What Makes us Human? An Interview with Joshua Oppenheimer

scarb&W

October 6, 2014

Dear Friends,

Greetings from the Pacific Northwest, where apple cider and harvest festivals are making the last rays of summer sweeter.

We at TTC are gearing up for our annual partay – our fundraiser, which takes place November 16th in Seattle. Please come if you can. Our friends Chris Jordan, Christen Lien and Kate Goldston will be speaking about subjects close to our hearts. Heather Wolf, who has been co-leading the women’s retreats in Yelapa with me and Kellie Shannon Elliott, will be our emcee for the evening. Please click here for more information. We will be sending invitations later this month and would love to know if you would like to receive one, email us back.

This month we have the honor to present an interview with filmmaker, MacArthur Genius Award winner, and Academy Award nominee Joshua Oppenheimer. He is the director of The Act of Killing, which will be shown on Point of View (PBS) October 6th, and streaming from October 7 – 21st. Don’t miss it. Afterwards, watch interviews with Joshua online, and read interviews  in addition to ours below. When it’s released, go see  The Look of Silence, his award-winning companion film,  making the rounds of major film festivals currently, and getting top honors. Focusing on Indonesia, the two films present an intimate and unprecedented look into the aftermath of genocide in Indonesia, more than forty years later, for both the perpetrators and the survivors in a society where the perpetrators have maintained continuous power. The film making itself represents an act of courage in the face of a power structure where the threat of violence is omnipresent.

But, you must be wondering, why Calypso instead of Josh is our cover shot? In August, just after I interviewed Joshua, our kitty was shot at close range with a pellet gun, shattering her leg. The bullet didn’t sever her nerves so with surgery, she’s mending, thankfully. When I discovered she’d been shot, I felt so violated, so angry and hurt for her that I went house to house asking people if they owned a pellet gun –and posted flyers about it on every telephone pole as well as community FB page. The shot to Calypso felt like a shot to me. It left me feeling shaken, fearful, and vulnerable. I’d like to feel it was an accident, but most likely someone did it on purpose — and was able to act with impunity, for in all likelihood this person will never be caught and may never come forward. A man I told about the shooting said, “It was most likely an adolescent boy, a kind of rite of passage.” “A rite of passage,” I said, “Are you kidding? An example of the crisis of manhood, more like it.” Whoever did this was certainly dissociated from his heart.

All this was going on while I was transcribing my interview with Joshua. Listening to him humanize the murderers in his film (not condone what they did or suggest that justice should not be done, but simply humanize them), while concurrently going through my own intense feelings of shock, anger and sadness about Calypso was illuminating for me. Listening to him reminded me what I stand for and what we teach youth through Teen Talking Circles. I kept seeing the parallels between the heartlessness of shooting a pet cat, the horror of discovering that someone had smeared fecal matter on the flyers I put around the neighborhood, and the dissociated barbarity of the murderers in Joshua’s films. When Josh said in the interview that the act of killing is a fundamentally human act, I had to expand my understanding of what is human. I began to understand that what we call evil is human, and in order to prevent these acts in the future, we have to be able to look at the humanity of people who perpetrate them. As Joshua says, “It’s not so we can forgive and forget — by all means no. And not because there shouldn’t be justice — again, by all means no. But we need to be able to look at how and why human beings do these things to each other. It’s simply self-serving reassurance to say these people are monsters and have nothing to do with me. That is a reckless attempt to reassure oneself, because it closes down the possibility of understanding, and prevention.”

Cover of the March 10, 1958 issue of Time, featuring Sukarno, leAs a movie, The Act of Killing is art, history, and most importantly it is a blueprint for how to hold each of us accountable for our actions. It finally allowed the truth and lies of the genocide in 1965/1966 to be seen and grappled with by the Indonesian people as well as by us, in the US, who are also complicit. Our CIA gave a list of names to the Indonesian government to target. The film was shown many times privately in Indonesia before it was released to the public. Having initially ignored it, the authorities were finally forced to make a statement after the film was nominated for an Oscar in January of 2014.“They released an admission that basically said that what had happened [during the anti-communist purges] was wrong, but that they would deal with it in their own time,” Oppenheimer said in an interview. “That was a huge change, even if it was reluctantly done.”

