can be heard on author Sam Harris' Waking Up podcast to discuss his two Werner Herzog-produced documentaries about the (supposedly) American-backed genocide in Indonesia during the cold war.

In The Act of Killing Oppenheimer interviewed Anwar Congo, a high-ranking member of Indonesia's right wing para-military who is said to have killed one thousand people, and even brags about his exploits as a fighter against communism. Throughout the interview, Anwar demonstrates a candid attitude and is encouraged by Oppenheimer to role-play reenactments of his exploits. These reenactments veer strangely into specific film genres while Anwar attempts to see through the eyes of his victims; he becomes emotionally and even physically unraveled as the sessions progress.

Oppenheimer commented on The Act of Killing and Anwar's strange performances...

"I see my work as creating occasions, creating situations in which the inherent contradictions and horrors come to the surface in a way that feels overwhelming and -- despite it all taking place within the over-all safe space of making a film -- uncomfortable, for everybody involved. In The Act Of Killing I'm encountering the truth of boasting, bragging perpetrators... So I invite them to dramatize what they've done in whatever ways they wish in order to make visible the lies, the stories, the fantasies that allow them to live with themselves, the personas -- the contradictory personas they inhabit -- that allow them to live with themselves... 

You see this kind of recursive process of performing, of dramatizing, and then watching and responding. You see Anwar watching his own fantasies, his dramatizations and then proposing the next one in response and watching and proposing the next one in response. And what unfolds is this kind of fever dream about escapism and guilt. And we are sucked right into it with Anwar...

And each time Anwar watches the horror, watches his previous dramatization, we can see that he's terribly pained but as [Sam Harris] put it very nicely, there's nowhere for those emotions to go except further denial. So he proposes what he considers to be a kind of aesthetic improvement, as though if he can fix the scene aesthetically, he can dispel the pain and fix his past morally. And so one dramatization begets another, begets another, begets another until we're tobogganing through a kind of fever dream of shifting fantasies. It's the lies and fantasies that make up the killer's present. And the terrible consequences of those when imposed on the whole society... The corruption, the thuggery, the fear. [The film] is about impunity today, not about the events of the genocide a half a century ago."

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