|Joshua Oppenheimer in der Städelschule Frankfurt, © Sven Safarow|
Im Juni dieses Jahres habe ich ein längeres Interview mit dem Dokumentarfilmer Joshua Oppenheimer in Frankfurt am Main geführt. Anlass war The Look of Silence, der Nachfolgefilm zu seinem unerhört brillanten The Act of Killing. Auf Eskalierende Träume kann man meine Rezension lesen. Das Interview gibt es auf NEGATIV in deutscher Sprache, hier ist das Transkript des englischen Originals.
As I understood, you have Frankfurt roots.
That's right. My father's father's from Frankfurt.
So, you've been here a few times?
Very little, because my father's family escaped Germany just before it was too late. There is one cousin, who came last night, who remained, because his father had a non-Jewish mother, and so survived the war. Actually, his mother might be half Jewish too. So he has enough non-Jewish people in his family that they managed to survive. So, we've been here twice to visit them, and when his wife was dying, I visited, but I don't know the city well.
You sure know Theodor Adorno.
I don't know if you know this, but near the Bockenheim campus, there is Adorno's desk in a glass cage, so if you want to visit it...
I don't think any desk should ever be put in a glass cage. No matter whose desk it was! (laughs)
It's quite surreal.
I mean, they put Lenin's body in a glass cage, and I think, Mao's body's in a glass cage, and there's a giant squid that I remember visiting at the natural history museum in Washington D.C. in a glass cage. And in London, at the Hunterian museum, there's this fantastic chicken... John Hunter was the first scientist to explore xenotransplantation, and he transplanted a human toe nail into the comb of a chicken and there's a kind of curling toe nail growing out of the comb of a chicken and that's in a glass cage. But desks, and Adorno's desk should not be in a glass cage. It should be used!
You're an American citizen but you live in Denmark, right?
Yeah. I'm an American and British citizen.
How come you live in Denmark?
I moved to Denmark in 2011 from London, where I was living, because the funding for The Act of Killing ended up mostly coming from Denmark and so we had to edit the film there, or to do the second half of the editing there, we took about a year and a half. Because we cut from 1200 Hours down to 2 hours and 40 minutes, and so that was a very big process. We did that in Denmark, and after a year and a half in Denmark, Copenhagen felt like home in a way that London never did so we decided to stay. And half of The Look of Silence was edited in Denmark, because my editor Niels, he's Danish but he lives in Helsinki, so to make it easier on his family (he has children), we went to Helsinki for half of the editing.
I imagine the film is born in the editing room. There's so much material but it's the way you arrange it, so how long does this process take?
It varies. On The Act of Killing, we had, like I said, 1200 hours, and in London I had two editors, working side by side, with two assistants, to help working full time for a year and a half, cutting 1200 hours of material down to 23 hours of edited scenes. The material was so dense and layered and interesting that we could not simply throw away whole parts of it, almost everything was good. I don't mean every moment was good, but every scene, every real scene was good. And to understand the complexity of the film, they needed to be cut. It was just the way we had to work with that film to understand the layers of performance. You see, genre inspired dramatizations in The Act of Killing require many different editing languages but there has to be an overall consistency because the closeness or distance, it defines a kind of moral point of view, it defines this kind of delicate balance between being very intimate and also standing back and allowing things to unfold in their own time. So, to find that across many different genres, many different styles of footage took a lot of effort and work; and then to figure out what strands are most important, also required editing the material. Are the workshops, where Anwar and his friends are developing scenes, writing scripts, discussing what should be in and out, is that most important? Or are the scenes themselves most important? Or does that change over the course of the film? So, to be able to answer these questions, we needed to get past this mountain of footage to some concrete scenes and that took a year and a half with two editors working full time, and then we moved to Denmark to cut the finished film and it was about a year working with Niels Pagh Andersen to reach the Director's Cut of the original full-length Act of Killing. Then we decided that it would be necessary to make two shorter versions, one for television and one for more commercial cinemas that would not be willing to show a two-and-a-half-hour-long documentary and so we spent another three months cutting the shorter versions. I can say, that those are absolutely lesser films. They contain a subset of the film. They lack the depth and rigour of the full-length film. Sadly, in Germany, almost only the shorter version came out in Cinemas. Luckily, in Germany only the full-length version is on DVD.
At least, you edited the shorter versions yourself.
At least, I wasn't forced to do it. No distributor came in and said, „We have to take out 40 minutes and we're doing it!“ I did it. But it was a very difficult process, it wasn't a happy process. I have no aversion to conventional length, I have no philosophical hatred of that, The Look of Silence is 99 minutes long at 25 frames per second.
Is that the Director's Cut?
