Interview with Linda Wolf, Founder and Executive Director of Teen Talking Circles

In early May, three 8th graders from Hyla Middle School, an independent private school on Bainbridge Island, asked to interview Linda Wolf, TTC Founder and Executive Director in support of their final project for their Global Communities class. The culmination of this class project is scheduled to be presented at the Living Futures unconference in Seattle on May 18th.

At Hyla Middle School, 8th grade students have the opportunity to explore issues that impact their lives through the Living Futures Global Education curriculum. This year, students have focused their energies on a wide array of issues including environmental and inclusivity issues of the Puget Sound area, and building community for youth. This particular group focused on inclusivity and community building for youth on Bainbridge Island, WA. Their goal is to bring attention to strategies and solutions that can serve as potential models for other communities. As teens, they understand the need for change and see themselves as active agents in that change.


Hyla Middle School 8th Graders

In this interview, Linda Wolf touches on poignant topics such as connection, empowerment, activism, substance abuse, grief, self-love and compassion and how TTC builds vibrant and authentic relationships that support and empower us in our personal growth which informs our capacity to affect social change.

On a personal note, as assistant to the Directors of TTC, I was deeply moved by the reactions of the teens listening to Linda speak. Their faces softened, their voices relaxed, and their eyes seemed to fill with relief. They were nodding their heads, saying, “Yes! Yes! This makes sense!”

It was an honor for me to witness this connection and I believe the true strength of our organization is that it allows us to see each other and connect in this deep way, listening from the heart and being heard and witnessed profoundly heals our wounds and this positively impact everything from our personal relationships to deep divisions in the political and social climates. Please let us know your thoughts and take-aways from this interview.

To listen to this interview on Soundcloud, click here.

Thanks for reading,

Jeny Rae Vidal
Assistant to Directors at TTC


Olivia: How long have you been on the Island?

LW: Since 1990

Olivia: How long have you been with TTC?

LW: Since 1993

Olivia: So, do you feel like you are pretty tapped in to the community of youth, ages middle age to high school?

LW: I have a lot of experience in the past but I haven’t worked directly in circle with teens on the Island for a few years; I run a middle school aged circle in Seattle, now. But, we look forward to offering multiple local circles on the island, starting this Fall.

Olivia: How would you describe the youth community on Bainbridge?

LW: I would say, in general the youth on Bainbridge are pretty privileged, mostly white, upper to middle class – they have mostly college-educated parents who are either stay-at-home parents or business people. The kids here have a lot of opportunities to be in nature versus growing up in the city. Being on Bainbridge is sort of like living in a gated community. I think there is a lot that young people on Bainbridge are missing out on though – one of the most obvious is a connection with youth from Suquamish. There is a whole diverse culture that is only 5 minutes away that this community has not merged with… and you don’t get that in cities where there tends to be much more diversity. I do see youth on this Island going through the exact same things that youth go through all over the world go through in general as adolescents and teens, though I think many youth on this island are perhaps more conscious about alternative ways of living.


Dock Jumping on Bainbridge Island, WA

Jacqueline: Do you see patterns in middle school or high school that lead to drug use, alcohol use, failing classes or school?

LW: Yeah, I do. The way I would describe the biggest problem for all of us in this world, including teens, is that we live in a toxic system – an unhealthy paradigm of dominance versus partnership. The larger paradigm is one of power-OVER instead of power-WITH. For example, white men over everyone, men over women, adults over children, people over animals, people over the planet. It’s dominating and controlling power versus cooperative partnering and collaboration. We live in a system that doesn’t honor compassion, cooperation, sharing, communication, true friendship, equality, and respect as primary principles to live by, even if we espouse it as a value. We live in a system of power over. “You are less important than me because I am an adult.  You are less important to me because you’re brown. You’re less important because you’re Jewish. You’re less important because you’re a woman. You’re less important because you’re gay.” It’s all about domineering over people, the planet, animals. How can we be well when we live in a system where the paradigm is dominance?

