When the opportunity arose to speak with Academy Award nominated documentary filmmaker of the incredibly powerful The Act of Killing Joshua Oppenheimer, thanks to our very own Cam Williams, there was only one question I had to ask: have you ever said ‘who do I have to kill around here for a cup of coffee?’
Laughing he replied: “Wow, I have NEVER heard that question before and no I’m not joking about killing anymore.”
After a plethora of international awards and now firmly favourite for an Academy Award, The Act of Killing starts with a clear premise; explore the inner workings of one of history’s surviving mass murderers (Anwar Congo – gangster and death squad leader during Indonesia’s 1965 communist purge) to see what hindsight does to the conception of their actions.
The Act of Killing‘s five year marathon shooting schedule could only be made in choice chunks. Oppenheimer described the shoot as a “hall of mirrors” shooting the “fiction, the making of the fiction, the observation, the reaction and the reflection” all at the same time. Returning from a few months on the shoot with 600 hours at a time would have been daunting for ten filmmakers. He described his feelings as “bewildered and horrified” and his sabbaticals at home necessary to “nurse my insomnia through to my nightmares.” Oppenheimer spoke of a scene where Anwar was demonstrating torture on a teddy bear that he could not contain his emotions. “I walked up to Anwar because his mic’ was rubbing on his clothes and he said ‘Josh, are you O.K, you’re crying?'”
Using cinema as a tool for justice for the Indonesian communist genocide certainly caught the eye of some of documentary cinema’s titans in Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line) and Werner Herzog (The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Grizzly Man). Morris, a friend of Oppenheimer’s mentor lent his name to the project after being excited by his first viewing; but as with everything involving Herzog his involvement is unique. In a hotel lobby, showing a key scene on his iPad Josh gave Herzog a taste of the project, and that taste lead to his eventual support. There are two cuts of the film, one that was released exclusively for its U.S theatrical run and the original cut of the film. When Josh was trimming the film for a more palatable running time Herzog proclaimed that trimming it was a “crime.” Nonetheless at any running time, it’s as powerful a documentary as you’ll ever see.
When I asked him what was next he talked about a companion project that he put together during the post-production of Killing titled The Look of Silence which takes some of the investigative revelations from the films about living perpetrators of the genocidal acts and unleashes their relatives on them to answer for their crimes. Beyond that he’d like to take his method back to the United States and turn the spotlight on the American “unwavering optimism.”
The Act of Killing is available now on DVD
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.