In conversation with Joshua Oppenheimer on The Act of Killing

Last Updated: Fri, Nov 22, 2013 05:38 hrs

The Act of Killing is considered a favourite for an Academy Award in the documentary section. A hard watch, the 159-minute film follows the 'exterminators' - former death squad leaders who killed suspected Communists after the military takeover of Indonesia in 1965 - as they re-enact the murders they committed. They start off boasting, and grow steadily uncomfortable, sometimes looking ashen and getting sick, as the film progresses, and the re-enactments become more surreal and frightening. In an exclusive Skype chat with, the film's director Joshua Oppenheimer speaks about how he got started on the film, the process of making the film, its effect in Indonesia, and the personal toll it has taken on him.

When your film was screened in Dharamsala, there was absolutely no applause. And I think one of the reasons was that we were all left with the feeling that we could be one of these people. You can look at someone as something, another human being as an inanimate object or an ideology, and you could do anything to it. This idea of human cruelty hit all of us – was that your intention?
Yeah, that was absolutely my intention. You know, I began this film trying to work in collaboration with a community of survivors, and when I found that the army would not let them tell their story, and the perpetrators were boastfully telling me things that were far more incriminating than anything the survivors could possibly have said, I had this feeling that I'd wandered into Germany forty years after the Holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power.

And what made that all the more terrible for me was that the way I had come to work with the survivors was through a community of plantation workers, who were working for a large, Belgian-owned palm oil company, and the Belgian company was making the women workers spray a herbicide which was dissolving their livers and killing them in their forties. They desperately needed a union, and I was trying to help them - I was facilitating the workers' attempt to document their efforts to organise a union. And it turned out their biggest obstacle to organising a union, which they so desperately needed, because they were dying at work, was fear, because their parents and grandparents had been part of a strong plantation workers' union until 1965, and had been accused of being Communist sympathisers and had been killed for it, and they were afraid that that would happen again.

So, my experience of working in this plantation made me feel in a very emotional way that this reality - the reality of this place - were as though the Nazis had won, and never were removed from power.

It's not that it is a kind of freakish aberration on the other side of the world. It is, on the contrary, the way so much of the global south has been organised. And as an American citizen, with whose tax money in part the government of the United States supported the genocide - as it says in the beginning of the film - I had a strong feeling that this is not this distant reality on the other side of the world; the impunity with which the act of killing is carried out is not an exception to the rule, it is the rule; and the boasting of the perpetrators is an allegory for the rule.

And, in that sense, we all depend on men like Anwar and his friends to keep everything we buy cheap, because they keep the workers who make everything we buy too afraid to effectively organise unions and demand decent conditions. And so, in that sense, if they are monsters, what are we, if we depend on them to feed ourselves and clothe ourselves? So, this film was very much meant to be an expose of impunity, and then meant to implicate the audience - meant to make the audience recognise that, "Wait a moment, if I'm in a cinema watching The Act of Killing, unless I'm at an underground screening somewhere in Indonesia, I probably am much closer to being a perpetrator than I like to think".

So, this film is about impunity - but not just impunity in Indonesia, but impunity everywhere; how we are all part of this violence, we are all complicit in it, we all depend on the suffering of others for our everyday living. And I felt very much that if the audience could recognise a small part of themselves in a man like Anwar, if the audience can identify for a second with Anwar, the whole facade, the whole lie upon which almost all the stories that we tell are based, the whole lie namely that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys, and that through cinematic identification I can assure myself I'm much more like a good guy than a bad guy, that whole lie must crumble.

That was very much the intention, that the audience approach Anwar through my intimacy with Anwar, and across the world, I have been really heartened by the bravery of audiences in doing just that.

What got you interested in the killings in the first place? I know you were looking at survivor stories, but what was it that made you travel to Indonesia and look at this specific miscarriage of justice?
Well, I wouldn't say a "miscarriage of justice". It is the total absence of justice. It was in 2001-2002 that I went down to Indonesia to make a film called The Globalisation Tapes. I was asked by an international union to make this film, on the Belgian-owned palm oil company that I spoke about earlier. The plantation was about 60 miles from the city of Medan, where we would go on to make The Act of Killing.

And when I went to Indonesia to make that film, I knew nothing about Indonesia. It was an accident that I went there. But as I said, I got very close to this community of plantation workers with whom I made the film, who also happened to be a community of survivors from the genocide. And they said, "Come back as quickly as you can, and let's make another film together about why we're afraid". So, it was not about what happened in 1965, but about impunity, and the absence of justice. What is it like for the survivors to live with the perpetrators all around them, still in positions of power?