We need a system of power-with, a paradigm of cooperation and partnership. I think that is the biggest problem we all have. Every single solitary one of us world-wide. The most important thing for me is to create something that holds us all in partnership, in cooperation, and respect – that has been the overriding value of the Teen Talking Circles Project. TTC is not about an adult coming in to a circle and lording over you. We are not going to try to mentor you, fix you, or tell you how to live.

TTCs are about listening and having the answers and wisdom come from you. What is it that you are longing for? What is it that you want out of life? As a facilitator we’re saying I was once a teenager, and even though I am 67 I have the teenager in me just like every adult has the teenager in her. Your parents have a teenager still inside of them. You happen to be teenagers. It’s co-mentoring that is most important to us. What do you know that you can teach me? What do I know that I can teach you? This creates a space where we can be truthful with each other.

Alcohol and drugs are a complex issue. What drugs are we talking about? Are we talking about marijuana? Are we talking about MDMA, acid, heroin, cocaine, meth?

Olivia: We are talking about substance abuse in general… It could be anything, like sugar.

LW: That’s a complex subject. Much of it has to do with wanting to escape our feelings. When we want to escape our feelings, we could do it in a number of destructive ways, as you say, through sugar, overeating, alcohol, cutting, sex –all kind of ways to distract ourselves and numb ourselves to real life and our feelings. The opportunity that life affords us is to feel grief – and joy. When we feel grief, our hearts break open and that is where the compassion comes in, the self-love comes in. If we are trying to avoid feeling pain, we’re going to use all kind of methods to avoid the wound, the pain, the grief, the shame.

What Teen Talking Circles gives us an opportunity to do is to share those feelings and find out that for goodness sakes, we are not alone. We all feel the exact same things. We all bleed red blood. We all have hurt. We all have shame. We all have wounds… so what?! That doesn’t mean that’s who you are; who you are is so much bigger. To see who you are is also a great healing and helps us to not want to divert, numb ourselves, leave the room, avoid people, not be real, or not be authentic. Right?

Olivia, Jacqueline, Keenan: Yeah! Yeah!

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” — Leonard Cohen Expansion: Sculpture by Paige Bradley

LW: See, these are things you already know… Young people have their ear to the world like listening with a stethoscope. Someone just said to me recently, “We radio out what we are feeling, seeing, imaging.” We radio it to each other energetically. That’s why we can feel what’s going on with other people at school. You know when someone’s giving you the eye. They don’t have to say a thing. You know when you feel safe – you know when you don’t. How are you to trust an adult if you feel an adult is not walking their talk? If you feel an adult isn’t facing themselves? How are you going to trust an adult if you know an adult isn’t really going to listen to you? How do you know when you are really being heard? Being heard is one of the greatest gifts you can give each other. Being heard heals us.

For years, I couldn’t say what I thought about “drugs,” like pot. I’ve wanted to just say to adults, ‘Look, there is going to be experimentation in the teen years, face it. Why? Mostly because they just want to know what is it already!’ Young people just don’t want to feel dumb around other young people who have done it and have to say they don’t know what it’s like. Now, there is religion, wisdom, parental advice that young people need to hear, no doubt about that … of course the advice I gave to my daughters was “don’t do it!” but the reality is that there is going to be experimentation. I experimented as a teen and almost everyone I know has experimented as a teen.

But, there is a real difference between experimenting safely and abuse, self-harm, or lack of self-esteem. I would bet that teenagers have been experimenting in every generation since there was ever a group called “teenagers” and adults haven’t liked it because we know that it can cause so much pain and worse. We know the pain that can happen but sometimes we have to let our kids find that pain, otherwise they will never learn – never make their own choices. They need to ask themselves what is a boundary that I don’t want to cross? How do I create a happy life? What is a healthy life? Balance. Balance.

