Denmark/Norway/UK (2012). Dir: Joshua Oppenheimer
I doubt you will ever see a documentary like this again. And you may never experience a nightmare quite like it. Imagine a film-maker gaining the trust of the surviving members of a death squad from an earlier generation, giving them the freedom to tell their story – not as talking heads – but by re-enacting their “interrogations” and executions, with reference to their choice of Hollywood cinematic genre: noir or camp musical, for example. It really does put you into a nightmare: shocking, sickening and disturbing but also unfathomably surreal. Cinematically, there is genius at work and in getting to the truth it is both brave and important. But it leaves you with the troubled queasiness of balancing on a very high moral tightrope.
In 2002, Oppenheimer traveled to Indonesia to talk to and film survivors of the relatively unknown 1965-66 cleansing of “communists” and ethnic Chinese. An intelligent man, a good man of principle, who wanted to publicise a neglected, dark episode in history, he was frustrated in his attempts to put together the story of the victims and their families. But his research revealed an astonishing openness from the perpetrators. What became clear, almost 50 tears on, is an environment of fear for most people but casual impunity, a sort of celebrity status, for the subjects of the film. But, at the same time, the complexity, the ambition, of Oppenheimer’s project changed dramatically, from documentation to an attempt to explain the motives behind man’s inhumanity to man.
What we learn is at times unbearably gruesome. But, it is also a truism to say that “all acts of evil are perpetrated by human beings”. The difficulty for Oppenheimer – and this is difficult stuff – is that he, of course, finds that he can’t really give us much more than the little we know already about cruelty’s motives – under the right (wrong) circumstances, you or I or the next-door neighbour, etc. But he is in so very deep that the piece turns into an emotionally exhausting pursuit of signs of remorse. It becomes a self-fulfilling process of humanisation.
The credits show that the vast majority of those working on the film on location have asked to remain anonymous. This speaks volumes about the environment in which Oppenheimer worked and his bravery. It is a unique film that uncovers the truth in a way that is utterly compelling while, simultaneously, making the audience want to run for the exit. At the same time, Oppenheimer may have, unintentionally, overstepped a line. It is now a couple of weeks since I saw the film. It has stayed with me, but my emotional response has been anything but simple. What I am left with is an overwhelming sadness.