MIFF 2013 – Talking Pictures – Caught in the Act: Indonesia and The Act of Killing

as part of the 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival
The Wheeler Centre, Saturday 10th August 2013
with Joshua Oppenheimer, Tito Ambyo (Presenter, ABC Radio Australia Indonesian Service), Jess Melvin (PhD candidate, Melbourne University) and Tom Zubrycki (The Sunnyboy, MIFF 2013).


NB – This is more of a brain dump than the full record of events, I did take notes but was not able to get an exact transcript of what the participants were saying. Hopefully the event will be available as a podcast by the Wheeler Centre in the future.

Tito Ambyo: What was the toughest moment out of the seven years it took to film the documentary?

Joshua Oppenheimer: There were many toughest moments.

The very toughest moment was the scene with Anwar at the end of the documentary. Filming on the rooftop was both the first scene and last scene he film with him.

He learnt all the stories from Anwar over five years of filming with him.

For the first time telling a story, you are not as coherent.

They were not allowed to film on the rooftop for five years as the owner of the handbag shop where it was based had a superstition against photography would not let them. They only got up there the first time as the owner was away and an assistant let them up.

The final shoot was six months after the scene where Anwar watches the scene of himself being killed in the film noir sequence at home.

The footage with the politicians and high ranking officials were filmed last in case there was a backlash and he was forced to leave the country. The rest of the documentary was shot in sequence.

They were passing the store around the same time and saw a new store was opening. Josh thought it would be the same as filming the first time.

Anwar’s hair changing colour was due to the long time between filming and it grew out and he redyed it for filming the scenes.

The ‘horrifying moment’ on the rooftop was due to the journey Anwar had been on in the course of filming the documentary and that he wanted a resolution.

Joshua Oppenheimer described what happened to Anwar as “his body physically rejecting his words”.

Anwar was filmed for five years previously, every filming was a big event.

The director did want to comfort him, but it was not OK what he did in the past.

Tito Ambyo: (question to panellists) What were your reactions to the film?

Tom Zubrycki: Shocked by the capacity for evil and the swagger of the people who did it.

There was a decent in grotesquery. It made sense to have all the different film genres.

Jess Melvin: Strange. Relief. Finally shows the perpetrators admitting to their crimes and implicating themselves and the system.

She hopes that it is the start of a new movement.

Tito Ambyo: What has the film opened up?

Joshua Oppenheimer: The idea of the system being linked to the killings

Tito Ambyo: How did the re-enactments come about?

Joshua Oppenheimer: The re-enactments were a reaction and attempt to work with the openness of the perpetrators.

When he originally tried to film with the victims, the military intervened.

Did not know whether to proceed, but was encouraged by the survivors as it was important to tell the story.

The re-enactments were allegorical especially the scene with the waterfall.

The survivors are the ones that suggested to film the perpetrators who were very boastful, showed where they killed and how they did so.

Tito Ambyo: Why were they so open? What were the consequences?

Joshua Oppenheimer: Did not create the talk show, but the scene fits with the rest of the film.

The documentary explores the nature and the consequences of the boasting.

He was open to the people when filming of what the footage was going to be used for.

Anwar was the 41st person to be filmed who was a perpetrator of the violence.

Tito Ambyo: What of the collaboration between subjects and the film maker?

Tom Zubrycki: Admired how Josh worked with the subjects and filmed the documentary. The most endearing subjects are sometimes that hardest to deal with like Jose Ramos Horta during the filming of the documentary the Diplomat.

It was a fantastic decision to go with the stories of the killers. Form is not determined by the content.

Tito Ambyo: Did you need to intervene at any stage of the filming?

Joshua Oppenheimer: Collaboration is an interesting word. It was not used enough to describe the film.

It is a myth that documentary film makers are a “fly on the wall” you change things just by being there.

Every scene is an occasion and it is not really reality.

The director did have to intervene with Anwar to stop him from saying “I am tired can we stop filming” as they only had a short time to do some scenes.

However, he is not a “story at all costs” director and did try and people stop getting into trouble.

The scene with the survivor telling the story of his ethnic Chinese stepfather was not meant to be in the documentary, but it happened.

The director was in a different studio at the time of filming and the cinematographer captured it, but did not speak Indonesian so he did not know what was happening.

At the time they were shooting 25 hours of footage a day at the TV studios and in 3 days they shot 75 hours of footage. It was a long time before he found the scene.

If he was there he never would have allowed it to happen and would have told the man to not return the next day.

It was naive to go into that situation and still think he could remain in control of everything.

The protagonists themselves were challenging and questioning also. Such as the time when the journalist said he did not recall the events and the other men knew it was a lie.

Tito Ambyo: What of Werner Herzog saying “surrealism does not work” in documentaries?

Tom Zubrycki: Surrealism does work. It finds the deeper truth of a subject. Like a spiral that keeps getting more grotesque. Especially in the waterfall and the noir scenes.

You end up feeling empathy for a mass killer, even though it is an uncomfortable feeling to do so.