TTC is an extraordinary place for young people to come together and be heard wherever they are at. We stand by the idea that if we as facilitators hear you or feel that you are hurting yourself with drugs or anything or being hurt by anyone, we are first going to encourage you to talk about it – and if we feel it is dangerous to you or others, we’re going to stand with you to get help outside of circle. But young people who are experimenting with something like pot and talking about it and showing up consistently to circle every week… we’re going to think you’re pretty much doing ok, most likely. But we’re going to ask you to dig into what is behind what you’re doing and the choices you’re making. It is all about balance and well-being and our facilitators are trained to be conscious about all this.  As a circle, we all agree to this on day one. This is talking circle – this isn’t psychotherapy, although it is very therapeutic. The thing about TTCs is that one of the basic agreements that we make with youth in circle from the get-go is that we are all coming to circle to become healthier, wiser, and more self-loving and self-accepting as well as caring about each other and others in general. So we assume that is what you want if you are committed to coming to circle each week.

Also, you young ones are the ones who become activated the quickest if you see or hear that one of your circle mates is hurting themselves or being harmed. Often in circle you would be the ones to ask permission from Joe to talk about it with him. We’ve seen this many times in circle. You develop real care for your brother or sister in circle and it becomes another opportunity to become co-mentors to each other, which is really a beautiful thing. This is part of the empowerment and growth young people develop and practice in themselves and with each other in circle.

group portrait

TTC on Bainbridge Island

Olivia: What kind of social changes have you seen over your time here on Bainbridge Island?

LW: I think change is cyclic. Things change but then they come back to be dealt with again and again but from a new place. It’s the same in our personal lives. We make changes and then time goes on and we have to learn the lessons all over again, each time growing and evolving.

Over the last 20 years,  circle has stopped being such an odd, unusual thing. It’s more common to have a “Gender Talks” group or guy’s circle, where guys are looking at the cost of sexism to them. I would say that activism is a lot more normal. Sexual identification is more gender fluid. But, it seems to me, from a larger perspective we’re back to a starting point on some of the same issues we had 20 years ago, especially right now with our current president, his administration, many of those who voted for him and a general political climate in the world right now. For us in the US, the rug has been lifted up and the stuff that has been swept underneath it for a long time is coming out again. Many of these issues came up when I was 16 and I was working against nuclear power, war, sexism, homophobia, racism – working for civil rights, for environmental issues, for women’s empowerment. I think this is coming back up to the forefront and young people and adults are going to have to awaken on a whole new level.

Keenan: How did TTC come about?

LW: TTC started because a friend and I wanted to write a book for teens, telling them everything we had learned that could help them navigate the teen years. We brought together 21 teens from Bainbridge and Suquamish ages 13-21 and we met for 10-weeks and created safe space to find out what the issues were for each one of the teens in the room and what they wanted the book to be about. We called our first circle a focus group – to focus on the issues — and a safe space to tell the truth. After 10-weeks, we thought we would write this book on teenagers for teenagers. We didn’t want to write another book for adults that would make adults feel comfortable about teens. We wanted to write one teens would pass to teens. Just so we’re clear — adults aren’t ever, usually, going to feel comfortable about your teen years, especially parents; it’s scary for them. They know what can go wrong. It’s scary and it’s exciting, and sometimes you live out what your parents did or didn’t do or what they wished they could have done and it’s crazy – very complex.

Anyway, after 10-weeks was up the girls in circle said, “Please! Please don’t stop, we have nowhere else to tell the truth like this! We have no place where we can totally be real and tell people what’s going on with us without being judged, labeled, punished, or where we are vulnerable to gossip or it being used against us.” So, we kept the circle going for two years and then we wrote the first book, “Daughters of the Moon, Sisters of the Sun: Young People and Mentors on the Transition to Womanhood.” Afterwards, we kept meeting every week. Actually a lot of kids from Hyla were part of our first circles. We held circle outside of school so none of the kids would get in trouble from the teachers or administrators if they talked about the more edgy stuff. The book ended up selling over 50,000 copies and was so successful people helped us start the nonprofit so that we could train other adults to lead circles in their communities.


