SXSW 2015: Alison Bechdel, Joshua Openheimer & Maria Hinojosa talk Storytelling
Maria Hinojosa, the executive producer and anchor of Latino USA on NPR, led a discussion between two leading lights in their respective fields; graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel and documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer. Bechdel’s last two works, the groundbreaking “Fun Home,” about her childhood and, more specifically, her closeted father, and “Are You My Mother?” which explores her relationship with her mother through the prism of psychoanalytic theory. Oppenheimer’s last two films, The Act of Killing (2012) and his latest, The Look of Silence, focus on the mass executions of accused Communists in Indonesia.
Bechdel began the panel by reading from that incandescent graphic memoir “Fun Home,” and she described how as a child she loved to draw but, unlike most people, she simply never stopped. She described the allure of the cartoon and graphic novels as a marriage of two forms, words and images, that become something more when combined. She loved letters, the alphabet, the way letters looked, and found that combining letters and images gave her a numinous experience. Bechdel’s father killed himself shortly after she came out, and she described her need to tell stories to make sense of her strange childhood and the aftermath of this tragedy.
Oppenheimer’s companion films about the mass killings in Indonesia, The Act of Killing and the film he was at SXSW to promote, The Look of Silence, have a special place in the history of documentary filmmaking. He said he was drawn to filmmaking because he wanted to making his calling in life an exploration of the world. With The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, he said some of the themes he was exploring were impunity, the boasting of perpetrators, and how a people could live in silence and fear for so long. Indonesians live amongst, sometimes right next door to, the very people who murdered their loved ones, but for years no one spoke of it. Eschewing the notion of cinémé verité, the idea of a filmmaker and his crew becoming invisible so they can capture real life as it happens (an impossibility unless you’re spying on someone), Oppenheimer’s method is to intervene and “create occasions” with his subjects, as he so memorably did with the war criminals he focused on in The Act of Killing. This was achieved to surreal effect in The Act of Killing, when Anwar Congo, Oppenheimer’s main subject, and several of his fellow executioners decided to make a movie of their brutal exploits within Oppenheimer’s own documentary. Incredibly, The Look of Silence might represent an even more unprecedented feat—the family member of a victim of mass murder confronting the man who killed his own brother.
Oppenheimer’s views on the role of filmmaker, crew and subject are fascinating. He explained that both The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence depended on the phenomenon that his filming apparatus—the camera, his crew—creates with his subjects. This apparatus pushes the filmmaker and the subject beyond their comfort zone. “Whenever you film anybody, nobody acts natural, everyone acts,” Oppenheimer said. “We start to dramatize an idealized image of ourselves.” The camera renders everyone an actor, but in doing so, it allows you to see the way the person wants to be seen, which then reveals something essential about them that you might not be able to get at were there no camera and crew around. In The Act of Killing, you watch as Anwar Congo struts, cavalierly recalling, often in great detail, his methods for murdering people. Throughout the course of the film, however, the toll this has taken on Congo becomes clear, and in the film’s final minutes an extraordinary transformation occurs, on camera, that left this viewer breathless.
When asked about how they edit their own work, how to know what to leave out, Bechdel described it as a constant interrogation of yourself as to what it is you’re really trying to say. Anything that doesn’t aid in that journey must be cut out. Oppenheimer describes his editing process as a continuation of the exploration. The Act of Killing needed to be whittled down from more than 1,200 hours of footage into the two hour and forty minute film that was released in 43 of 44 countries—the only country he had to cut his preferred cut down further, to two hours, was America (he strongly suggests that you watch the film as it wants to be, in its longer form, than the amputated version). The last third of the editing process is when he tries to translate the mystery of his experience onto the screen. It’s an attempt, he says, that means trying to translate something beyond words.
Nimbly moderated by Hinojosa, a renown journalist, it was a profound pairing of talents that had, for my money, two very moving moments; one was when a young woman got up and, through tears, thanked Oppenheimer for The Act of Killing, a film she said helped her father finally discuss what his experiences in Indonesia were like and why he moved the family away, and a second was Oppenheimer thanking Bechdel—when he was a teenager and only out to his sister, the two of them would act out her comic strip, Dykes to Watch out For, allowing him to feel fully like himself.