There’s something so exciting about the arrival of a new voice on the movie scene. Sure, we love to see the veterans and masters do their thing, but it’s that adrenaline rush that comes with discovery and potential that really drives a lot of film lovers. When we see an amazing debut, we not only appreciate it on its own, but we can imagine all the great movies to come from people like Jordan Peele, Greta Gerwig, Ryan Coogler, and Ari Aster. It’s a glimpse of the future.
This list of some of the greatest directorial debuts of the 2010s offers a vision of the future of filmmaking that’s diverse, ambitious, daring, and brilliant. We chose the directors based on Tomatometer scores, the impact of their work (awards, box office, general adulation), and, in many cases, the work they would go on to make after their debut or the projects they have teed up. Names like Barry Jenkins and Damien Chazelle may seem like omissions, but they actually had films released pre-2010; other names, like this year’s Phillip Youmans, who made his Certified Fresh debut while still in high school, arguably deserved a place, but we kept to a strict 30 slots. It could have been a much, much longer list.
Without further ado or caveat, here are 30 incredible directing debuts from the last decade. We may be looking back, but it’s because we’re so excited about what’s ahead.
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When he was barely more than a teenager, Derek Cianfrance wrote and directed a small project called Brother Tied that didn’t get a theatrical release, so most consider this 2010 drama his debut. And what a debut! It helps to have two of the best actors of their generation delivering at the top of their game, which is what Cianfrance got from Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling as a couple whom we watch disintegrate in front of our eyes. Both were nominated for Golden Globes and Cianfrance would go on to work with Gosling again in 2012’s Certified Fresh The Place Beyond the Pines.
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Given how much she would go on to accomplish with acclaimed works like Selma, 13th, and When They See Us – not to mention as a producer and mentor – it’s almost hard to believe that Ava DuVernay’s directorial debut came just this decade. The former publicist turned heads with this independent drama about a woman (Salli Richardson-Whitfield) forced to take care of a sick aunt (Beverly Todd). Shot in only 11 days on a shoestring budget, it’s easy to see the talent that would turn DuVernay into a household name over the next 10 years.
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Long before her Oscar-nominated Mudbound, Dee Rees wrote and directed this 2011 Sundance gem, a film about a young woman dealing with her emerging homosexuality. Adepero Oduye stars as Alike, a 17-year-old who becomes more comfortable with her lesbian identity, even as she faces pushback from her family and community. It’s a tender, honest film that only makes one wish that Rees would work more often – it was six years between Sundance premieres for the filmmaker.
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Sometimes a great new director is announced with a small, intimate cast – sometimes it’s with a ridiculous ensemble that includes more than one Oscar winner. J.C. Chandor was blessed enough to find himself directing Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto, and more in this riveting look at the beginning of the financial crisis that was still fresh in investors’ minds when the film was released in 2011. Chandor used this well-received film as a launchpad and directed three other Fresh films before the decade was over – All is Lost, A Most Violent Year, and Triple Frontier.
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Most Sundance veterans will tell you that they remember specific world premieres, one of them being the 2012 launch of Beasts of the Southern Wild, a heartfelt, poetic look at childhood that would go on to land Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. (It would also gift us with an incredible on-camera talent in Quvenzhané Wallis.) There’s something transcendent about this film, which announced a major new talent who took way too long to make a follow-up. The good news is that Zeitlin finally has finally done that: Wendy will also have its world premiere at Sundance in January 2020, and it will likely be the hottest ticket of the festival.
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Fans of Drew Goddard’s writing on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost weren’t too shocked to discover he could also write and direct a kick-ass movie too, but even they were a little blown away by this modern horror classic. Subverting the tropes of most scary stories about beautiful people in remote cabins, Goddard’s directorial debut was a much-needed jolt of genre adrenaline at a time when audiences weren’t really taking horror movies all that seriously. He would go on to write The Martian and write and direct another subversive puzzle film, 2018’s Bad Times at the El Royale.
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Before she gave the world Hustlers, Lorene Scafaria wrote and directed this quirky comedy starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley in what’s basically a pre-apocalyptic buddy movie. When it’s announced that an asteroid is going to hit the planet, Carell’s sad sack goes on a road trip with his neighbor to find the true love of his life before it’s too late. Scafaria proved adept at directing performers, a skill further deployed in 2015’s The Meddler and 2019’s Hustlers, which is starting to rack up awards this season.