First Teen Talking Circles with Co-Founders Wind Hughes and Linda Wolf

Years later, we wrote a second book called Global Uprising: Confronting the Tyrannies of the 21st Century – Stories of a New Generation of Activists. The idea being that each of our personal issues are connected to global issues. For example, one of my personal issues as a teen was over-eating, which is how I tried to escape my feelings of insecurity and lack of self-esteem, I just ate and ate. I didn’t know how to throw up, I would just stuff myself with food and eventually cry. It was a paradox.

So where does that come from? I felt too fat. Why did I feel too fat? My mother was a fashion model and I compared myself to her. Where else was I getting the message that I was ugly if I was fat? Magazines, TV, movies. Who was selling me those magazines? Men and corporations interested only in exploiting me though promoting cultural norms around what a woman should look like and though ads in those media sources. How did I come to feel so objectified? Sexist messages were coming in from all sides. So, we once I started identifying and connecting my personal issues to global issues and started seeing all of the tentacles that interwove in creating my thinking that I was not good enough, I could start to take some action. I could become an activist. Once we can identify with our power to take action, we no longer have to be muted or overwhelmed by our personal issues.

Global Uprising came about because we were inspired by the WTO protests in Seattle that happened in 1999, where young people came together from around the world protesting these very things – Advertising messages, sweatshop labor, animal cruelty, the prison industrial complex, institutionalized racism, etc. Global Uprising is a book for teens, your age, that will teach you what’s wrong and why are we are behaving this way.

Olivia: So, what you are really saying is that we need empowerment?

LW: Again, a very deep question with many answers, empowerment. What is true empowerment? What I learned recently was that there is a real difference between force and power. True power can be very graceful, something I have to learn myself because I fought so hard in the 60s and still feel like I have to fight hard what’s going on in our country today. One of the greatest ways to have true power is through self-knowing, to cultivate self-respect and respect for others. To see your elders and the authority figures around you as human beings. To understand what it means to change the paradigm from power-over to power-with. There are many ways we can nurture our own agency. Being around people who support and uplift you is also so important, which is what circle offers.

Who are you? See yourself. You’re not this little thing that’s been labeled you. You are this enormous consciousness, you are not limited. You’re everything. What happens with a lot with young people is that someone will say to them, “Who do you think you are?” That’s disempowering beyond belief.


“Girl in the Tree” Protest on Bainbridge Island. Driven by a deep sadness that her home town was developing unsustainably, teen activist, Chiara Rose protests 800+ trees being cut down for shopping center build. Hundreds of people show up in support of her. Great example of bringing the personal issues to external action.

TTC: Let’s turn the tables for a minute and ask you teens something. What one thing do you wish adults knew about the teen community?

Keenan: I would like them to know that we are mature and if we show that we are mature they need to know that we can handle more. Sometimes, say they are mature and their parents still treat them that they are not

Jaqueline: Here at Hyla, adults trust us that we are going to do the right thing… maybe a few of us need a steer in the right direction every once in a while. I think adults should know that we can make the right decision but nobody can always make the right decision.

Olivia: I want them to know that we are ready. With Internet and everything, there isn’t a time in our lives that we don’t know. There is no use crying about it, it’s done – you can’t stop it. You have to stop protecting us from things we already know because it’s counter-productive and annoying. All of that effort can be used to teaching us knew things. Of course, we are going to make our stupid jokes and goof around but we are mature, we just don’t act like it because aren’t expected to and it’s kind of fun to not be… but we still have it in us.