And we got back immediately to do that work, but word got out that we were interested in 1965, and the army would no longer let the survivors participate in the movie. And so the survivors suggested, "Okay, why don't you try and film the perpetrators in this same village? Surrounding us in this village are former death squad leaders. Try and interview them, and they might tell you how our loved ones were killed."

So I went and approached these men, cautiously at first, unsure whether it was safe to ask about the killings. But, to my horror and astonishment, every single one of them would immediately reply with boastful, detailed, grisly accounts of killing, which they would tell often with a smile on their faces, in front of their wives, their children, even their grandchildren, and immediately, there were enormous questions here. Why were these men boasting? I was filming something much closer to performance than testimony, and performance always implies a kind of audience. So, who is the imagined audience for the perpetrators' performance?

It was in the contrast between the survivors who were not allowed to speak and the perpetrators who were boasting that I felt this was like coming to Germany forty years after the Holocaust to find the Nazis still in power. And my experience on the plantation had made it all the worse, because I realised, "This is not something unusual. This is how the whole world is organised. And I'm a part of it. It is not a distant reality, but the underbelly of my reality at home, in England [where I was living at the time], everywhere." And at that moment, I knew I would give as many years of my life to this as it would take.

I took the footage of the first perpetrators whom I filmed and showed it to those survivors who wanted to see it - not everyone did - and to the broader Indonesian human rights community. And everybody who saw it said, "This is terribly important - you're on to something important, because you're finding out what happened, but much more importantly, every Indonesian who sees this will be forced to acknowledge that everyone is afraid, and precisely why. That is to say, they will be forced to acknowledge the rotten heart of this regime. So, keep filming the perpetrators. Film their boasting. Film this strange way they are talking. And you will be able to make a film that comes to Indonesia like the child in The Emperor's New Clothes.

So, that's essentially what I did. I felt entrusted by the survivors and the human rights community to do a work of historical and moral importance that they obviously, for safety reasons, could not do themselves. I spent two years filming every perpetrator I could find, working my way from death squad to death squad, plantation to plantation, up the chain of command, from the countryside to the city.

Anwar was the forty-first perpetrator I filmed. But all of them were boastful. All of them were open. All of them would take me to the places where they'd killed after I filmed them in their house. They would invite me there, they would launch into spontaneous demonstrations of how they killed, they would complain afterwards that they hadn't thought to bring along a friend to play the victim, or a machete to use as a prop.

And after about ten of these perpetrators doing this, I started to propose to them: "Look, you've participated in one of the biggest killings in human history" - I was that open to them, because they were that open to me - "I want to know what it means to you and your society. You want to show me what you've done. So, show me what you've done. I will film your re-enactments. But I will also film the process of making the re-enactments, of you discussing with your friends what you want to show, what you don't want to show, why you want to show the things you want to show, why you want to leave other things out, and thereby making a kind of new form of documentary, a documentary of the imagination rather than a documentary of your everyday lives, but a film that answers the fundamental question of what this means to you and your society, how you want to be seen, how you see yourself."

How did the structure fall into place - your choice of Anwar as the sort of lead character, and the making of the film by the perpetrators?
I focused it on Anwar, because his pain was somehow close to the surface, and when I saw that - you see it in the very first scene. The very first day I filmed Anwar, which was also the very first day I met him, he takes me up to this roof and shows me how he killed people and also dances the cha-cha-cha.

And, in a way, that was typical of a first shoot with a perpetrator - except that he said he was a good dancer because he was drinking and taking drugs and going out dancing to forget what he's done. And that made me realise, somehow, "My gosh, his conscience is present, even when he's dancing".

The dancing is a denial of the moral meaning of what he's done. He's not denying the facts, but he's denying the meaning of those facts, and he's doing this not because he's proud, but because he's haunted. He's just said it. And I started to recognise in him that perhaps all the boasting I'd heard from the forty men I'd met before I'd met him, all that may not be a sign of pride, may not be a sign that these men lack any conscience, but the opposite - a sign that these men know what they've done is wrong, and they're desperately trying to convince themselves otherwise.

I didn't expect the elaborate fiction dramatisations - I didn't expect that, that emerged organically through a very simple method, which you can trace back from the climax of the film, the scene with the waterfall. And you can trace it all the way back to that first scene, where he dances the cha-cha-cha with a wire around his neck.

