The moviegoer: Joshua Oppenheimer, whose documentary The Act Of Killing was one of the most talked-about films of 2013. It allows the aging leaders of 1960s Indonesian death squads—in particular, a kindly-looking old man named Anwar Congo—to playact the genocide they committed, as a way of getting them to confront their actions. The Act Of Killing is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Drafthouse Films, with an abundance of additional footage.
The movie: The Selfish Giant, the first feature-length fiction film by Clio Barnard, whose experimental documentary The Arbor captured cinephiles’ fancy with its innovative mix of the unscripted and the staged. For The Selfish Giant (which takes its title and theme from the Oscar Wilde short story of the same name), Barnard tells a story about two wild young kids who make money for their impoverished families by scavenging scrap metal and wire.
The Dissolve: Why The Selfish Giant?
Joshua Oppenheimer: I’m not exactly sure why. I think for the same reason I loved Jon Bang Carlsen’s visionary documentary Hotel Of The Stars, which I also saw recently. I always think something interesting happens when people either play themselves, as in Hotel Of The Stars, or when people work with non-actors in a truly exquisite and vigorous way, as in The Selfish Giant. It lends a kind of realness, which I think changes the film’s contract with the audience. The viewer’s not just taking it in as a great story, they’re taking it in as real, the way we do in documentaries. And they’re affected in a different way. The film becomes almost mythical. Because unlike in so many documentaries, we’re not seeing something in a form that’s even remotely journalistic. We’re seeing a cinematic vision unfold, and it has a horrible, exquisite realness to it. I was really struck by that in The Selfish Giant, as well as in Jon Bang Carlsen’s film.
The Dissolve: Are you familiar with the region of England where The Selfish Giant takes place?
Oppenheimer: Sort of. I live in Denmark now, but from 1997 to 2011, I lived in pretty rough parts of London. The anger, the violence, and the desperation is true of that place, but in The Selfish Giant, it’s also rendered with a kind of feverish fury I hadn’t really seen before in so-called British social realism. People have drawn comparisons between The Selfish Giant and Ken Loach, but actually, it transcends that. It has a sort of nightmarish quality unlike anything I’ve really seen in Ken Loach. It’s closer to A Clockwork Orange. And I think it feels so totally real. The combination of the realism—the fact that it’s non-actors for the most part, playing themselves in a fictionalized scenario—and the gentle raising of the intensity and the level of violence and the level of despair, makes it a kind of universal nightmare about the limit of human survival.
Margaret Thatcher said, “There’s no such thing as society,” as she proceeded to dismantle the social institutions that constitute civility. She was of her time, because then Reagan and Bush, and then the neo-liberal consensus, started doing that in the U.S. and all over the so-called industrialized world. Or de-industrializing world. As opposed to Ken Loach’s films, which seem to speak to an old, cracked system where there is a kind of order, in The Selfish Giant there’s a very contemporary alienation, at its most extreme form. It’s the breakdown of the social fabric. There’s a sense that an order can only be built with violence. The Act Of Killing, or a film like Django Unchained even, tries to show that our normality—our so-called civility—is built on barbarism.
The Dissolve: That makes me wonder if you’ve seen The Wolf Of Wall Street yet.
Oppenheimer: I haven’t seen it yet, no.
The Dissolve: Kind of a similar theme there. These people wearing suits and ties are basically apes destroying things for their own pleasure.
Oppenheimer: Well, we’re all basically apes.
The Dissolve: There’s a scene in The Selfish Giant that illustrates what you’re talking about: The boy Arbor’s mother goes to the school after her son’s been expelled and just lays into the administrators, basically saying, “You’ve failed both of my children. I sent them to you and you did nothing.” Meanwhile, there are placards on the walls spouting generically positive messages for the children. These social institutions are supposed to maintain order, but either because they’re too overwhelmed or they’re just not even trying anymore, it isn’t working.
“I see documentary not so much as the transparent window onto reality. It’s better thought of as a series of occasions, created between the filmmaker and the subject.”
Oppenheimer: Yeah, and the other thing that strikes me as you give that example: In such a terrible, bleak vision, moments of care and decency are devastating. Because you know they’re not enough. There are a few of them in The Selfish Giant. There’s the other boy’s mother, who’s fragile and abused, with 15 children all living in a sort of hovel, and yet she has this caring warmth, even though she’s too afraid or beaten down to use it to protect her son, Swifty. Then there’s the moment at the end [spoiler ahead] when the wife of the scrap-yard owner is crying, and her husband takes responsibility and tells Arbor to keep quiet. He avoids trouble for the whole movie, but then he takes the blame and goes off to jail so the kid is safe.
