The Exchange: Joshua Oppenheimer and David Rieff on Genocide
How different are victims from victimizers?
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Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, who was awarded a 2014 MacArthur “genius grant,” has challenged the relationship between filmmaker and subject, and between film and audience in his two documentaries about the 1965-1966 slaughter of perceived communists in Indonesia, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. This type of mass violence has long been a focus for writer and analyst David Rieff, who has made a career studying and reporting on international conflict and humanitarian aid in books such as A Bed for the Night and the upcoming The Reproach of Hunger. Oppenheimer and Rieff recently talked in Foreign Policy’s recording studio in Washington about whether society is desensitized to the realities of genocide and why it’s important to examine — and even to understand — its perpetrators.
Joshua Oppenheimer: Most nonfiction films dealing with human rights abuse tend to tell us that things are well in hand because we’re following an activist or an investigator or a judicial process that promises some sort of resolution even if, when the film ends, things are still a mess. The sense of things getting better when we leave allows the viewer to more easily let go of the experience and to feel like it is being dealt with by somebody, somehow. It also serves the viewer to feel that, by having this explained to us as a phenomenon that’s at least at arm’s length from us, it’s something that we can understand from above. The task of cinema in intervening in and exploring these issues is to actually immerse us in these problems, in these phenomena, so that we actually feel something about what is it like as a survivor or, in the case of The Look of Silence, to have to live surrounded by the still-powerful perpetrators and to live in fear for half a century. Most human rights documentaries also replicate that most basic form of narrative escapism, dividing the world into good guys and bad guys. That is reassuring because we inevitably identify with the good guys. But it’s problematic because it makes it difficult to understand — not in the sense to excuse, but to understand how human beings do these sorts of things to each other and the consequences for how we continue to live in the aftermath of atrocity. If we don’t accept the uncomfortable proposition that every perpetrator of virtually every act of evil in our history has been a human being like us, then we actually foreclose the possibility of understanding how we do this to one another and therefore make it impossible to figure out how we might prevent these things.
David Rieff: I completely agree with the centrality of the issue that these are people like ourselves. One must not give into the narcissism of the fact that one is above the ground rather than under it. I think that we have very romantic views of ourselves and of progress, so that indeed we don’t think the killers are like us. There’s a wonderful story that [writer] Clive James used to tell of being at a cocktail party in London and having all these people talking about what it would’ve been like to have been a prisoner in a concentration camp. As he writes, the more interesting question is not, what would you have done if you’d been a prisoner in Auschwitz or in Barkhausen? But instead, what would you have done if you’d been a guard? The fact is, we tell ourselves fairy tales. Maybe people always did; maybe people always will. But one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve learned is how rapidly a victim becomes a victimizer, and a victimizer a victim. And I’ve never recovered from that. There is a kind of human rights preening that we wouldn’t do that, that if only nations and peoples lived up to their responsibilities or something — as if there were some formula for this, as if people weren’t afraid or angry or subservient. It’s almost as if the human rights movement, to me, behaves as if Freud never lived.
JO: I think it’s a really important point that you’re making, that these kinds of stories have buried in them this narcissism of trying to construct a narrative that reassures ourselves. And that’s exactly what I’ve tried to get away from in both of these films. I want them to not be a kind of window onto a far-off place that people knew little about and cared even less about, but actually a mirror in which we see ourselves. I find, as I’m now releasing the film in the United States, and it’s at the end of this year where we’ve been reminded in terrible and important ways again and again about the open wound of race in our country, I find that people are constantly asking me to sort of bring the film back as an allegory for impunity at home.
DR: I’m very skeptical of so-called “humanitarian interventions” for all sorts of reasons. Obviously, as we were taught in first-year philosophy, there are limiting cases; I’m not an absolutist. But I think that [the West doesn’t] know enough usually to intervene. I mean, this is a very narcissistic society, and it’s a very inward-looking society. And when it gets indignant, it also gets hubristic. Syria is an excellent example of this. Of course one wants the war in Syria to be over, but does anyone in Washington or Brussels have the faintest idea of how to do it? So just saying, “There’s interventionism, or there must be something else” — I’m afraid that does start to remind me of the sort of primitivism of binary thinking. I don’t know how to solve the Syrian issue, and I don’t think anyone else does. The bitter joke, “You can’t get there from here” might apply. And there’s the issue of who’s doing the intervening. In Syria, for example, it would be the same countries that colonized Syria — that is to say, the Turks under the Ottomans, and the imperial Western powers. Surely there’s something wrong with that. Maybe the honorable thing to do is to witness these situations, to try to learn lessons in one’s own society, one’s own life, from the horrors and the tragedies one sees. Again, there are exceptions. But the idea that basically the template should be interventionist, that the default position should be interventionist, seems to me to just be complete madness, to be blunt.
