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film ‘Impunity Is the Story of Our Times' - An Interview With Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer

In the face of impunity, there is a sacred role for the storyteller. We can tell stories which invite people to confront painful truths. To combat the lies of impunity, you are doing the task of the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes.

‘The End’ is a study of post-apocalyptic denialism 20 years after the end of the world.,Emily Flake


Joshua Oppenheimer is an award-winning filmmaker, best known for his Oscar-nominated films The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014). The films reckon with the mass murder of more than one million Indonesians largely by paramilitary gangs in 1965-1966, and the lasting impunity of the perpetrators who remain in power. Vanity Fair calledOppenheimer is now working on a new film about the apocalypse. I reached him by Skype in Denmark, and talked to him about how his investigation of impunity in Indonesia relates to America today, and why his new work-in-progress about the apocalypse is a musical.


Karen Nussbaum: Your films take up big questions—globalization and genocide, impunity and culpability. What drew you to this work? It’s pretty dark.

Joshua Oppenheimer: I grew up in a family that was shadowed by the Holocaust. My father’s family and my stepmother’s family were from Germany and Austria. Pretty much everyone in my stepmother’s family was killed in the Holocaust. More people survived in my father’s family, but still, people were killed and people were scattered. So I was aware of genocide from a very young age, and aware of the imperative that this should never happen again. My mother is a union activist and labor lawyer, with the sense that an injustice against anyone is an injury to all of us.

It was a shock to me to understand that American hegemony was built on bloodshed. As part of the spread of American-style capitalism around the world through colonialism and its modern variations, mass violence was always in attendance.

KN: Your first film in Indonesia, The Globalisation Tapes (2003), focuses on that.

JO: This was at the height of the movement for a socially just and responsible form of globalization. The union [the International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers, based in Geneva] wanted to teach rank-and-file food and agricultural workers around the world about what globalization meant to their supply chains and their industries. My collaborator Christine Cynn and I proposed we find a location where workers had faced the violent edge of globalization.

I visited a plantation in Indonesia. It was a moment where you are dropped into the worst of what you have read about and you see that it’s all true. This bracing, awful moment where you hope against hope that it couldn’t be as bad as you think, and then it’s worse. But of course it’s like this. It’s only because we look away, that the stories we tell divert our attention, that we feel surprised when we encounter the reality.

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These palm oil plantation workers worked for a very aptly named Belgian company, Financial Society. The women workers on this plantation were dying of liver failure in their forties. They had the supposedly easy job of spraying the pesticides and the herbicides, as opposed to harvesting the heavy, spiky palm fruits high up in the trees. But they were given no protective clothing. Some of the chemicals they were spraying were totally banned for use in the European Union. They would eat lunch in the fields; they were ingesting it. It was dissolving the fabric of their livers and killing them.

They decided their first demand as a union would be that they shouldn’t have to spray these chemicals. The company responded by hiring a paramilitary group, the Pancasila Youth, to threaten and attack the workers. The workers dropped their demands immediately. I remember saying, “How do you have that choice? It’s terrifying I’m sure, but …” and that’s when they told me about the genocide.

They said all of their parents and grandparents who had been in the union were killed or imprisoned. They are afraid this could happen again because this paramilitary group did the bulk of the killing for the army in this region and they are more powerful than ever. I realized that what’s killing these women is not just poison but also fear. When the film was done, they said please come back and make a film about why after all these years we’re still so afraid.

I was 27 and I just couldn’t look away. I started meeting survivors who came at night, secretly, to tell me their stories. But within days, the army was tracking and threatening them. And we [the filmmakers] started being arrested. I thought it couldn’t work [and prepared to tell the workers]. But when I arrived at a midnight meeting, I found 40 people, families from 30 miles around who had come on the backs of each other’s motorbikes on dirt tracks on the plantations. They said, “You can’t quit. You have to do this somehow.”

KN: In The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, you interview the killers, many of whom are leaders in the community—a newspaper publisher, businessmen, parliamentarians. These pillars of society still embrace the paramilitary organizations as extrajudicial enforcers. This looks so brazen. Is Indonesia an outlier or a parable?

JO: I was drawn to the story of the genocide in Indonesia and spent so many years on it because there was the ethical commitment I felt to the families—but I also saw this as a metaphor for impunity everywhere. I think impunity is the story of our times.

