By Prodita Sabarini | 2013/14 IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow
December 17, 2013
Snow fell heavily the day I interviewed director and author Errol Morris. That was exactly a week ago. Today, the white crystal flakes are again falling from the sky. I feel like I’m in a snow globe.
Morris’ latest documentary film “The Unknown Known” comes from his fascination with a different kind of snowflakes from what I see from my window. These snowflakes are the thousands of internal memos of former US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld when he served under George W. Bush. Included in those are the “torture memos” that authorized inhumane and degrading treatment in interrogating suspected terrorists.
Morris has produced several works on war and injustice. Before “The Unknown Known” he produced “Standard Operating Procedures” about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal; also “The Fog of War” where he interviewed former secretary of defense Robert McNamara during the Vietnam War. What made me curious is that most of the film shows how elusive justice is. “There is no redemption in anything,” he says.
I am in a process in writing a profile on Morris, but there are a few things that I can share in this blog.
The thing that strikes me the most about Morris is his combined pessimistic view of the world and strong sense of humor. I asked how he keeps his sanity in the face of all these injustices. He answers: “How do you know that I am sane?”
He thinks that films do not really bring change, even if in his hearts of heart, he hopes it could.
“The Fog of War” came out in 2003 when the United States was preparing for war. It is clear the film did not stop White House politicians to invade Iraq even though they did not have proof of Saddam Hussein’s connection Al-Qaeda terrorist group that attacked the Twin Towers in 9/11 or evidence that Iraq has weapons of mass destructions.
Morris is also the executive producer of “The Act of Killing”, a film in which death-squad members of the 1965 Indonesian communist purge re-enacted how the killed hundreds of people. He said he admire Oppenheimer’s work in “The Act of Killing” but that he and Oppenheimer has a different view of what can be taken from the movie.
“I would love to think that Josh’s movie has had a powerful effect in Indonesia. But what is the goal? Is the goal people say that we did something terrible? We’ll never do it again? We’ll be good from now on? I don’t think it quite works like that. I think for me, it’s more of just a curiosity. What were people thinking? Were they thinking?” he said.
A couple of months ago, I interviewed “The Act of Killing” director. He told me that for him the boastfulness of the 1965 killers in the film is proof of their humanity. For Oppenheimer, their boastfulness is not caused by immorality, but was proof of their humanity.
“The irony is that the cause of that evil, is not that the perpetrator are immoral evil people but actually that they’re human and they’re moral beings and they know the difference between right and wrong and it’s precisely because they’re moral not immoral that they have to lie to themselves to protect themselves from the terror of guilt,” Oppenheimer said in the interview.
Morris, however, has a different view from Oppenheimer.
“I took away something from Josh’s film very differently from what Josh’s took from, which is fine actually. I love the film and I love Josh, and I’m very proud to be connected with it” he said.
“I got the feeling that somehow all of life is performance and we’re just utterly disconnected from ourselves and what we do and who we are and the meaning of our actions. To me Anwar is a real person and a murderer by his own admission by his own account. It’s like his playing a game with himself and with us, which I find fascinating, and with Josh!” he said referring to Anwar Congo, one of the death squad leader in the film.
I was surprised to hear Morris’ view, and he said: “Well I mean, I have a much more very pessimistic view on everything I believe than Josh.”
Either way, for me both Morris and Oppenheimer’s works give a lot for people to think about, which is the most important thing to prevent people from doing terrible things ever again. To make people think about their actions.
*An Indonesian version of this blog post can be read at proditasabarini.com