I didn’t want to watch The Act of Killing. I was afraid it would be too violent and disturbing. Then, I watched Joshua being interviewed on The Daily Show. That is when I realized how much I wanted to talk with him, ask him what he learned, and what inspired him to do this work in the first place.

      

Joshua Oppenheimer
The Look of Silence Official Website
         The Act of Killing Website

Background: Before we get into the interview, which sums up the title question above at the end, let me give you a little history. On September 30, 1965, a small group of Indonesian junior military officers loyal to left-wing nationalist President Ahmed Sukarno kidnaps and kills six senior army generals and announces the creation of a revolutionary council to rule the country. The officers, led by one of Sukarno’s bodyguards, Colonel Untung, claim the killings were necessary to thwart an imminent, US CIA-backed coup against the Sukarno government. The next day, October 1, 1965, Indonesian General Suharto takes control of Jakarta and claims the killings were part of a Communist plan to take over Indonesia. For the next five months, he oversees the slaughter of between 500,000 and 1 million people, many of them targeted because of their affiliation with the PKI, Indonesia’s Communist party.

images-1During this period, Suharto is backed by the US, Britain, and Australia. The US embassy in Indonesia provides the Indonesian army with a list compiled by the CIA consisting of the names of thousands of Communist Party leaders who the Indonesian military hunts down and executes. To do his dirty work, Suharto employs thugs and small time gangsters–the perpetrators in Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion films, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. With US approval, the following day, Indonesia invades East Timor. As a teenager, I remember protesting this action along with other peace activists, in 1965.

President of Indonesia Sukarno (center)
shakes hands with Vice President Lyndon Johnson
as President John F. Kennedy smiles,
Washington, D.C., April 25, 1961

  Joshua Oppenheimer Interview, Skype, August 21, 2014

josh

  Linda Wolf: Good morning,  Josh.

  Joshua Oppenheimer: Good evening, Linda!

  LW: Oh, that’s right, you’re in Denmark!

  JO: Yes, it’s nice to meet you, finally.

  LW: You, too. I just have to say I love you!

  JO: Thank you! I’m absolutely sure I love you, too.

  LW: Speaking of love, you were born and raised in the US but have lived overseas a while, did you leave for love?

JO: No, but indirectly it’s why I left the states and didn’t come back. I met my partner, who is Japanese, in 1998, in London; we were both studying there, and we realized that because of the Defense of Marriage act, I couldn’t bring him to the United States and he couldn’t bring me to Japan for similar reasons. So we clung to England, and eventually became British Citizens, which was a big relief. Then we moved to Denmark in the beginning of 2011 to edit The Act of Killing, and found that we liked it so much more than London.

LW: I have to tell you, I think The Act of Killing is one of the most important films ever made. It wasn’t as hard to watch as I imagined.

images-3JO: I think the film is emotionally impactful, but not viscerally impactful. To the extent that there is gore in the film it’s so ridiculously fake, and that’s almost the point. But, of course some people get so drawn into it they think we’ve burned down a real village and attacked families of survivors

LW: But of course, it was a movie set.

JO: We built three huts in a corn field and all the children in the movie are the grandchildren of the perpetrators and indeed they were never told what the scene was about. We auditioned them for their ability to cry when we call action. There was a woman on the set who fainted. Indonesians will say she is possessed and they very tenderly try to send home the ghost that came over her. She’s not a survivor or the daughter of someone who was killed. Her husband was a high-ranking organizer of the death squads and is now a high ranking military leader. She might have been expressing the trauma of being the wife of such a man and not being able to talk about it. The film-making process was a safe space for her to explore that and give voice to that.

images-2It’s interesting when we show the film in Japan, audiences there see the film for what it is, which is a film about a man who’s façade is collapsing. The film is about a personal lie and a national lie.

LW: The lie that is told by the winners. I imagine that this film is making history by allowing the people of Indonesia to begin to live with the repercussions of the truth finally getting aired — the truth that the survivors always have known but never been able to talk about considering that the perpetrators are still in power.

JO: When I started my work in 2003 with the survivors they would come together and tell me stories about what they remembered from the killings. They would tell their stories in tears because they were so afraid they could be found out for telling and be arrested and made to do forced labor, because that was what used to happen throughout the Suharto dictatorship for the first thirty-five years.

