Filming the 'Killing' Fields

Joshua Oppenheimer on Making 'The Act of Killing'

Carlos Arango de Montes

By Sheerly Avni

Published January 04, 2013, issue of January 04, 2013.
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Even if we ourselves are the victims, or the descendents of victims?

My father is from Frankfurt and his mother was from Berlin. And my grandfather’s family got out of Germany right before Hitler came to power, but he himself was studying in the U.S. when Hitler came to power. He managed to take a trip to Germany, and he got my mother and her parents out. Everybody else in the family, though, was killed. My stepmother lost her whole family as well, and I grew up about half my childhood with my stepmother. So certainly this was the defining political and moral question of my upbringing: “How do we stop this from happening again?” And by “never again,” I mean without the naïve sense that you can just say “never again” and that it’s going to somehow magically mean never again, especially when history shows that it was happening again and again.

“Never again” can mean two things — it can mean “never again, period.” Or it can mean “never again to us.”

Yes, and that’s the tragedy of the Middle East. It has become “never again to us.” It is a great shame for me, as a Jew and as a person, that we can have a historical lesson like the Holocaust, and yet we don’t learn. What stories were we telling ourselves as Jews that made it acceptable, just three years afterwards, to commit acts of ethnic cleansing? Which is, I’m sorry, what the foundation of the state of Israel was.

But don’t we have to defend ourselves against our enemies?

That’s exactly the problem, right there. Embedded in your question is that idea of “us” and “them.” And as always, it is a “them” that is somehow different, separate, inferior, and therefore we can attack them. That is the system of imagining that we as human beings must overcome. The tragedy of at least one of the dominant narratives by which we as Jews have imagined ourselves, post-Holocaust, is this: We are victims, and therefore we think we have the right to be perpetrators.

It is devastating to see that the perpetrators in your film are still not only running free, but in some cases running the country. Yet you’ve said that though the killers have escaped justice, they have not escaped punishment. Do you think Anwar, for example, has suffered for his crimes?

Anwar Congo has not met with justice, it’s true. But he’s not gone unpunished. You see how he and several other men are haunted. Anwar is a specter by the end of the film. He’s not just haunted; he’s partly dead. And I think we are more like Anwar than we want to believe. The clothes we wear are haunted by the repressive conditions in the places that they were made, that make them so cheap and affordable to us.

Everything — including the computer I’m talking into to record this interview — is haunted by the conditions of the people who made it. All over the world, there are men like Anwar enforcing those conditions. We are maybe not as close to the slaughter as Anwar, but we are partaking of it. The great Indonesian writer Ariel Heryonto says “the essence of real state terror is when people don’t know they’re afraid anymore.” And one of the most powerful reactions we’ve had from the film has been people coming up to us and trying to find words to describe that experience. They use words like “alienation,” “loneliness,” “sadness,” “disconnection.” They’re trying to describe a feeling that we don’t even know we have.


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