Empathy After The Act of Killing


Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing (2012) touched a nerve among audiences after its debut. The film retraces the stories of perpetrators of one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century, the Indonesian anti-communist purge in the 1960s. Startlingly, Oppenheimer’s film takes the perspective of the perpetrators: they are asked to re-enact their murders in detail. While some perpetrators remain untouched by the re-enactments, others start reflecting on their actions.

The Act of Killing takes on renewed importance with the recent release of its sequel, The Look of Silence (2014), which investigates in greater depth the stories of survivors. Rafael Dernbach spoke with Oppenheimer about the role of empathy in confronting the spectres of our past.


KR: After a screening of The Act of Killing at the Berlinale in 2013, an enraged audience member asked how you could dare to make a film about a genocide from the perspective of the perpetrator. You answered that there can never be too much empathy. What did you mean by that?

Empathy is not a zero sum game. When you empathize with the perpetrators that does not mean you have any less empathy for survivors. On the contrary you probably have more. Empathy is the beginning of love. And I think it’s something you can’t have too much of. Of course you can have a kind of empathy that is grounded in defining others as not deserving of your empathy. So you empathize with one side and define it as ‘against another side’. I’m not sure that’s really empathy; it’s more about defining your own position vis-à-vis an enemy. In such false notions of empathy, you’re not really seeing or relating to the person. You’re relating to the person as something. The person as survivor. The person as someone on your side, as opposed to someone on the other side.


KR: Which role did those different kinds of empathy play when making The Act of Killing? It is hard to believe that it was easy for you to collaborate with the perpetrators.

JO: I began this film trying to expose a regime of impunity on behalf of survivors and the human rights community. And when I started it – the very first perpetrator I filmed, his wife came over to me right after we were finished filming. I came back home after filming him, as he described how he killed people in horrific ways in front of his granddaughter and his wife. And I went to my house and she came over with a plate of fried bananas, as a gift that she made for me. And I accepted them politely and thanked her. She went home and then I threw them away. And in throwing them away I was rejecting her kindness, her food, her kitchen.

Anything that came out of that kitchen I was treating as tainted. And perhaps in hindsight I might have been doing it as a demonstration of my sympathies, the demonstration of my loyalty actually, which is different from empathy, for the survivors with whom I was living. But I think this response disturbs me. And then very quickly I realized that it was fraught with hypocrisy. And if I make the leap from saying: these men have done monstrous things, therefore all of them are something other than human, not deserving of my empathy, their wives, everything, then I would fail to understand how we human beings do this to each other. And I would reassure myself that I am not like them. And that would be the basis for the critical distance that many people expect from a film that reviews a topic like this. But it’s a critical distance that precludes any genuine understanding. And so the theme of empathy is an interesting one but it wasn’t the starting point. It’s something that I arrived at over the course of the journey. I told myself I would never again make the cut, do the kind of radical rejection of another person in their entirety that I did when I threw away those bananas.


KR: You claim that there is something like false empathy. Would you say then that The Act of Killing is a film about failed empathy?

I think you can apply that question in several ways. First of all, obviously, if there is one thing that connects everybody who killed, who I have met, it was a sort of exorbitant selfishness in the moment of killing. If you ask someone why they killed, they will tell you the excuse, the lie they have told themselves so that they could live with themselves. And if you try to peel that back and try to see why people really killed that first time – everybody I met killed either out of a desire for power, for money or sometimes out of fear: they were threatened into doing it. But it always had to do with themselves very profoundly.

And to do it, they also had to close down, shut down any kind of feeling for the person they were killing. And it can be done through dehumanizing the person, it can be done through alcohol and in a most peculiar case it can be done through acting. Coming out of the movie theater, dancing this way across the street, killing happily, not being fully in the moment of encounter with the person you kill. And even though he thought he locked off the person who he would kill, there then was some kind of way in which that other came back to haunt him and his nightmares and ultimately the filmmaking itself.

So there is a failure of empathy in the moment of killing. There is a failure of empathy in the whole social structure in Indonesia rooted in fear and corruption and it leads to a kind of moral and cultural vacuum. If there is a single moment in the film which encapsulates that most perfectly, it’s Adi drifting through the shopping mall with his wife and daughter as we hear him in the voiceover, listing in testament a series of methods of killing.


KR: Your film continuously tests the audience. The viewers have to ask themselves over and over again: do I really want to feel with the perpetrators?

Of course there is part of the film asking us as viewers to identify, even (just) for a moment, with Anwar. The whole façade by which we divide the world into good guys and bad guys eventually crumbles when we are suddenly forced to confront the fact that this person who normally, in the tradition of the cinema, would be firmly defined as a bad guy, is like us in some fundamental way.  I think in that moment we are forced to confront the failure of empathy that underpins so much mainstream cinematic identification, where we identify with the good guy as opposed to the bad guy. In fact that’s what I was talking about earlier: a kind of false empathy, rooted in a definition of those outside of it. A false empathy based on excluding someone from it.