After I shot that scene, I wanted to know, "Will he recognise at least the meaning of that scene, of what he's done in the mirror of the footage?" and so I screened it back to him. And I think he does recognise the meaning of what he's done. He looks very upset, he's very disturbed. But he does not dare say he's disturbed. Instead, he says, what's wrong is his clothes, and his acting. He denies what's wrong. Again, he denies the moral meaning of what he's done, because to say what's really wrong with the scene, namely that it's awful what he did, and that it makes him feel awful to re-enact it or remember it, would be to admit that what he did was wrong, and he's never been forced to do that. So he displaces that, he has to express the discomfort but he displaces it on to his clothes and acting.

And so began a five-year journey, where the method was always the same. We would shoot one scene, only one scene, watch the scene, he would respond emotionally and propose a new scene. That was how the whole film was made, and it became more and more elaborate, more and more grotesque, more and more surreal, and Anwar was proposing ever-greater embellishments to run away from the horror of the previous scene. And in that sense, Anwar is trying to deal with his pain and run away from it the whole time. The whole process was fuelled by his conscience.

And perhaps that's why it's not so surprising, in hindsight, that the fictional re-enactments become, somehow, the prism through which he sees the real meaning of what he's done. Five years later, that final scene was the very last time I filmed him, 1200 hours of footage later.

You started out making a film about the survivors, you were going into the time, you and members of your crew were arrested, detained, you couldn’t get anything done. So, when you switched to talking to the perpetrators, were they not suspicious? Did they take it for granted that you were for real, they could take this at face value?
Yeah, that's a good question. Well, I must say that, very quickly, people's motives for participating in the movie changed. You know, the reason Anwar may be welcoming me into his home on that first day and saying, "Let's go to the rooftop, and I'll show you how I'll killed" is different from the reason he continues making the film when Adi warns him that this is going to make him look bad.

So, as I said, I explained the method that I proposed to them, and it was not a trick to get them to open up. On the contrary, the method was a way of understanding their openness, analysing their openness. I didn't really have to lie to them. And also, of course, they know they are not making a separate film. There was no film-within-the-film. They were only making scenes for this film. But, I guess, the reasons someone participates at the beginning are different from the reasons people participate as time goes on.

So, I think that, when Anwar decides to continue making the film, even though Adi says "This is going to undermine the whole story we've been clinging to, ever since the genocide" - ironically a story that Adi, just minutes before, had said was a lie - Anwar continues because I think Anwar is participating in the film because finally he's being listened to. I'm not listening to just his words, I'm listening to the subtext, I'm listening to the doubt all over his face when he's talking.

Because cinema is not a good medium for words; it's a good medium for silences, for pauses, and it's excellent for when people don't believe what they are saying, and this is a movie about a man who doesn't believe what he's saying. And if there's a thread that holds the film together, it's the evolution of Anwar's doubt. And we relate to Anwar as a human being because we feel his doubt, and in doubting that what he did was glorious, he's actually feeling what we're feeling. We don't think it's glorious either. And no one who's ever seen the film has thought he's glorious.

I think, to start with, people were sufficiently vain that they didn't have suspicion on the basis of my having worked with the survivors. But, I suppose another thing is that the people who would detain us were the army, but relatively local army, not high-ranking army people. And when, through the perpetrators and the civilian paramilitary network, we started meeting people as high-ranking as the Governor, lower-level army people, I think, were hesitant to rock the boat. If the Governor was happy to welcome us in, these people didn't want to go to people far more powerful than them, who are civilians, and say, "What are these people doing?" And when they saw that we were connected to powerful local paramilitary leaders and death squad veterans, I think the relatively low-ranking army people who detained us and stopped us from filming decided that they had better not interfere.

They could have, of course, passed messages up the military chain of command, to high-ranking officers, but very quickly, we went and filmed Army Generals in Jakarta, so maybe they were deterred from that as well. I'm not sure, but it seemed that suspicion never really came.

In one of your interviews, you spoke about how this is not a historical film about the mechanics of what happened, and this is "primarily a film about the miscarriage of the collective imagination" that allows people to boast like this. Do you think that collective imagination is changing, that people are seeing through the lies they told themselves?
Well, in Indonesia, absolutely. The film has come to Indonesia just as the survivors and the human rights community hoped - like the child in The Emperor's New Clothes, pointing at the king and saying, "Look, the king is naked", and everyone knew it, but had been too afraid to say it. So, the film has opened up a space for the mass media in Indonesia - they now report the genocide as a genocide. They publish investigative reports about the genocide. The perpetrators in Indonesia, according to the National Human Rights Commission, no longer boast about what they've done. It's no longer acceptable to be seen boasting about this. And, you know, ordinary Indonesians are, for the first time, able to talk about these issues openly and without fear.

