MIFF 2015 – Talking Pictures – In Conversation with Joshua Oppenheimer

Interviewed by John Safran
Special guest Adi via Skype
Wheeler Centre, Sunday 9th August 2015
This is a dump of all the notes I made during the session. Some of the questions and responses were in Indonesian so I was not able to transcribe everything. There was a recording made by the Wheeler Centre.

Q – What is your artist background?
A – Joshua’s sister was a painter. Two of his artistic idols originally had the surname Oppenheimer.
He studied Physics and Cosmology at University originally.

Q – Why are you interested in genocide?
A – The Oppenheimer family escaped the Holocaust but the extended family was lost. The aim of politics is to prevent genocide.
Crimes against humanity effect all of us.
The situation in Indonesia was like wandering into Germany 40 years later and finding the Nazis still in power and the rest of the world had supported the Holocaust.
You have to be able to emphasise with people or you will do horrible things.
There was a suppression of talking about politics in Indonesia during the military dictatorship.
His views of politics were given to him by his parents. Joshua got into trouble at school for refusing to take off a “Question Authority” badge that he got in-lieu of money from a Socialist tooth fairy and which stabbed him when he reached under the pillow.

Q – When did he first go to Indonesia
A – First went in 2001.
His mentor is Dusan Makavejev known for Mysteries of the Organism, Sweet Movie and the Coca Cola Kid.
He is a followed of Cinéma vérité developed by Jean Rouch but does not agree you can truly be a “fly on the wall” as being there changes things.
This style lets people play out their fantasy.
It was originally developed when films were recorded without sound and then dubbed later and people made up their own soundtrack including commenting on their performance as part of the film.
The first film he wanted to work on was about a group of farmers trying to form their own union after a long period of repression. He had selected a place in Northern India that had been under martial law, Colombia and Indonesia and ended up in the latter.
There was a Belgian multinational that ran palm oil plantation and was letting the workers spray dangerous pesticides without protective equipment, leading to many deaths.
The company ended up hiring the Pancasila Youth to threaten the workers and they dropped their demands.
The film the Globalisation Tapes was still finished.
The workers asked Joshua to make a film about the killings.
He started working on the film in 2003.
He found that he did not need to ask neutral questions as an “in”, people were very open about talking about the killings.
The perpetrators were boasting as they acted with impunity and had never been punished.
He found that it was more of a performance than a remembrance.
He agreed to film the re-enactments but also told the participants he would film them talking about them and how they thought they would be portrayed.
Anwar Congo became the central figure of the first film as in his city the death squads were recruited from the local gangsters.
The re-enactments of the killings were based on the films they liked.
Recursive process of shooting and reshooting scenes.
More surrealistic as it goes along.
The scenes became a mirror where Anwar confronts his guilt.

Q – Was it a case of give people enough rope and they hang themselves?
A – Due to the impunity in which they acted the killers felt they were not responsible.
The perpetrators were never removed from power
The history they wrote still supports them.
If you belong to a group doing bad you try and spin it into something positive.
There was a boasting of the worst details.

Q – Islam was mentioned in the second movie, not mentioned in the first.
A – The survivors have more confident religious views.
The victims’ families were religious.
The perpetrators at the time were not religious and would mock religion.
They hid behind religion afterwards and used it as an excuse to justify the killings.
It was part of the national lie and propaganda.
There was a stigma relating to political discussion.

Q – Are there still threats being made?
A – Joshua still gets threats from the henchmen from people discussed in the first movie.
Adi has not gotten any threats.
The current Vice President of Indonesia was in the Act of Killing.
There can be a human rights court set up in Indonesia but it has not been done.
The military still enjoys immunity from prosecution.
The death threats are always the same, the most dangerous threats are from Americans who refuse to emphasise with the killers and call them “monsters”.
Palm oil production involved atrocities.
Our clothes and electronics were produced in sweatshops.
If these people are monster then they are “our monsters”.

Q – Are you surprised how literal the critics are?
A – There may be monsters amongst us, but they are too few to worry about. You have to worry about the so-called “normal” people.
The men involved did not have a platform to promote their views, they merely made scenes for the film maker.
You would not ask Nazis in hiding to tell their stories, but the men involved in these films were regarded as heroes.
The aim is to build a society with the widest possible empathy.

Adi speaks via Skype:
Q – Why did you want to get involved in the project?
A – He had always wanted to make a film to try and expose the lies about the killings but could not do it himself.
He was surprised to meet Josh and seized the opportunity to get him to make a film about the killings.
Adi apologised for using Josh to make the film that he wanted to make himself.
Q – How are you parents?
A – His father died in 2012 and his mother is unwell at present. She talks with Joshua via Skype and is very sharp one example
Joshua – “Isn’t this amazing I am talking to you over the computer?”
Adi’s Mum – “It’s called technology it’s not that amazing”

Q – How are relations between Adi and people in the film?
A – Some months before the film came out the family relocated to another part of Indonesia and has not returned.

Q – How have your feelings changed after making the film?
A – He now feels much better, as if a burden has been lifted.
Before the films were released it was taboo to talk about the killings.
Things are more open now.
People are no longer silenced and can speak.

Back to Joshua Oppenheimer.
Q – (from a person who was working in Indonesia when the first film came out) Did the justice minister try to prevent screening of the film?
A- The film was never banned, but they did try to prevent the release so it was screened in secret at first. There were thousands of screenings.
Q – Was there a positive media reaction to the first film?
A – The editor of Tempo magazine decided to support the film and sent 60 journalists out into various areas of Indonesia and over two weeks they gathered 1000 pages of testimony from the killers about their actions. These were printed in special edition of the magazine with 25 pages on the film and 75 pages of testimony.
After this the rest of the media opened up.
The second film was distributed by two government organisations in Indonesia.
3000 people turned up to the first screening to a theatre that only held 1500 so they had to do two screenings. Adi was a surprise guest and got a 15 minute standing ovation at both screenings.
The film opened on “National Heroes Day” and was trending on twitter since Indonesia has the highest amount of Twitter users in the world.
There have since been thousands of screenings of the second film.

Q – Was Anwar Congo aware of how he was being depicted in the first film?
A – Anwar was happy to have someone to talk to and Joshua did not denounce him.
Anwar was the one initiating the conversation.
There was one time when Anwar was stabbing a teddy bear and Joshua started crying, Anwar wanted to stop filming, but Joshua did not.
Joshua was always open with Anwar.
There were situations where he could not be open due to safety.
Anwar did not have editorial control of the film, but he did see the final product and said “this is what it is like to be me”
Joshua is still in touch with Anwar although not as much as he used to and he feels it is a highlight of his life to have worked with him.
John Safran recommended the documentary “The Emperor’s naked army marches on” for further study.
Joshua has seen that movie but does not agree with beating up people on camera, he likes to create “safe spaces” when filming.

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