KR: Could that be a basis for a kind of cinematic practice? I mean, you said empathy is something you can practise as a person. As a filmmaker, I think you might have to be even more aware of that, also aesthetically

JO: I certainly think that I don’t know how to make a film about another human being without being close to the person. I think that involves empathy. At least for me, my filmmaking practice ought to be a process of trying to explore the world from a place of emotional involvement as opposed to attachment and intimacy. And that involves bringing audiences into a position of being intimated with people they otherwise would wish to distance themselves from. In the film I’m editing now, for example – it’s the second film in a pair with The Act of Killing – there is a confrontation with a survivor, who goes to meet and confront all of the men involved with his brother’s death. And the men, all being confronted by survivors – unimaginable in Indonesia – all of them respond with fear. All of them respond with threats, all of them are traumatized by the aspect of this empowered survivor who dares to come to them and confront them for what they have done.

And even though all of them respond disappointingly, in the sense that none of them have the courage to open up to the survivor, at the same time we also empathize with them. We also understand what it would be like to be a perpetrator. To suddenly have the brother of someone you have killed come into your house and say, ‘Hey, you killed my brother.’ And of course this would be terrifying and difficult. I really noticed it in this new film, that this involves repudiating a whole host of clichés that define human rights documentary normally, where you identify with the survivors as against the perpetrators. It’s a kind of false empathy for the survivors because it involves the exclusion of the perpetrators. It’s a self-serving, false empathy. I’ve been looking at the rough cut, and suddenly we’re in these scenes where we empathize with both sides. And that is a peculiar place to be, in film.


KR: It’s interesting that in The Act of Killing you showed the role of cinema and cinematic images in influencing the perpetrators when carrying out their deeds. Could you elaborate on how you reacted to the discovery that they actually used those American gangster films to tell their story?

JO: First of all, I have to really stress that it is a coincidence and it is not essential to the movie. It is essential to the movie’s form, it is essential to the language that I chose to use with this film. But it is absolutely the case that the first 30 perpetrators I filmed were killing in the countryside. They were not watching movies to kill. They were drinking alcohol to help them kill and they were hauling busloads of prisoners down in army escorts to river banks and cutting off their heads. I could have made a similar exploration of The Act of Killing, and what happens to society when people kill and get away with it, with them, and there would be no reference to Hollywood genre film.

When Anwar told me that he was getting methods of killing from the movies, I probably had to film that somewhere between 5 and 10 times before I realized that he really means that literally. Because it was too astounding. It was too perfect, in a way. I couldn’t understand that that was really what he meant, that he was watching these movies, taking methods from them.

I already knew that in the city of Medan, the Army was recruiting its killers from the ranks of these movie theater killers. These were thugs, involved with serious crime, crime of all sorts, hanging out in smuggling rings. People trafficking – big crime – but hanging out in movie theaters and, as a small side business, selling movie theater tickets on the black market. And I understood that, as a result of that, every death squad in the city was based out of a different movie theater. And I understood that Anwar’s death squad was based in one of the most glamorous and elite movie theaters in the city. And I understood that for that reason the paramilitary movement had built its office and put its affiliated newspaper office directly across the street from it. So that it would be convenient for the gangs to just come outside, come out of the movie and participate in the torture.

I understood all of that. But nevertheless I had to hear it several times from Anwar that he was getting methods of killing from the movies before I understood that he meant it literally. And even after I understood it literally, I took it with a very big pinch of salt. Because before you start making leads – like, this is somehow about how American movies provide the preconditions for that kind of action – I would point out that, although Anwar said that he got methods of killing with wire from gangster movies, the most profound example that he gives is an Elvis Presley musical, which allows him to dance his way across the street and kill happily. Now, Elvis Presley musicals are not violent, they’re just stupid, right? They’re just dumb. And that’s the real issue: how we tell stories to escape from our most bitter and painful truths. How we tell lies to justify our actions, so you don’t have to look at the painful truth.