LW: These lies and punishments have gone on for nearly 50 years. That’s a long time to live with the knowledge of the truth untold.

JO: As we would sit and talk,  every time we would hear a moped passing, even in the distance, everyone would go quiet and stop. The survivors, who were universally poor, could only afford bicycles — the people on mopeds were outsiders, wealthy enough to be on the side of power. So, everyone would go quiet and be afraid. If we could hide the film equipment we would. So, to gather the stories of what happened in 1965 and to focus on the historical account of what happened felt somehow to ignore the immediate, present tense reality of what was happening in front of my camera, which was fear. The question became, what was it like to live with killers all around you, still in power, with the fear they could do this to you again at anytime? That’s what we tried to address.

LW: Did the government know what you were doing?

JO: The army did indeed find out what we were doing. At that point the survivors suggested we try to film the perpetrators to see if they would tell us what they did to the relatives of the survivors. I approached the perpetrators, unsure if it was safe to do so, afraid in fact, but would find to my astonishment and horror that every single one of them was immediately willing to talk. They were boastful about what they had done. I felt that I had wondered into Germany forty years after the Holocaust with the killers still in power and the Nazi’s have never having been overthrown. That’s what it felt like, this is what it would be like.

As I interviewed the perpetrators, I started getting the details of how the killers killed, where they brought them, where the prisons were, how they gathered people. But the elephant in the living room, the real thing that was happening was their boasting. I thought, why are they boasting? How do they expect me to see them? How do they expect you, via my camera, to see them? And that is about impunity — the fact the killers win and the whole country is built on a lie.

What happens when a whole generation of young people is raised up on a lie, and the second generation is raised on a lie? What happens when everyone knows it’s a lie and is too afraid to talk about it? And that story, which was the present tense thing happening, was overshadowing the details of the historical account — that’s the story I think most Indonesian artists and activists who try to address these issues have been afraid to address, because that story involves standing up to power. And I think Indonesians can’t really address that on their own, or couldn’t. An Indonesian could not have made The Act of Killing, safely. I had an Indonesian crew that made it with me…

TAoK-creditsLW: Everyone of them listed as “anonymous” in the credits.

JO: …and an Indonesian co-director who’s anonymous who made it with me, but on his own he couldn’t have done it.

It was just that, holding up a mirror to a whole society, exposing the genocide that happened fifty years ago. We committed atrocities fifty years ago, too. We still commit atrocities, all the time. It’s not about exposing the atrocities, it’s about holding up a mirror to what we have become because of impunity. That’s what’s forced people to talk about the thugery, corruption, the use of gangs in politics, the legacy, the fact of the power of the killer today. That’s what’s opened up the space for the country to finally talk about their past and present in a new way. The reality you see in The Act of Killing is our underbelly. Every piece of clothing we own is haunted by the suffering of the people who make it for us. They’re all working in factories located in places where political violence has taken place. The human cost is incorporated into the price tag we pay for it.

LW: Sweatshop labor. So, what happened after your film was shown in Indonesia? Were you in danger for speaking truth to power, so to speak? Are you still close with any of the people from the movie? Do they fear for their lives?

JO: Indonesia is not like the Nazi regime where everyone has to sing from the same hymn sheet. Anwar, the main character, is still close to me and has seen the film and been very moved by it. He’s said to me, “This film shows me what it’s like to be me.” And he also said, “I am relieved to finally be able to show what all this has meant for me and for everybody in Indonesia, and not just to talk about what I did, which is what we have always done as perpetrators.” He and I keep in touch regularly.

He’s, however, only very slowly started to lose the favor of the paramilitary leaders for making the film. I know the paramilitary leaders and military establishment hate me and for that reason it’s unsafe for me to go back, and that’s why I shot the new film, The Look of Silence after finishing editing The Act of Killing, before it premiered. I knew once it premiered, I could no longer return safely.

There’s real hope the new president, Joko Widodo, represents a new chapter in Indonesia. But to be elected as president in Indonesia involves  huge amounts of money and the people with money are universally cleptocrats, universally thugs, and universally criminals who have become rich by stealing the national wealth, resources, purging rainforests, and just stealing it basically with the protection of the military and the Suharto regime. That’s how everyone in Indonesia with a lot of money got that way.