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After producing films in Indonesia in the 2000s, Joshua Oppenheimer decided to make his first feature documentary about the open wound in that country, namely the mass genocide that took place from 1965 to 1966, the perpetrators of which were never brought to justice. His masterstroke is in allowing the violent war criminals to reenact their own crimes, using the power of the camera against them. The final scenes, in which one of the leaders of the death squad finally comes to terms with his own sinful past, are unforgettable. Don’t miss the companion film, The Look of Silence.
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Few directors have made as much of an impact in a relatively small amount of time as Ryan Coogler, who has directed three films and has yet to notch a Tomatometer score under 94%. Everyone on Earth knows about Creed and Black Panther, but his debut was back in 2013 with Fruitvale Station, the true story of the tragic murder of Oscar Grant, a young man killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer in 2009. It was also the first major film role for Michael B. Jordan, who would go on to star in all of Coogler’s films. Their relationship seems likely to produce quality through the next decade and beyond.
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The life of Argentinian filmmaker Andres Muschietti changed forever when Guillermo del Toro saw a three-minute short he made with his sister called Mama — he would go on to develop it into a feature under the eye of del Toro. Jessica Chastain gives a fearless performance as a woman trying to deal with two children found in the woods, protected by a supernatural entity known only as Mama. Muschietti proved he had enough of a gift with atmosphere here that WB tapped him to direct two of the biggest horror movies of the decade in the It flicks. And it all started with the right person seeing just a few minutes of film.
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Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent shook Park City and then the rest of the world in 2014, when she dropped her fable of parental grief and fear in the amazing The Babadook. Adapting her own short film, Monster, Kent directed Essie Davis in the story of a single mother trying to deal with the sudden loss of her husband while raising a troublesome child. Oh, and there’s a horrible creature in the basement too. (Or is there?) The wave of highbrow horror that ended the 2010s likely doesn’t crest as high without The Babadook, a masterpiece of tension that weaves relatable emotions into a ghost story and felt like an instant classic the first time we saw it. Kent followed it with this year’s Certified Fresh The Nightingale.
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Don’t take just our word for it: Sundance named Justin Simien a “Breakthrough Talent” by giving him a special award after the world premiere of his brilliant 2014 dramedy about life on a black campus in the 2010s. Tessa Thompson plays Samantha White, a student at Winchester University, a mostly white school. Simien uses White to branch off and introduce us to a fascinating ensemble of players, instantly becoming one of the most interesting young voices in cinema on modern issues of race and class. He adapted the film into an acclaimed Netflix series – all three seasons are Certified Fresh – and has finally directed a follow-up that will premiere at Sundance 2020, Bad Hair.
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What do most of these breakthrough debuts have in common? They announce distinct new voices. No one else on Earth could have made A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a black-and-white “Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western.” It’s not like we get one of those movies every weekend at the multiplex. The minute Ana Lily Amirpour landed on the scene, we knew that her voice was going to be her own, something proven further by The Bad Batch, her even crazier follow-up. Love or hate her films, they aren’t like anything else.
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It’s actually less common than you think for successful screenwriters to segue smoothly into the director’s chair, as the two roles sometimes take different skill sets. It turns out that it wasn’t a problem for Dan Gilroy, who may be an even better director than he was a writer, as proven by this 2014 award-winner that stars Jake Gyllenhaal as an L.A.-based man who gets hooked on getting raw and often bloody footage for local news. Gilroy directed Gyllenhaal to one of the best performances of his career in a film that feels just as timely now as it did five years ago.
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Alex Garland wasn’t your typical newcomer when he dropped his 2014 directorial debut. After all, he had been a regular collaborator with Danny Boyle as the writer on 28 Days Later… and Sunshine, and even dabbled in video game writing. And yet Ex Machina still felt like an introduction to a major new talent. The story of a man who develops a doomed relationship with a daring new form of A.I. was so well-received that Garland landed an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. And there are people who will tell you that his follow-up, 2018’s Certified Fresh Annihilation, was even better.