The film is perhaps the most talked-about movie in Indonesian history. As of the summer, it had been screened over 1100 times in 118 cities, which is fairly high for Indonesia, because it doesn't have the most robust cinema network. And the film became available for free download on September 30. The film has transformed the way the country is talking about its past.

That's a huge achievement.
But there's a lot to be done. Look, the role of art is to invite us or force us to confront our most painful truths. But that's not activism. All that does is open a space for people being able now to acknowledge their problems - to first articulate them, and then address them. You can't address problems if you're too afraid to acknowledge them.

We spoke earlier about how, when I watched the film, I felt I could be Anwar, I could have been able to do the things he did. And you've also spoken in interviews about how you could not stop seeing him as a human being and view him as a criminal, there was no 'Us' and 'Them' division. But when they speak about the gruesome things they have done - like there is one scene where people speak about raping 14-year-old girls - were you able to keep that up, were you able to remind yourself that okay, these are people, and I can't forget that, and I can't get into a me-versus-the-bad-guys kind of situation?
You know, there were certainly moments like that, when I was in real pain. It was where I felt outrage and disgust - I mean, I'm human. And, whenever I could, like if I was in an intimate scene with Anwar, like when he butchers the teddy bear, I showed what I felt. I don't know if you remember that scene, but it's shot with a wide lens, so I'm close to him. So when Anwar was butchering the teddy bear, tears were streaming down my face, and I'm a couple of metres from him at the most, so he saw me, and when I stopped to adjust a microphone, he said, "Are you okay?" And I said, "Yeah, I'll be okay", and so he said, "Then I'll continue" and he continued.

But it was terribly upsetting, and it led to months of nightmares and insomnia. And if there were moments when I felt hatred and revulsion, I had to stop for a couple of days, until I could return to Anwar from a place of humanity.

Interestingly, one of the things we did in the editing was that we held back most of the horror. Anwar probably is the main character because he's the most honest, and being the most honest, he tells the most awful things. So, often people see the film and think "Oh, so Anwar is the most humane, the most human among them", and they say, "Look at that guy Safit, who speaks about raping the 14-year-old girl, he's the real scary one, he's the real monster."

But, no, Safit's the victim of dramaturgy, of dramatic structure. He's being used in that scene to remind the viewer of what this is all about, and so, of course it's meant to inspire revulsion. It's positioned just before we go into Anwar's thoughts, when he's lying in the bed, and the massacre grows out of his thoughts, when he can't sleep, in his bedroom. But, Safit as a person, in the moment...that was a disgusting moment, and I thought, "I can't believe I'm hearing this", but I also thought, "This is macho boasting, and he's doing this because he's insecure".

I guess what I'm trying to say is that, of course, sometimes it was horrible, and then I would take a step back, and regroup, and try to approach Anwar as a human being again. But, what makes Anwar likeable is his honesty, and therefore he was the one saying the most awful things, and in the editing, we held back 99 percent of the terrible things he said.

That's incredible. I didn't think it was possible that what he said were the less gruesome things.
Yeah, they were.

You’ve spoken about how, if you were to go back to Indonesia, you may not be able to get out – but you've spent ten years there, and I'm sure you've made friends among the crew, most of whom have stayed anonymous. And it's not just the language and culture, but the place you must miss. Isn't that a big sacrifice to make?

It's terrible. The most wonderful thing for me is the change the film is making in Indonesia. But the saddest thing for me, releasing the film, is, first of all, that I can't be there, to be a part of that change. And that my anonymous Indonesian crew can't be with me presenting the film around the world, because it's unsafe for them.

You know, The Act of Killing, is in a way my love letter to Indonesia. I love Indonesia. And my anonymous Indonesian crew, especially my co-director, is what got me through this journey. My co-director's laughter, his love, his care, his commitment, his bravery, inspired me throughout this whole, very dark, very long, process, and kept me going. And to not be able to see him as this film is transforming the country where we made it, as it's transforming his life, is agonising. Over the course of the film, he had a child, and has a wonderful partner who was also part of the crew, and I miss them terribly.

And I miss Indonesia. I love Indonesia, and I would love to be able to go there. I think I might be able to get in, but I wouldn't be able to get out, at the moment. Either I'll be killed, or I'll be detained, and there's no reason for me to take that risk. Well, 'detained' is not quite the word - 'locked up' would be a better word.