Tito Ambyo: There is a strong tradition of surrealism in Indonesian storytelling. Jess Melvin I believe you interviewed a ghost?

Jess Melvin: Yes, while travelling through North Aceh trying to find survivors. A man referred her to a ghost. The ghost told the story of the killings.

The stories are told as ghost stories as real history has been repressed.

Tito Ambyo: On using surrealism?

Joshua Oppenheimer: Prefers to think of it as ‘ecstatic truth’, he showed the same clip of the waterfall through to the film noir scene to Werner Herzog in the hotel lobby when he first asked for his help on the documentary.

It allowed the deeper truths to surface.

The perpetrators are human and what is the consequences of empathising with them?

It is a question of allegory ‘ecstatic truth’ related to the entire regime.

It is no longer safe for the director to return to Indonesia.

During a screening to the survivors of the genocide overseas, there was crying and laughter during the waterfall scene and a sense of relief.

You could create a similar scene in the same context for any number of countries and societies.

Why surrealism was chosen?

The idea came from the protagonists, it was there experiences they were trying to show and their way for dealing with what they had done.

Anwar’s nightmare scene bookends with the scenes of the politicians.

Herman becomes the “Goddess of revenge” getting retribution from the victims.

Anwar is directing the scene as a severed head.

Anwar and Herman became bigger than themselves and there are scenes that go out the explain the broader story and then go back to them. Their stories helped edit the film.

The waterfall scene is used as a bookend with the rest of the scenes. There are two versions of the documentary and it is used in both.

Tito Ambyo: Why did you choose the clip of the talk show?

Jess Melvin: It is footage of a major Indonesian politician admitting to ordering the killings, something that was never personally attributed to anyone. There were rumours of the death squads, but naming the organization responsible for the killings is a big revelation.

Tito Ambyo: How many hours of footage were shot?

Joshua Oppenheimer: There were 1,200 hours of footage shot over the five years with Anwar and 300 hours with the first 40 perpetrators.

He did not know the film was going to be so controversial outside of Indonesia.

The footage will be made available for historians wishing to study it.

It is only controversial for people with an interest Indonesia outside of the country and not in the country itself.

Audience question: Have people at the Hague seen the film? How was the film shaped and when were the re-enactments used? Is there a musical version?

Joshua Oppenheimer: It already is a musical.

Every step of filmmaking is part of the story. Editing is part of the exploration as you cannot really explore things while shooting you just have to get on with it.

The method of re-enactments were negotiated with Anwar.

He did originally displace his personal responsibility onto other things like drinking, drugs, his clothes and hair.

They would not plan more than one re-enactment at a time. There was some surrealism also while the people were viewing the footage.

The journey of Anwar is shown on screen. He decides to play the victim out of despair.

He wanted to play the victim in the first scene, if you watch carefully he is doing the Cha-cha-cha with the wire around his neck. The final emotional truth was revealed in the ending.

The film was shown in the Hague at the human rights film festival there.

The International Criminal Court does not have jurisdiction over events that occurred before its founding.

One of the perpetrators who boasted about wanting to go to the Hague to become famous said he would not be tried as it was not in their interest to do so.

People ask him what can the West do?

The west was what caused this to happen, there is nothing that can be done.

Audience question: There are many documentaries and stories from the victims, there is a tendency to think that the victims exaggerate their stories. This exonerates the victims.

On the regime is it the same as 1965?

One major Indonesian politician on rejecting the Asian Human Rights Commission’s report into human rights said “the killings were justified as they gave use the Indonesia we have now.”

Report from here

(degenerates into anti-Indonesian rant)

Joshua Oppenheimer: That was important and well put.

Audience question: With the amount of sexism and misogyny on display was it difficult to listen to? Is there any indication that there will be an uprising of survivors?

Joshua Oppenheimer: The film has been screened 500 times in Indonesia in 95 different cities.

It will be available online for free for all Indonesians in the country.

Survivors have not only seen the film but are promoting it.

There is a community of survivors in Holland they the director screened the film for in Stockholm.

There are no calls for revenge, but it has encouraged discussion.

Misogyny transforms people into objects and also propaganda has been used to justify the killings.

Audience question: On the collaborative process. How is the relationship with the people he collaborated with on the documentary now?

Joshua Oppenheimer: There are different types of collaborating. The documentary has been accepted as an Indonesian production.

It is an important film. Unfortunately he cannot put the names of the “anonymous” contributors to project on the film until real political change takes place in the country. He did want to have the anonymous director involved in the discussion but it could not happen.

Anwar likes the film and says “this film shows what it is like to be me”. The director does still talk to Anwar every few weeks.

The daughter of the first victim of the genocide who was exiled to Paris also was concerned about Anwar and wanted to pass on a message. She also asks about him regularly.

Bonus discussion from the audience as I was leaving: The documentary was shown in a multiplex screening commercial releases, but was not announced. There was a mailing list promoting the film and word of mouth about it.

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