Maybe such moments aren’t plausible, and in that sense, in a more realistic film, they might be seen as a failing. But here, they serve to show the inadequacy of tenderness, when everything else is broken down. So for me, they not only totally worked, they were devastating.
The Dissolve: Have you seen The Arbor, Clio Barnard’s previous film?
Oppenheimer: Yeah, I have. And that’s a fascinating and ambitious film too. It didn’t affect me as deeply as this. One thing that’s really important about The Selfish Giant, and it’s true too about both The Act Of Killing and this film I just finished editing—the second film in a diptych with The Act Of Killing—is that there’s no music. There’s no score. For me, such choices aren’t rigorous things I commit myself to in advance: “There will be no music.” You just discover, when the cinematic language is sufficiently pure, that music becomes a kind of unnecessary and almost offensive comment. I’m not opposed to music in films, and one of my favorite directors, Werner Herzog, uses music more beautifully than any other director I know. But the fact that a film can sustain itself with no music is a litmus test for how brilliant that film is.
The closest thing to music in The Selfish Giant is the crackle of the electrical lines. Anticipating the horrible conclusion. I made a short film in a village under a nuclear power station in England when I was in film school, and there were electrical lines everywhere, as well as really, really, really hard kids. Going out shooting rabbits, shooting squirrels, shooting anything that moved. It was at the height of the “mad cow” crisis, and it was a kind of apocalyptic England, far more true than the Ye Olde England of American fantasies and Notting Hill and so on.
The Dissolve: You were talking about what Hotel Of The Stars has in common with The Selfish Giant, and what they both have in common with The Act Of Killing. Do you think the distinction between documentary and non-documentary is all that important?
Oppenheimer: I think there are two distinctions to be made in film that really matter, and neither are the distinction between fiction and documentary. One is what happens when people play themselves, which can happen in fiction, as you see in The Selfish Giant, or in nonfiction, as in Hotel Of The Stars or The Act Of Killing. The other really critical distinction is between films that are concerned with telling a great story and films that are concerned with witnessing moments unfold, in what André Bazin described as “the essence of the cinematic.” Cinema to Bazin is not about creating an illusion, a fictional reality which you enter and forget about. In application, it’s about bearing witness to moments in reality that are astonishing, important, and above all, revealing. The key is those moments—whether it’s a fantastic performance by an actor or an emotional breakdown by people playing themselves—where the real pain of that person’s life, or the things that person has witnessed, is coming through in the performance. Some of the things Anwar goes through during some of the re-enactments in The Act Of Killing is about bearing witness.
I think those are the two critical distinctions in cinema, and I’m interested in the cinema that involves people playing themselves, and where the film is primarily engaged with provoking these moments of transformation, which the camera then witnesses. I said elsewhere recently that I see documentary not so much as the transparent window onto reality. It’s better thought of as a series of occasions, created between the filmmaker and the subject. We create occasions together where things can happen: where an argument is prolonged, a concession is made, a feeling is explored, or a denial is solidified. In that sense, nonfiction films should always be collaborative, and also always involve some measure of performance.
I think fundamentally the distinction between fiction and documentary—which is usually the distinction of style, method, and genre, especially when it comes to documentary in the United States—falls into pretty recognizable patterns. A lot of devices are pretty common, whether it’s the talking-heads documentary or the documentary which purports to be witnessing reality, like a fly on the wall. These are devices the filmmaker uses to create a contract with the audience that says, “This is the kind of film you’re about to see.” And I think that’s a big thing, because it’s burdensome. If we cling to that—if I say I’m a documentarian because I make that kind of film, following those kinds of codes and conventions—I’m somehow unable to see the possibilities of cinema. It’s much more helpful to just look at this kind of film as what happens when people play themselves, then give them space to perform. That’s what happens when we think of cinema as provoking and bearing witness to the most important symptoms of a pathological reality.
The Dissolve: How does this apply to the film you just finished?
Oppenheimer: I should correct myself and say that we’re still editing it. But it’s a film about a family. The Act Of Killing was never meant to stand alone; it’s always been the first film of a pair. This new film is about a family of survivors who come to find out who killed their son in 1965 in Indonesia, through my work with the first 40 perpetrators I filmed before I met Anwar. The youngest brother in this family was born after the killing, and conceived by his mother as a replacement for his dead brother. So he grew up with this terrible burden, in a family that’s been terrorized into silence. He now has children of his own, and they’re going to school and being brainwashed that all this that happened to their family was their fault, and that they deserved it, and he’s no longer able to abide that silence. He’s determined to break it, and he goes and confronts all of the men involved with killing his brother. And they react with fear, with threats, with anger. If there’s any hope, it’s in the next generation… how they react. Although some of them also react with fear, threats, and anger.