You’ve mentioned the fact that the genocide was sanctioned by Western governments, and that you already have footage regarding this, that you haven’t used in the film. But do you think you might use the footage in another film in future, which looks at the Western role in the military coup and the killings of 1965?
Well, unfortunately, the footage that I have that's most compelling is from two interviews - one of which I shot with Christine Cynn, and the other she shot alone. They were with a retired CIA officer, and with a State Department officer, who were providing lists of thousands of names of Indonesian intellectuals and journalists and trade unionists to the army, to have them killed, essentially saying, "We want you to kill everybody."

The problem with this material is that, first of all, there's nothing new to it. Exactly the same story, exactly the same interview, the same people saying almost exactly the same thing, had been published in the States News Service in 1991, I think - it was syndicated across the United States and picked up internationally as well.

But the more difficult problem is that if you want to talk about the US role in the 1965 genocide, it's difficult to pin down how significant it was, because the United States burnt its bridges with much of the Indonesian army in 1959, when they directly launched a coup attempt to try and break the country up. The coup attempt was crushed. It alienated even much of the right-wing Indonesian army, because whether they were anti-Communist or not, they had nevertheless participated in the War for Indonesian Independence, and they weren't happy to see the country broken up. That was in 1959, and it was widely seen as a failure of US policy because it burnt their bridges with the Indonesian army, and it meant that the US influence was perhaps less than it would otherwise have been in 1965.

However, I would argue that the 1959 coup attempt was a success, because it gave the army an excuse to declare martial law and stop elections, and that was what prevented the Indonesian Left from advancing electorally, and the army's power was made permanent and cemented in the 1965 coup, when President Sukarno was removed and the Indonesian Left was exterminated.

Much of the critical information is classified. I have no desire to make a historical documentary about the events of those times, but I hope other people, seeing The Act of Killing, will go out and investigate its past and dig into it. Errol Morris wrote a beautiful 6000-word essay about the role of the US in Brad Simpson has written a wonderful book about it, called Economists with Guns.

There's more that needs to be done, but it's a deep historical investigation, and one that requires somehow getting past the enormous censorship that exists even of declassified documents. All the important paragraphs are blacked out.

So, I felt it was very important not to produce a work of historical speculation, but that the events that are exposed here be irrefutable. I did not want to make a shaky argument about the Americans masterminding a coup which they perhaps did not mastermind, through which I also could be accused of depriving the Indonesians agency of their own history. The other side of the notion that everything bad that happens in the Third World has to be the work of the CIA is the condescension that people across the world have no control over their own history, and are simply puppets of the Americans, and it's a colonial notion.

Although there's truth to the CIA fomenting coups, I think I would say that because there's a horizon of censorship that I could not see beyond, and because it was unclear how definitive the US impact was, I decided to make a film about the day.

But I nevertheless tried to make the United States a character that haunts the whole film, in its present, in the shopping malls built atop a litany of Old Testament methods of execution and killing, the image of a tropical paradise build atop a masquerade, the flickering McDonald's sign at the opening, and of course, the kind of phantasmagoria of American cinema.

I would go so far as to say this is not just a film by an American-British director living in Denmark about Indonesia - it's an Indonesian film about Indonesia by Indonesians, but it's also an American film by an American about America.

You know, one of the things I found most problematic about this film is that, coming from India, where this gang rape on a bus recently garnered so much international attention, and there's a sort of debate about forgiveness for rapists and so on, I felt that, all right, so there's this guy who's done all these things, and he feels remorse; but there's also a sense that they should be punished for the things they have done. Would it be hard for you if some of these people went to jail because of this documentary you've made, since these are people you've got to know very well?
I'm not a judge. I'm a filmmaker. My role is to look at how human beings commit evil, why we commit evil, and the effects of evil on us, on our society, on each other, and one of the things I could never see if I did not see Anwar as a human being is that, because he is a human being, because he is a moral being who knows the difference between right and wrong, he lies to himself to justify his actions, and to maintain those lies inevitably leads to a downward spiral of further evil and corruption that culminates in a moral vacuum.

So, saying that these people are human does not mean that you're saying that everything they do is forgivable. In fact - I'm making a sort of complicated argument here - if you don't say that they are human, you fail to see the way evil works. You fail to see that our morality is bound up in our practice of evil.

Because if a whole society commits mass murder, gets away with it, a whole regime commits mass murder and gets away with it, and then tells lies to justify what they've done, not because they're evil, but because they're human and they need to lie to live with what they've done - that is to say, they write a victor's history in the form of propaganda - then, maintaining those lies leads to this moral vacuum.