Now, in cinemas, the great stories tell a medium of modernity. Cinema was helping Anwar to justify what he did; first it was helping Anwar to distance himself from killing while he was killing, and then it helped him to justify what he did afterwards in the form of propaganda cinema. So there’s a whole section in the Director’s Cut about how Anwar used propaganda cinema to justify his actions. There is a movie that every Indonesian has watched, every year from kindergarten to university, a very graphic and violent movie that justified what they did by presenting the crimes the communists would have done if they had won. And Adi says to Anwar ‘We know this film is a lie.’ And Anwar says: ‘Be that as it may, it might be a lie, but it’s the one thing that makes me feel less guilty.’ And I think that I also wove America and its cinema into the film because that’s what Anwar wanted. Because those are the genres that inspired Anwar. And I wove it into the film in order to create America and American culture as a kind of character haunting the movie. I knew that America was deeply involved with supporting the atrocity –as it states at the beginning of the film– but I knew that if I wanted to make a film focused on the present, on how that dramatic history haunts the present, I would not be able to go into the details of that involvement, because to do so would be to make a historical documentary as opposed to a film about today. And I’d also just say that because of these genre-inspired traumatizations the film spirals away from being a documentary at all after the midpoint, particularly in the longer version of the film. It spirals out from being a documentary to being a kind of febricity, in which those fiction scenes take over the film’s form, and we get lost with Anwar in the nightmare of what’s unfolding.


KR: Many people have called The Act Of Killing an intervention in the process of making history. How would you relate to that statement? And also, would you consider yourself an activist in that regard?

JO: The film is an intervention. But I think all genuine art is an intervention. And I think new forms of activism might be made possible by successful intervention. But I’d put it this way: I think that the role of art is to encourage us, invite us or force us to confront aspects of who we are and what we are that are painful, frightening or mysterious. So much so that we normally shy away from them. That is to say, the purpose of art is to help us confront the most painful and mysterious aspects of who we are without fear. And, of course, when you make a film about a regime of impunity, that film, in both its method and its final form, holds a mirror up to the whole regime. And beyond holding up a mirror to a regime, the film unmasks a regime. You invite people to confront, articulate and address some of their most painful, difficult and intractable problems. And that is how the film has come to Indonesia. The film has helped to catalyze a change in how Indonesia is talking about its past and how Indonesians are understanding their corrupt and violent present. They are able to say: Wait, this corruption and violence stems from the fact that everybody is afraid. Corruption continues with impunity because no one dares confront the corrupters, because of this past. So the film, by forcing people to confront the truth, it is an intervention. And like the child in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ pointing at the king and saying ‘Look, the King is naked,’ and everybody knew it but had been too afraid to say it: once that happens then activists are able to articulate new demands or are able to imagine solutions to problems that they had been too afraid to even articulate before. Art and activism are certainly not the same, but genuine art is maybe made out of some kind of commitment, and is always some kind of intervention. And that enables change to begin.


KR: It makes me think of the quote that Werner Herzog regularly brings up at talks, by Hölderlin: The poet must not avert his eyes. Would you relate to that imperative?

JO: Absolutely. If you go back to that Elvis Presley musical, where I said the Elvis Presley musical is not violent but it is dumb. Anwar was in denial. In The Act Of Killing, we see that denial, as collective denial and impersonal denial, has a very profound price. And it’s a downward spiral into further evil and corruption and it eventually leads to a total moral vacuum. And it’s not only denial within Indonesia, but it’s also our denial. As I alluded to earlier when I said in many, many other places we all depend on men like Anwar for our everyday living. Everything we buy, from the computer on which we are speaking to the clothes touching my body, is produced in places like the Indonesia of The Act Of Killing. Places where there has been mass violence, where the perpetrators have won and in their victory have built regimes of fear to keep everyone who makes the things we buy too suppressed to make sure that we get the human cost of what we are buying included in the price tag that we pay. And a small part of the price we pay goes to goons like Anwar and his friends, who break strikes, who keep people afraid and who keep everything we buy cheap. And this goes back to the question of empathy at the beginning: if in our first reaction to a film that is as provocative as The Act Of Killing we say: ‘Oh these men are monsters,’ then we must also confront the fact that we depend on monsters just like them to feed ourselves and clothe ourselves and put petrol in our tanks, and so forth. So in that sense we do have to look in the mirror of this film and we have to look in the mirror in general and we have to see what we are.


KR: So you would maybe call the practice of empathy a method for coping with or fighting denial. Or how would you express it?.

JO: I think that if you empathize with any human being truly you’re not just empathizing with the good parts of them. You have to say, I understand what it is like to be evil too. Because we all do bad things. And what is it like for this person to lie or to lie to himself? To justify his evil actions? What is the consequence of that for him and the people around him? So inevitably empathy, true empathy, is the opposite of denial.



Joshua Oppenheimer is an Oscar-nominated American filmmaker based in Copenhagen. In 2014 he was a recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Award.


Rafael Dernbach is a Ph.D. candidate in the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages at the University of Cambridge. Rafael’s research looks at how documentary methods have been appropriated by fictional formats, and how documentary filmmakers react to this repurposing.