A lot of people are hoping that Joko will embrace The Look of Silence and host the premiere, and that would make it safe for me to go back. I think it’s quite unlikely that he will host the premier of the new film while his vice president is appearing in such an unfavorable light in the Act of Killing. But, I can’t safely go back because the paramilitaries and the military are still so powerful and still enjoying impunity. If  you are in the military and you committed a crime, you can’t be tried in a civilian court. You can only be tried at the military court, which means Commanders will always go after and sacrifice their underlings, because they are the ones that are organizing the military justice. So there’s total official impunity for the military and the paramilitary still can get away with murder.

LW: I can’t imagine what your mother feels!

JO: My mom would be really upset if I told her I was going back at the moment. But at the same time I can’t forget the fact that my crew is there. Ok, they’re protected to some extent by remaining anonymous, and we’ve managed to keep them out of the spotlight. But they live in Indonesia, and they face this risk every day. The main character in my new film, his face is in the film. We’ve had to move his whole family to another part of the country, find schools for the kids and support them to build a home and a new life, and that’s a sign that an awful lot still needs to change.

LW: You must feel very responsible.

JO: I see my films as an expression, a translation of 10 years of accumulated insight and also, blindness and ignorance, but ten years of life there. I remember when I first saw the film come together, it was exhilarating to feel something so condensed but it was also disappointing. 2 hours, 40 minutes of a movie is never going to encompass 10 years of living and this film is just the tip of the iceberg of a huge process that makes it possible to create safely. I’m proud that nobody involved with me to make the film, including Anwar, has come to any harm, or been arrested, or beaten up. There was one newspaper editor who was beaten up for publishing a story, The World Condemns Pancasila Youth (the group that ran the death squads for the army). That made me heartsick to think that something I created could have triggered this. But, luckily, the rest of the press complained aggressively about that whole thing and the police reaction, so that has not been repeated.

LW: What gave you the courage to do all this? Did you grow up an activist? Were you influenced by your Jewish heritage, have nightmares about the Nazis? How did you grow up?

JO: When they were young, both my parents were radicalized by the civil rights movement in the US and then the anti-war movement. My mother and step-father were labor activists, union organizers, originally they were labor lawyers and gradually left practicing law to become activists. In fact, it was a globalization related labor project that first lead me to Indonesia, to help a community of plantation workers make a film to document their struggles in organizing a union. I was 26 when I did that. It was transformative for me.

My father’s family, his parents, narrowly escaped the holocaust and my step-mother’s family, most of her family, was killed in the holocaust and I grew up with this sense that the aim of all politics and even the aim of all culture and morality is to prevent these things from ever happening again, and not in the parochial sense of never again to us, but never again. It was with anguish, I remember growing up, that my father would watch these things happening again and again and again all over the world.

When I came out, when I realized I was gay, I befriended a man who was older than me. All his friends had died of aids, his partner had died. It was the early 90s/late 80s and there was so much discrimination – there is still discrimination –  it was really intense. They were beating us up and calling us fags. We were afraid to walk home at night. I remember thinking that this is a community, and half of the community (in San Francisco and in New York) were affected by HIV and are going to die. So, I got involved with fighting against the stigma in the fight against HIV and AIDS, and then started to fight for treatment access in developing countries, once affective treatments became available. We made sure those medicines were available to poor people, particularly in Africa.

Banner hangAround that time the anti-globalization movement – the movement against corporate globalization was awakening me to a class analysis which was really missing among my peers and I started to realize there are a lot of people for who the American Dream is simply a lie. And it’s a lie that divides us from each other. I was always political and always caring about the underdog. In Indonesia, I was living in a very poor village with people who were being poisoned by a very successful Belgium multinational company — and murdered. All these things made very big impressions on me.

When I was traveling with The Act of Killing, I would say, look, everything that touches our bodies is haunted by the suffering of the people who made it. In the sense that everyone who makes everything that we buy comes from the Global South or China, where people are being kept afraid and oppressed by men like Anwar and his friends. So, in that sense we all depend on Anwar and his friends doing our dirty work for us all over the world, whether we like it or not. In that sense, we depend on them and so if Anwar and his friends are monsters, what are we?

Just as Anwar is damaged by the act of killing –you see at the end of film that he escaped justice but not punishment — he is somehow destroyed by what he has done as human being, and so are we. We are all damaged by living lives that depend on the suffering of others. We’re able to live these lives because we escape in fantasy, television, slick media images, gaming and social media, in part because we feel that there is nothing we can do about it anyway.