That's the only cut. And that's just its natural length. The Act of Killing's natural length, because it's a more broad story, it's a whole political exposé, it's Anwar's journey, it's a fever dream, the natural length is 2 hours and 40 minutes. That doesn't come together in perfect synthesis in the shorter versions but the difficulty of the shorter versions is when you know you're not making something better, you're simply trying to keep it alive, it's demoralizing. You spent seven, eight years making a film and everybody, the producer, the editor, everybody is saying, „this is the film!“ But for very practical reasons you have to shorten it and you have to then make it worse, and, like a surgeon, removing organs from a patient, you're simply trying to keep the thing alive, you're not trying to make it better, that's not a fun process. So, that took three months, and then, there was another three months for post-production, for sound and colour. So, it was about three years from the start of the editing to the completion of the film, whereas The Look of Silence, because I was working with same editor who made The Act of Killing with me, and because we knew what the film was, (we'd already edited it and we'd already released it by the time we were editing The Look of Silence), we were able to build on all the wisdom we gained through the making of The Act of Killing. It was like a dance between me and the editor, we were always together in the editing room, not because I was trying to control him or oversee everything he did, but because we were doing something together that neither of us could do alone. It was a very unique process.
You mentioned colour. What did you do with the colour?
Well, both of my films, with The Act of Killing in particular, were shot on handycams, on Sony Z1 HDV Cameras, which are more or less obsolete. The quality of all the footage was high in terms of all the work that went into shooting it, but... to make The Act of Killing look as it looked was a great deal of work. I'm very careful with the colour. I'm thinking in great detail were drawing out colours, which is easier to do with better cameras but takes a long time with worse cameras because you have less control with the cheaper cameras. The way the colour's encoded affords you much less control. Even The Look if Silence, we shot with better cameras than The Act of Killing, but because The Act of Killing is my first film and had not yet come out when we shot The Look of Silence, we didn't really have a proper budget for shooting it. We had more money than when we were shooting The Act of Killing but still very little, so we used also handycams, very very basic cameras. The cinematographer for The Look of Silence, I think, is being interviewed for American Cinematographer because somebody there likes cinematography which is wonderful, but I think they will be appalled when they hear what cameras we shot with. But they should be even more admiring, I think, because I think he did a brilliant job, Lars Skree, giving the cameras that we had available, and even more so for Carlos Arango De Montis for The Act of Killing because the cameras were even worse. But the colour... you can use the colour, you can brighten or darken certain parts of the image, you can enhance the colour, you can make it cooler, warmer and you can simply enhance the mood of every scene if you take the time to do very careful work.
TLOS_GLASSES: A scene from Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Look of Silence. Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media.
I noticed, the Look of Silence was executive produced by two of the greatest living documentary filmmakers in my opinion, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris. I know, they already supported The Act of Killing and you did the Audio Commentary with Herzog on the DVD. What did they do on the new film?
(laughs) I really would love to say that they did a lot but they didn't do so much on The Look of Silence, in part because I was shy to show them the film until it was pretty much done, and because I was editing the film while they were still enthusiastically supporting the release of The Act of Killing. So, rather than show them rough cuts which I knew we could make better and which I was nervous they might be disappointed by after The Act of Killing, and rather than distract them from the work they were doing on The Act of Killing, I didn't show them the film until I had a fine cut. Then I sent it to Werner and to Errol, and I was nervous that they would say this was not as good as The Act of Killing, but they didn't. Errol said, it was better, and Werner said, it's different but just as good. Both of them now have been enthusiastically and actively involved with helping The Look of Silence find an audience in the same way they've done with The Act of Killing. I should say though that Werner and Errol have been both so important to how I became a filmmaker that I feel like they're almost sitting with me in the editing room, and when I'm shooting, and when I'm devising my new films now. They're with me all the time in some way, and I certainly don't think of Werner as one of the greatest documentary filmmakers of all time, I think, he's simply one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and I would challenge you to find a better film than Even Dwarfs Started Small or Stroszek or The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser or even Woyzeck. Aguirre, the Wrath of God is of course phenomenal and his recent works continue to be incredible. I think that his Bad Lieutenant is amazing, My Son, my Son, what have ye done, that he did the same year, is quite remarkable. And he's just shot another film with Michael Shannon, Salt and Fire, which I'm very eager to see, I've read the script. I think, he's just a force of nature.
I understand, you met him, like, 15 years ago?
Werner... well, my mentor and another person who's always right by my side, in my mind with everything I do in film is Dusan Makavejev, and I'm thinking really of his earlier films, from the 60s and 70s, films like WR – Mysteries of the Organism, Sweet Movie, Innocence Unprotected, Man is not a Bird. He had Werner come to his class, to our film class, and I met him very briefly then. And in 1997, Werner introduced my first film, a short film, at the Telluride Film Festival but hadn't seen it but I do remember he gave the introduction. But I really met Werner in 2012 in the lobby of his hotel in London when he was promoting Into the Abyss. And my British executive producer André Singer produced some of Werner's documentaries. He and I both wanted Werner to see The Act of Killing and I came with an IPad containing 10 minutes from the film and a DVD of the uncut film and showed him 10 minutes on the IPad in the lobby of his hotel, and then he asked for the DVD. I didn't hear from him for three months but then he called. He saw the film and got involved.