LW: It sounds like you don’t feel like adults are giving you credit for having a much broader understanding of the world. And that you do have a much broader understanding of the world even though you are still “kids”… and you are still kids in some ways because you aren’t working or having to work for your living – you’re still dependent. It sounds like you want adults to jump levels and treat you as more mature — perhaps they aren’t ready themselves to do that. It’s hard to let go of our children into an adult world that has so many pit-falls.

Olivia, Jacqueline, Keenan:  Yeah! Yeah! Exactly!

Olivia: Thank you for meeting with us. You have been so apt at hitting all of our questions. We would love to have you come in to our class and speak about this more! We would love to have TTC in our class next school year if possible!

LW: Yes of course! We would love to!

Thank you, Olivia, Jacqueline, Keenan, for inviting us to sit down and chat with you. We look forward to more opportunities to talk with you and see what we can learn from each other.

If you are interested in learning how to start at Teen Talking Circle in your community, please contact us at

Interview has been edited slightly for clarification.

International Women’s day Shout out!

i am woman

Look into our eyes: I AM A FULL WOMAN





Are you for or against us?

Are you in or are you out?

Feminists come inside all genders…


  • In Guatemala, two women are murdered, on average, each day.
  • In India, 8,093 cases of dowry-related death were reported in 2007; an unknown number of murders of women and young girls were falsely labeled ‘suicides’ or ‘accidents’.
  • In Australia, Canada, Israel, South Africa and the United States, between 40 and 70 percent of female murder victims were killed by their intimate partners.
  • In the State of Chihuahua, Mexico, 66 percent of murders of women were committed by husbands, boyfriends or other family members.

Violence and Young Women

  • Worldwide, up to 50 percent of sexual assaults are committed against girls under 16.
  • An estimated 150 million girls under the age of 18 suffered some form of sexual violence in 2002 alone.
  • The first sexual experience of some 30 percent of women was forced. The percentage is even higher among those who were under 15 at the time of their sexual initiation, with up to 45 percent reporting that the experience was forced.

Harmful Practices

  • Approximately 130 million girls and women in the world have experienced female genital mutilation/cutting, with more than 3 million girls in Africa annually at risk of the practice.
  • Over 60 million girls worldwide are child brides, married before the age of 18, primarily in South Asia (31.3 million) and sub-Saharan Africa (14.1 million). Violence and abuse characterize married life for many of these girls. Women who marry early are more likely to be beaten or threatened, and more likely to believe that a husband might sometimes be justified in beating his wife.


  • Women and girls are 80 percent of the estimated 800,000 people trafficked across national borders annually, with the majority (79 percent) trafficked for sexual exploitation. Within countries, many more women and girls are trafficked, often for purposes of sexual exploitation or domestic servitude.
  • One study in Europe found that 60 percent of trafficked women had experienced physical and/or sexual violence before being trafficked, pointing to gender-based violence as a push factor in the trafficking of women.

Sexual Harassment

  • Between 40 and 50 percent of women in European Union countries experience unwanted sexual advances, physical contact or other forms of sexual harassment at work.
  • Across Asia, studies in Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea show that 30 to 40 percent of women suffer workplace sexual harassment.
  • In Nairobi, 20 percent of women have been sexually harassed at work or school.
  • In the United States, 83 percent of girls aged 12 to 16 experienced some form of sexual harassment in public schools.

Rape in the context of Conflict

  • Conservative estimates suggest that 20,000 to 50,000 women were raped during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, while approximately 250,000 to 500,000 women and girls were targeted in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
  • Between 50,000 and 64,000 women in camps for internally displaced people in Sierra Leone were sexually assaulted by combatants between 1991 and 2001.
  • In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, at least 200,000 cases of sexual violence, mostly involving women and girls, have been documented since 1996: the actual numbers are believed to be far higher.

(The Facts: Violence Against Women & Millennium Development Goals (compiled by UNIFEM, 2010). Available in English, French and Spanish)

What Makes us Human? An Interview with Joshua Oppenheimer


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


  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

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