I filmed Indonesian elections where thugs were in charge. It was a charade. I was shocked by the brazenness. My Colombian cinematographer, Carlos Arango, said to me, “You do realize this is how the whole world is organized.” I finished releasing The Look of Silence in 2016. Then Trump was elected. It doesn’t look so brazen to me anymore.

In the face of this impunity, there is a sacred role for the storyteller. We can tell stories which invite people to confront painful truths. To combat the lies of impunity, you are doing the task of the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes. You’re pointing at something uncomfortable that everyone already knows but is too afraid to acknowledge. Even if it’s not fear of being persecuted, maybe it’s fear of being ostracized, fear of finding your society intolerable, and then discovering you don’t have the courage to rise to the call of justice that’s required of you once you realize conditions are intolerable.

The other thing that storytelling does is open the imagination and the heart to people we normally comfortably overlook. And which the stories of the powerful invariably lull us into overlooking. That’s what’s so powerful about the moment we’re living through in the United States. The numbers of Americans of color killed by police aren’t new. The story is not new. But activists change the way stories are being told.

KN: Many of the people you interview talk about who writes history. One of the killers in The Act of Killing says “war crimes are defined by the winner.” And he’s worried that your film will “reverse the story.” As you say, the anti-racist protests today are also tackling the issue of who determines the narrative. When people live under an oppressive narrative for generations, what happens to consciousness? Where do people go in their own heads or in their own communities when the narrative is stacked against them?

JO: For the people I met in Indonesia, it went to prayer, it went to incantation, it went to hope for justice in the afterlife. The power of a social movement is that it provides a new channel in this life, the opportunity for people to take their long-harbored sense of grievance and act on it in public. In the United States, optimistically, we’re in a watershed moment. It could go either way.

The other thing I see in Indonesia is how corruption and systemic disempowerment of the citizen leads to cynicism and a disengagement from the political process. It gives free rein to the powerful to continue being corrupt and beating people into silence. Corruption is so dangerous because it doesn’t just corrupt the officials, it corrupts the entire political system, whatever the constitution.

We have legalized corruption in the U.S. A lot of the corruption that would be nominally illegal in Indonesia is legal in America. The lobbying system, the campaign finance system, this would be illegal but overlooked in Indonesia—but is legal in the U.S.

KN: The historian Anne Applebaum recently wrote: “Sometimes the point isn’t to make people believe a lie—it’s to make people fear the liar.” How important are lies in establishing fear?

JO: When leaders lie to us brazenly and with impunity, it’s a performance of power. “I am immune from any efforts to hold me accountable.” Many communities in the United States live with systemic fear. Not just communities of color, immigrant communities, LGBT communities, but everyone in the middle class and below who are living in fear of economic catastrophe all the time.

And it’s only human to be ashamed of being afraid, especially in a society which lies to us and says, “It’s all down to individual effort. Anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” When you’re told that lie, you’re made ashamed of your own problems, even though in reality they are systemic problems. You’re made ashamed of the oppression you suffer. When we are ashamed, we deny, we look away. We stop looking at problems. That breaks solidarity.

Everyone knows they are being lied to. They are afraid of the repercussions of stating it, but they are also ashamed of that fear, ashamed of having to live their life pretending to believe in a lie.

The moment it becomes, undeniably, a lie is when there arises the possibility for things to change quickly. These two films made it impossible for average people in Indonesia, who were not directly connected to the perpetrators, to continue to pretend that the perpetrators were defending the country. Suddenly, the way the country talked about its past changed, especially among a younger generation, a generation that was not directly complicit nor terrified.

KN: In The Look of Silence, Adi, whose brother was murdered in the genocide, meets with one of the killers from that time who is now ailing, and his daughter. The daughter says she is proud he killed communists but is appalled when he describes some of the atrocities.

JO: Here’s a woman of the next generation who is bound to her father, has to live with him, take care of him, help him to the toilet, feed him, and knows that’s her responsibility in life. [In the interview in the film] her father talks in terms so graphic and vivid that she will forever after have to see this man whom she loves and has to look after as a murderer, as someone who’s done unspeakable things. And despite that connection to him, she took this incredible leap of moral courage and spoke honestly from her heart and said to Adi, “This is awful, this is wrong, and I’m sorry.” That goes to a deeper point about complicity.