I was talking earlier about how documentary is defined by a series of codes and conventions, which is why I don’t like to identify myself as a documentarian per se. But that’s particularly true in films that are pigeonholed as human-rights documentaries, about victims. Making this film, editing this film, is like navigating a minefield of clichés, most of which serve to reassure the viewer that there is, out there in this horrible upside-down moral universe of genocide, a stable, good person with whom to identify. It’s always the victim, or the human-rights advocate who’s campaigning for some kind of truth and reconciliation. But that would be an utterly hypocritical thing to propose after making The Act Of Killing, and it’s something I think fundamentally does not serve our understanding of the experience of the survivors. It’s more to reassure ourselves that we are not like the perpetrators. That we are somehow different. That we are like the survivors, wholly good.
And so we dishonestly and deceptively present the survivors as uncomplicated, and do a disservice to the understanding of how these things happen, and to the humanity and complexity of the experience of surviving. So to avoid all of these clichés, and invent a new subgenre of human-rights documentary, has been to find a new cinematic language—something more poetic, I think. The film is turning into a kind of poem, I hope, about the silence that’s born out of terror—a poem about the necessity of breaking that silence, but also a poem for the trauma that comes inevitably when you do break that silence.
The Dissolve: Was this shot simultaneously with The Act Of Killing, or afterward?
Oppenheimer: From 2003 to 2005, at the request of the human-rights community and Indonesia, I spent two years filming every perpetrator I could find. And so the original archive of material of people who killed this family’s son was shot between 2003 and 2005, but the core of the film—confrontations with the perpetrators, the main character responding to the footage of the perpetrators from 2003 to 2005—I shot after I finished editing The Act Of Killing, but before we released it. Because I knew that after we released the film, I wouldn’t be able to safely return to Indonesia.
The Dissolve: Can you draw on other films like The Selfish Giant or Hotel Of The Stars for inspiration when you’re trying to reinvent the language of the documentary?
“The fact that a film can sustain itself with no music is a litmus test for how brilliant that film is.”
Oppenheimer: Well, Hotel Of The Stars… I saw this film because Jon Bang Carlsen is a well-known nonfiction filmmaker in Denmark, and when I came to Denmark, people would say, “Oh, he also had people playing themselves and let people act their lives.” I had never heard of him, and I finally managed to track down copies of his films with subtitles, and when I saw this film, I was blown away. It’s a visionary piece of work. It’s 35 years old or something, about a hotel in L.A. where aspirant movie stars live in this hotel and have dreams about becoming Montgomery Clift. Clift lived in this hotel. Big stars have lived in this hotel. But now this hotel is in decline, and it’s seedy, and there are prostitutes and pimps and aspiring movie stars all living in this hotel.
And they’re all performers. He gets them to play themselves, and what’s amazing is that they don’t do it very well. They’re not good actors, any of them. So there’s this gap, and yet in how they portray themselves, we see so much about how they want to be seen and who they really are. There’s a pretty obese gay character in the film who is a bad actor, and we see immediately that his quest to be a movie star is doomed, because he plays himself with real pathos and self-pity, showing so much about how he feels about himself, and about his unconscious awareness that he’s going to fail. The mask of his role doesn’t fit properly, but in the gap between who he really is and who the role is, we see so much about him.
I think that’s the fundamental dynamic that The Act Of Killing benefits from, and Anwar too. It’s a film about a man who doesn’t believe the words he’s saying. The Act Of Killing is about a man who doesn’t believe his own words. It’s a film about an evolving doubt, and we see the doubt, and how it grows. It’s a growing realization for Anwar that what he did was wrong, and we see that in his own fictional performance of himself. We see the mask not fitting his face.
When we talked earlier about what happens when people play themselves… I don’t mean that as a criticism, but I don’t think we see it so clearly in The Selfish Giant, which is more akin to something like Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small in terms of the kind of delirious vision of people playing themselves. But we see in these other two films the mask not fitting. In both The Act Of Killing and Hotel Of The Stars, one of the most powerful things that happens when people play themselves is what happens when the mask doesn’t fit, and when the mask is manifestly a projection of some deeper aspect of who the person is. It presents a deeper aspect of the situation, which would otherwise not be visible.