LW: That is what many young people feel until they realize that they can do something, anything…

JO: That sense of powerlessness is something we should not accept because when you accept that, you are accepting that you have no control over the conditions of your life and become some kind of zombie, some kind of robot. You are saying, ok I am not fully human because I am not having any control over my existence, or doing the work necessary to have control over the world I have inherited.

To do the work, you can’t do the work by yourself. You have to build communities and movements and to do that is work– it’s really hard work. But if you don’t do it you are surrendering your humanity. You are saying, ok I am just going to go escape into movies, entertainment, shopping and consumerism because I can’t do anything about the world anyway –which is saying I can’t live and I can’t actually make a difference because I have no control over my world. That sense of powerlessness is like surrendering to the slave movement somehow.

images-4LW: The thugs in your films were influenced by Hollywood, violent movies, and such. They acted like they were movie stars themselves! Do you think that the media has that much influence on causing them to be so violent? Many young women in our programs hate and hurt themselves due to comparing themselves to media images.

JO: I think it’s very complicated, just like it’s more complicated than seeing images of impossibly thin women, with impossible to attain physiques that causes us to become anorexic. It probably involves the way we cope with anxiety, the way we’re taught, loved, held or not held, the way we’re there for or not there for each other. Those images are also a symptom of that. That we objectify each other.

I think we all create ourselves and are created by stories, images, sometimes they’re second hand, third rate, usually third rate, half-remembered, borrowed from the media, and I think they operate effectively because we’re not aware of them. When we become aware of them, their hold on us doesn’t entirely go away, but it loosens. If I know I’m anxious because I don’t live up to this particularly image, if you know that consciously, the hold starts to loosen.

renc3a9-magritte-la-reproduction-interditeWhat’s most frightening is the way we tell ourselves stories to not see, to kind of avoid dealing with the most painful things. Because maybe we’re afraid and we don’t know how to deal with that. We’re afraid we can’t deal with it. We’re afraid of the consequences and so we switch off or give up on making change, on dealing with things, or maybe we simply feel totally disempowered and feel incorrectly that individually we can’t make the change we would like to see. The consequences are that we retreat into escapist reality. I think that is a terrible shame for the reason Socrates made awfully plain, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

I don’t think because the movies Anwar watched were violent movies that he became a violent man. On the contrary, the Hollywood movie that Anwar describes most vividly, that was helping him kill, was an Elvis Presley musical. It was the escapist fantasy that made it possible for him to be absent, dissociated from himself, and from the person he was that has a very intimate and tragic interaction with when he was taking peoples lives. It enabled him to become numb. That’s the real risk. That is the real danger, the ethical danger of escapism. We disappear in that. It’s the alienation we have from ourselves and each other, even inside our families –maybe especially inside our families and from our neighbors, in school, etc. that is so damaged and so damaging to all of us.

We have only one chance to live and be present mindfully, to notice when we are being swept up by a kind of kaleidoscope of glitter and shit, a kaleidoscope of beautified ugliness. Swept up away from ourselves, away from each other. To become mindful of that is to actually reclaim yourself and to reclaim your relationships with people. I think there’s a lot to just stepping down out of all things that we’re encouraged to escape into, and that are so seductive to escape into, that feel so good to escape into, in the moment — step down from that into just the present and be little bit more still.

LW: That is why we do teen circles. It is all about human connection, having a safe place and people who accept us as we tell them our truths, and who listen with compassion. It is all about coming back into our wholeness, our stillness as you say – just being present with ourselves and each other.  It’s been great talking with you, Josh. I can’t wait to see The Look of Silence when it is released. I am so happy we’ve had a chance to get to know each other a little. I have so much respect for you. Please come have dinner with us, when you are in Seattle.

JO: With pleasure! Thank you, Linda.

For more information about the issues and the work of Joshua Oppenheimer, check his website

Watch the interview with Joshua Oppenheimer on The Daily Show

Join us for the TTC party and better fundraiser. We are honored to have Chris Jordan, Christen Lien, and Kate Goldston presenting. Check the interviews here with Chris and Kate, and find out more information at our event registration page: Here

 

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