“I am not intimidated by the strangeness of the human condition”

The documentaries ‘The Act of Killing’ and ‘The Look of Silence’ uncover Indonesia’s horrific past and reshaped a country’s take on genocide. We spoke to producer Signe Byrge Sørensen about giving screentime to perpetrators and victims alike

As the credits glide over the screen in Sheffield’s ITV Showroom Cinema, the audience is frozen in silence. Entranced, they wait for the end of the credits to roll before erupting into deafening applause while three figures take to the stage.

One of them is director Joshua Oppenheimer, who commences his speech with the following words: “Thank you, to my humble, amazing, patient friend and Danish producer Signe Byrge Sørensen.”

Beside the director Sørensen is the strategist behind the two acclaimed documentary films The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, films which dig deep into Indonesia’s genocidal past.

In an interview after the June screening, Sørensen says her main focus is on supporting the director and their vision. But what she brings to their collaborations is a fearlessness and willingness to take on bold and provocative projects.

“I am very good at not being intimidated by the strangeness of the human condition. I think that is a pretty useful skill to have when producing documentary films.”

Documentary of the imagination
Oppenheimer’s two films document the Indonesian genocides of the 1960s. It’s a period of Indonesian history many would rather forget and Sørensen was aware the films might provoke a political backlash in the country. Despite this, the producer believed the project was too important to turn down.

“Joshua had a great vision of how to portray the theme – in a way I believe he invented a new genre, which I like to call ’documentary of the imagination.’ The way that he worked with the perpetrators when they re-enacted their horrific actions, while also documenting their conversations with each other, was central to the project.

The film as a whole is a portrayal of the current Indonesian political system, and provides an opposing voice to the dominant discourse which existed in the country at the time.” The risky approach generated critical claim for both films. The Act of Killinghas been screened at more than 200 festivals, haswon 62 awards globally and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2014. Similarly, The Look of Silencehas been screened at more than 100 festivals, won 36 awards and could be shortlisted for the 2016 Academy Awards.

Reaction in Indonesia 
Oppenheimer’s two documentaries zero in on a society scarred by atrocities that were committed 50 years ago by a military dictatorship. The Act of Killing shows perpetrators of the genocide reenact their killings, while the The Look of Silence records conversations between one of the surviving victims and several perpetrators. The unique approaches and resonated deeply with a country which, even today, doesn’t openly talk about the atrocities, while former perpetrators and survivors live side-by-side.

Following the release of The Act of Killing, the media evolved its way of describing the killings. Where historically, the events have been depicted as the ‘heroic extermination of vile communists’ – a recognised term for the killings over the past 50 years – they are now increasingly referred to as atrocities or acts of genocide.

“In connection with the Indonesian premiere of The Act of Killing, the Indonesian political magazine Tempo published a special edition of the magazine focused on the film, and the atrocities of 1965-66. Journalists were sent across Indonesia to see if they could locate people like Anwar Congo, a former death squad leader, and get him to repeat his statements from the film. And they could,” says Sørensen. She believes Indonesia has made great strides as a result of this collaborative effort:

“The Tempo articles together with the film meant that other parts of the Indonesian press then dared to write about the events of 1965-66, not as heroic actions but as atrocities. That was a huge step for Indonesia,” says Sørensen.

Sørensen was personally awarded for her work on the film, and took home the prestigious Roos prize in 2014. The Danish Film Institute awards the prize each year for “particularly notable work in Danish documentary.” Sørensen says it was one of the greatest moments of her career.

“It was fantastic and truly surprising to be given the Roosprize. The words that Ane Mandrup from the F i lm Inst itute wrote in my nomination – well they were just overwhelming,” she says.

Mandrup, who sits on the Roos-prize committee and works for the Danish Film Institute, believes Sørensen is top of her producing game:

“At first you can be fooled by Signe’s modesty, but that is a mistake. She knows what she wants and exactly how to accomplish it. She has shown that she is a world-class producer with a vision. That’s why I nominated her,” Mandrup wrote.

For Sørensen, the key to lifting the overall documentary scene in Denmark is through collaboration:

“In the Danish documentary industry we are very generous with each other. I definitely believe that if we just drop the idea of competition and are simply generous with each other we can all become even better.”

Political storytelling
Sørensen’s stories are characterised by depth, detail and objectivity. But Sørensen is also driven to unpick the reality of the world and its power structures.

“I think film is a fantastic medium for showing both political processes at work and revealing to us as citizens the dominant discourse of the day. Through film we can highlight issues which are otherwise overlooked or forgotten. We can ask difficult and unpopular questions and we can expose the power play behind events.”

Crucially, she believes that through the medium, audiences can connect with voices which would otherwise go unheard:

“We can also give prominence to ordinary people who have important stories to tell, and whom we as members of an audience can identify with. Identification through art is important, as art can show each person that he or she is not alone with his or her feelings and struggles.” M

Features, Culture

By Joshua Hollingdale

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