Restaging History

Joshua Oppenheimer discusses with the Talent Press the impact generated by his astonishing documentary, THE ACT OF KILLING.

Juan Carlos Oppenheimer

In 1965, Indonesian death squads exterminated more than one million alleged communists in one of the worst genocides in history. This is the main theme of Joshua Oppenheimer’s disturbing documentary THE ACT OF KILLING, which has definitely shaken the Berlinale.

The film crosses the line between fiction and documentary by using stylish photography and, most shockingly, by having the actual perpetrators of the murders re-enact their crimes. Oppenheimer knows he is creating controversy and is polarising audiences. During the panel “Documentaries Beyond the Real” at the Campus, the American director was confronted by audience members who questioned the way he showed the mass murderers without condemning them. Oppenheimer managed to refute these accusations.

“The film is actually walking the tightrope between empathy and repulsion”, he told us. “Of course I judge what the killers did. The whole film is a judgment of genocide and mass killing. But I don’t judge them [the murderers] because I don’t separate people between the good and the bad. That’s what I call the ‘Star Wars morality’.”

Some political and military authorities in Indonesia – accused by human rights organisations for forming death squads – have threatened to launch criminal proceedings against the director and even to kill whoever screens the film in the country. This hasn’t been effective, and the movie has had a wide circulation in small screenings in Indonesia.

“The film is causing a huge transformation in how Indonesians see themselves. And that’s very beautiful, very powerful. I wish I could be there”, confesses the filmmaker, who now lives in Denmark and considers it very dangerous to return to Indonesia. The acclaim the film has received, not only from critics, but also from such documentary giants as Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, marks Oppenheimer as an outstanding new voice within the genre.