We are all complicit, in trivial ways and profound ways. All we can do in a society that is based on exploitation and suffering is to organize, to speak up and to be honest with ourselves. Pick up a $5 T-shirt that you’re wearing and think about the conditions in the sweatshop where it was produced. Look at the iPhone you have and think about the women who threw themselves off the balconies to their deaths in despair at the Foxconn factory in China. Think about the minerals that make this Skype call possible—where they come from and the warlords who hack off the limbs of people [whom they employ as miners] who fight for the tiniest amount of self-determination. Just be aware of our own complicity and act on that. When you don’t, you’re not looking in the mirror and a part of you dies. You go through life with blinders on, distorting, twisting, hollowing out. Everything becomes a no-go area: “I don’t want to think about that, I don’t want to think about that.” And society says, “Good, don’t think about anything. Just think about yourself, your family, and your money.”

KN: Let’s talk about the new film you are working on, The End. What triggered your interest in doomsday and the apocalypse? What’s the line from the Indonesia films to The End?

JO: I’ve been interested in the apocalypse for a long time. Maybe it comes from being named Oppenheimer and growing up in New Mexico in view of Los Alamos, and people assumed I was related to J. Robert Oppenheimer.

I had a longing to make a film on wealth forged in mass violence, the third part of a trilogy of the Indonesian films. But I couldn’t return to Indonesia to do that. (Oppenheimer’s life is in danger in Indonesia.) I was researching other very wealthy families, and one of them was buying a doomsday bunker that was more of a palace than a bunker. I decided to make a film about a family in a bunker 20 years after the world has ended—and to make it a musical.

This family has enriched itself through fossil fuels. It’s now 20 years after the world has ended and they have a son who was born in the bunker. It’s a study in impunity. They tell themselves that this vast tomb is now the pinnacle of civilization, because they are the last family, a Noah’s Ark for a flood that will never subside. The themes grow out of what I explored in The Act of Killing—guilt and denial, the imposition of a narrative by the powerful, the performance of impunity. And remember: Impunity is always performed. It’s not something you can take for granted. You have to assert it with shows of force, which African American communities have seen all over the country forever.

The End is also an exploration of whether we as human beings can come to a place where our guilt is too much to recover from. We are our pasts. And we’re all perpetrators in one way or another.

KN: At first, I thought that making a musical was a big departure. But there’s pageantry and song and dance in The Act of Killing, which is how the killers wanted to tell their story. Why did you choose to use this artistic form to deliver your message?

JO: Musicals are a uniquely American form that embodies a uniquely American cultural phenomenon of radical, groundless optimism. This family, in denial about helping to bring about the end of the world, is trying to celebrate their future when there is no future. That’s just ripe for music and song and being explored in the tradition of the great American musical.

The 1950s was the pinnacle of the white American empire based on greed and radical, baseless optimism. The Golden Age musicals were a singing travel guide into the empire at its height. The End is just the last stop on the tour—the bunker is all that’s left of America.

The other thing about musicals is this idea from Milan Kundera about sentimentality and denial. Kundera has this beautiful quote which I’ll paraphrase: You cry the first tear because something is singularly sad and demands something from you ethically. And you cry a second tear in rapid succession in the awareness that the whole world is crying with you. The second tear is the beginning of sentimentality. That second tear is always escapist.

If you look at both The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, I try to bring the audience to a place where they cry a third tear, where you are weeping for the tragic consequences of lying, the tragic consequences of sentimentality itself. The tragic consequences of escapism.

The musical is a form that is more honest than any other about its own sentimentality. So it’s the right form for bringing the audience to that third tear.

KN: The pandemic is increasing sales in doomsday bunkers. How does the pandemic frame the new project?

JO: The pandemic certainly makes it more timely. It’s interesting to weather the pandemic here in Denmark, where social distancing was something society took on not as a way to protect oneself, but to protect the most vulnerable among us. That’s a response to disaster and collective challenge based on empathy and moral imagination and love and care.

There’s a very different response in parts of the U.S.—a response based on protecting yourself, a response based on fear. And greed is a kind of fear. It’s a fear of death, it’s a fear of not having enough. So to tackle our challenges not from a place of fear but from a place of empathy is a challenge that The End poses, and it couldn’t be more timely.

[Karen Nussbaum is the founding director and a member of the board of Working America, AFL-CIO, and was co-founder and director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women and president of District 925, SEIU.]

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