JO: I think that there’s something you said that was crucial: When the society becomes indignant, it can become hubristic. I think that indignation is pleasurable, and it’s pleasurable because it’s self-righteous. And, of course, the follies of the Blair and Bush interventions were all about this false sense of: “We’re good, and now all we have to do is identify the good guys in every country and support them and then everything we do should be good.” The world becomes kind of distorted and obscured by this false moral view of oneself. There’s a crucial moment in The Act of Killing where Adi Zulkadry and Anwar Congo, the two death squad members in the film, are watching this piece of government propaganda that justified the killings, and I asked them, “What do you feel about this film?” And Zulkadry says, “Of course it’s a lie. We know this is a lie.” And Congo panics visibly and says, “Well, it may be a lie, but it’s the one thing that makes me feel better about myself,” suggesting that the perpetrators sincerely believe those stories — whether it’s the ideological anti-communism, which I think was the excuse for murderous plunder in Indonesia, or the anti-terrorism that’s used as an excuse for policy in the Middle East. This has sort of led me to the insight, which is maybe reduced to platitude here, that the human capacity for evil depends on our ability to lie to ourselves. If the perpetrators are human, then they know what’s right and wrong. How do they get themselves to be self-serving? Well, by telling themselves that they’re not being self-serving. And this righteous indignation as the starting point for kind of hubristic intervention, I think, is the start of that mechanism. It’s the beginning always of self-deception.
DR: One of the things I keep coming back to is this great exchange between Freud and Einstein about war. It’s 1932, and Einstein writes a letter to Freud discussing the possibility of preventing war. Freud says he’s pessimistic because there’s a “death instinct” that lures people and that draws people and that attracts people to war and death, and that isn’t going to go away. In Rwanda, for example — and I think in Bosnia too — people were mobilized by fear. They were people like us, and when they weren’t in this pressurized situation, there were just as many decent people among the killers as among any other group of people. But they were afraid. They were mobilized to be afraid. And so, what in any rational or decent context would seem like murder to them seemed like self-defense. And I believe this goes back to the Nazis. I mean, I think the Nazi analogy is always a dangerous one. But I believe there’s some truth to that. The Jews were going to “infect” the German people, and so there was something defensive. One really has to understand these things, otherwise one just sits there — neither understanding nor preventing. And indignation really is a kitsch emotion.
JO: Yes. It’s reminiscent of how [Milan] Kundera defined “kitsch” as the crying of a second tear. You cry the first tear because something is genuinely, singularly upsetting. And you cry the second tear because everybody is crying that first tear with you, and you know that. So you retreat from the pain into oneself and into this sort of fantasized or imaginary collective of people mourning with you. Also, I think when you mentioned Freud, there was something there maybe more profound and more difficult to talk about. The death instinct, the fascination with that exorbitant power over life and death, that God-like power that people have when they’re incited to kill and participate in atrocities — I think there’s a fascination and attraction which is unfortunately defying of rational explanation.
DR: Absolutely. And that’s confirmed by what we know from World War II, which Christopher Browning has written about so well in his extraordinary book, Ordinary Men. It’s about a police battalion of not young, but sort of early middle-aged German guys. What Browning shows is that these guys didn’t actually have to kill the Jews who they rounded up. And they actually could’ve gotten out of doing so. But almost none of them did. Finally, with your film, one has to start talking about who these people are as people — that the victimizers are like us. As [French poet Charles] Baudelaire said, “mon semblable, mon frère” — “my double, my brother.” Until we face that, we’re just going to keep going to ceremonies that honor heroic people. But that doesn’t help one understand, and indeed it does make one smug.
A version of this article originally appeared in the September/October issue of FP.
Oppenheimer: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images; Rieff: courtesy photo