Because now you have to blame the victims for what happened. The propaganda says it's their fault. You have to dehumanise them, because it's much easier to live with yourself if the people you've killed are not fully human. And you have to kill again. You have to kill again, because if the army tells to kill this other group of people for the same reason that you killed the first group, if you refuse the second time, it is equivalent to admitting it was wrong the first time.

Why do we tell those lies? Not because we're evil, not because we're monsters, but because we're human. And if we don't see the perpetrators as human, we fail to see how our morality is involved in the practice of evil. That's one point.

Another point is that - I said I'm not a judge; I think you can also say that the film shows that maybe Anwar has escaped justice, but he's not escaped punishment. He's destroyed by what he's done. And not just him, but Adi, who sleeps easy at night, is destroyed by what he's done because he's living on his life as a hollow shell of a human being. It is an utterly pointless existence. It's like living as an ant.

And, finally, I'd say that justice is a process that the Indonesian human rights community and the survivors need to initiate. What kind of justice Indonesia should have, and the perpetrators should face, is something for the survivors and the human rights community to decide, and they can only decide in a space free of fear.

It's meaningless to ask survivors who are terrorised into silence what kind of justice the perpetrators should face. It's meaningless for the neighbour who's a death squad leader to go to the relatives of the people whom he killed and ask, "What kind of justice should I face?" They won't answer. They won't be able to say.

What this film has done is opened a space for the survivors and the human rights community to start demanding justice without fear, because the film has broken a consensus in the media that [the killings] were heroic. Now, there's a consensus that this was a crime against humanity. Now, the discussion of justice can begin.

But, as the messenger for this story, the one who created this film, to do it, I had to become very intimate with Anwar. I feel love for Anwar. I'm not competent to judge him. Not only am I not the person who should decide what kind of justice the perpetrators should face, I'm also not competent to make that judgment because I'm too close.

What I will say is that, when I say I have love for Anwar, I don't think that's a bad thing. I think empathy is a practice of living. We can either go through life open to people and loving of people, or we can go through life closed down and judgmental. And if that's true, empathy is not a zero-sum game. If you empathise with the perpetrators, it does not mean you have less empathy for the survivors. On the contrary, you probably have more, because you're in the practice of empathy. Empathy is the beginning of love, and I don't think you can have too much of it indeed.

Your forthcoming film is called The Look of Silence, and you have a family of victims or survivors confronting one of the perpetrators...
Not one. Six of the perpetrators.

Oh, I thought it was someone who killed their son?
Yeah, but the whole chain of command of people involved in killing their son.

Right. So, tell me more about the film and how you went about it. Was it harder to do than The Act of Killing, because you're going to be looking at some very intense emotions?
It was hard. I wouldn't say it was harder. In some ways, it was easier because I had a much more comfortable love for my protagonist, I could be with him and his family without feeling conflicted.

But one of the things that we're struggling with - well, we're not struggling anymore, we've resolved it - but one of the problems we had to solve were all of the grotesque cliches of human rights documentary, which exist to reassure the viewer, fundamentally, that the viewer is good. We present the victims of atrocities, and we present them as saintly, and the viewer identifies with them, and they do something hopeful and they are courageous, and then we feel things are moving on and things are getting better, and we feel good about ourselves and good about the world...and what a disgusting response to destruction and loss and trauma.

I see human rights documentary with increasing venom - and I'm speaking of the genre. I think that working on this new film is like walking through a minefield of cliches that are morally repulsive, and it's been essential to try and find a space, a filmmaking language where we avoid those cliches. And that's turned the film into something very interesting, I think, a kind of poem about the silence born of terror, and the necessity but also the trauma of breaking that silence. Because it is traumatic to break that silence, but it also has to be broken.

You know, the main character visits these perpetrators - he's an optician, and he goes door to door, starts by testing their eyes, and they tell him, while he's testing their eyes with his old-fashioned lenses, how they killed people, including his brother. And, eventually, he opens up and says, "That was my brother". And it becomes a very intimate journey because he finds out that his own uncle was involved in killing his brother. It's not something easily resolved.

The act of killing creates a disaster - for the perpetrator, for the survivor, for the coexistence of the two, for the society - and the film is almost a lament to the disaster. A film can't waken the dead and put whole what has been broken. In fact, nothing can. Truth and reconciliation can't put whole what has been broken. It can't waken the dead, it can't restore what's been lost.

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