I noticed that you thanked Makavejev in the end credits and you thanked Slavoj Zizek as well. Is he a supporter? Or are you inspired by his work?
Slavoj Zizek has written about The Act of Killing and lectured about it quite a bit actually. It's a humorous thing, I think, because The Act of Killing is one film that you really do not need to exaggerate. I think, it's quite extreme already and quite shocking by itself, but Zizek in his lectures will describe scenes from The Act of Killing that are simply in Zizek's mind but it's fantastic... (laughs) I came to know Zizek because I passed on to a friend of Zizek a DVD of clips from the film before we started editing the scenes who then showed it without my knowledge to Zizek. Zizek was giving a large lecture at the New School in New York, and an Indonesianist, a historian of Indonesia, was at the lecture and called me afterwards and said: Joshua, Slavoj Zizek's talking about your film“, what became The Act of Killing, and I said: „That's impossible, I don't know Slavoj Zizek, I never showed him anything, it must be another film“, and I didn't know my friend was friends with him. And he said: „Watch the lecture, it's on youtube“, and indeed it was, and it was problem, because it was endangering potentially up my crew for him to talk about the film publically, because we were still making the film. In fact, I think, we still did a little more shooting at that point, and we were not yet prepared to guard everybody's safety and anonymity. And I contacted the organizer of the lecture and I said: „He's talking about my work and there's a safety issue here, can you forward an e-mail to him?“ So I wrote a letter to him saying „Thank you so much for talking about this, what you're saying is very interesting, but I need you to stop talking about it until the film's done.“ And he apologized profusely and wrote a very lovely reply, but then continued to lecture about it, I think he forgot! (laughs) And then he published a book with several pages about it, Living in the End Times.
TLOS_ADI_MOTHER: Adi and his mother, Rohani, share a solemn moment in Drafthouse Films’ and Participant Media’s The Look of Silence. Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media.
Good intentions vs. Good art. Good intentions do seldom make good art. Look at Hearts and Minds, this documentary about the Vietnam War, for example. I think, it's dangerous because it's very antagonistic towards the American soldiers. When I watch The Look of Silence, I'm not only having antagonistic feelings towards the perpetrators but I have complicated feelings, feelings of pity and empathy...
Because you feel that they're trapped in a prison of guilt and their own fear of guilt and shame, and it's very understandable, their reactions, if you had done something awful and someone visited you to challenge you, you would get angry too.
You do that so marvelously, but it's a thin line...
That's interesting. I haven't seen Hearts and Minds in a long time but I actually, from my experience of the film years ago, I loved the film. Because I think, it's a political vision. It's an excoriating vision of decades of policy that it helps us understand and map, it's like the work of Adam Curtis, it helps us tell new stories about very big things in which we're lost otherwise. That's my memory of the film but it's a decade since I've seen it, maybe more. Good intentions do not necessarily lead to good art, usually they do not, but you can't make good art without good intentions. I think that good art has to have a moral truth. I, for example, think that Leni Riefenstahl did not make good art. What art needs to do is to provoke and encounter with some painful, important aspect of what we are, things that we usually already recognize as familiar, and then there's a shock of the familiar there, where we think, oh yes, absolutely, this is us, this is me, and I cannot help but think and talk about this having encountered it through the art. And art that exists as pure escapism, to lead us away from the truth, to overwhelm, to inspire but to take us away from a sincere, morally honest humane encounter with our own humanity can never be good art and it's always made through bad intentions, even if the intentions are unconscious. People sometimes hear me say this and they think, “Oh, you feel that all art should be painful and difficult.“ Maybe I do have a feeling that all genuine art should provoke some discomfort, I do, and take us to a place of risk and danger but that doesn't mean that film and time-based art (film, literature) should not also entertain, I think it must entertain. And entertain is a very cheap sounding word but it's important because if I'm making a two hour and forty minute film, The Act of Killing or one hour and thirty minute film, The Look of Silence, and I have something important to say and each scene is building on the previous scene and is creating a single immersive experience, you had better be absorbed by the whole thing. And entertain is simply a populist word for absorb. So I would say, for example, for me personally, Django Unchained or The Wolf of Wall Street, these are highly entertaining but important works of art, actually. I think, where the intention is not good, even if it's unconscious, is in the production of escapist entertainment whose primary goal is to make somebody a lot of money or to validate somebody's illegitimate power, referring back to the case of Leni Riefenstahl.
Thank you very much!