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Hungarian director László Nemes proved that there are still stories to tell about the Holocaust with this terrifying vision of life in Auschwitz near the end of World War II. Géza Röhrig plays Saul, a man deeply numbed by the horror of what he’s had to do as a Sonderkommando, the Jewish prisoners who were forced to assist the SS. When he becomes determined to give a murdered child a proper burial, Son of Saul becomes a story of purpose in a place designed to crush the human spirit. With impeccable sound design and a visual style that puts viewers in Saul’s shoes, this was a debut admired around the world, all the way to an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
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Marielle Heller has been so successful this decade that it’s hard to believe that her debut was only four years ago. Since then she’s directed two films with Tomatometer scores above 95% in Can You Ever Forgive Me? and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. She’s clearly one of the most interesting directors working today, and it all started with this adaptation of the Phoebe Gloeckner novel, starring Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, and Kristen Wiig. Heller has had a gift with character from the beginning, presenting people who feel three-dimensional without ever sinking to melodrama.
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Chloé Zhao earned raves and awards nominations for her Certified Fresh 2017 drama The Rider, but that film wouldn’t have happened were it not for her debut two years earlier with 2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me. Developed through the Sundance Institute, Zhao’s film takes place in a setting we don’t often see even in independent cinema: an Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It’s the veracity of Zhao’s filmmaking that really put her on the map and made her one of the most interesting directors of the 2010s. Her debut was so well-received that it was selected for the Directors Fortnight at Cannes. Oh, and she caught the eye of Marvel, too.
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With only two films under his belt, Robert Eggers has already developed his own distinct voice, playing with sound design and American history in The Witch and The Lighthouse. When the former premiered at Sundance, it had unsuspecting viewers literally crying in their seats with its suffocating use of atmosphere and dread. Eggers helped usher in what many consider a new golden age of horror, and he did so with a period piece that uses almost entirely natural lighting and slow builds without jump scares. Audiences were polarized, but critics fell in love with Eggers instantly.
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The holidays bring out the best and worst in us. Few modern films capture this with as much harrowing truth as Trey Edward Shults’ 2015 debut, a drama that could just as easily be classified as a horror film. Shults cast his real-life aunt Krisha Fairchild in the title role, a woman who comes home on Thanksgiving to reconnect with a family that really doesn’t want her there. As animosities bubble to the surface and turkeys crash to the floor, it becomes clearer that you’re watching a major new talent, one who would go on to direct two more Certified Fresh films before the end of the decade in It Comes at Night and Waves.
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A young vegetarian develops a taste for human flesh in one of the most striking horror movie debuts in a generation. Garance Marillier plays Justine, a new student who stumbles into a hazing ritual in which she’s forced to eat raw meat, and things go very downhill from there. Moving from rabbit to chicken to her sister’s finger, Justine enters a downward spiral of body horror that owes a debt to genre masters like David Cronenberg or George A. Romero but signals the arrival of a unique talent at the same time. We’re just hungry for another movie.
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Arguably the most critically acclaimed directorial debut of the entire decade, Jordan Peele’s Get Out was an earthquake in the movie scene, shaking up the industry in ways we haven’t seen in years. Have you wondered why horror movies are everywhere to end the decade – including in the form of Peele’s Certified Fresh follow-up, Us? One of the main reasons is that this half of Key & Peele won an Oscar for writing and directing arguably the best one in a generation, a movie that distills modern issues of race into a narrative that Rod Serling would have adored.
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An unusual character study that’s also kind of about architecture isn’t an easy sell for audiences, but Kogonada’s Columbus has been building a loyal fanbase since the day it premiered at Sundance. John Cho does career-best work as a man named Jin who comes to Columbus, Indiana after his estranged father falls ill there. Unable to leave until his father recovers, he’s stuck in a small town that isn’t even home, drawn to a young woman named Casey, the wonderful Haley Lu Richardson. How we move through this world and how we sometimes get stuck in strange places are themes of Kogonada’s masterfully nuanced debut.
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Actress Greta Gerwig technically co-directed Nights and Weekends with regular collaborator Joe Swanberg, but this Oscar-nominated film was her solo directorial debut, and it was one of the most impactful of the decade. Saoirse Ronan stars as the title character, a Sacramento-based teenager trying to figure out what’s next in her life. Gerwig displayed a remarkable gift with performance and character right out of the gate and has already proven that she’s no one-hit wonder in that regard with her Certified Fresh adaptation of Little Women.
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The movement of high-quality horror arguably reached its apex with 2018’s Hereditary, the directorial debut of Ari Aster, a filmmaker who distilled influences like Roman Polanski and John Carpenter into something that felt new and terrifying. Toni Collette does some of the best work of her notable career as Annie Graham, a woman dealing with grief before being blindsided by unimaginable tragedy. There are a lot of horror directors who are good with tension and atmosphere, but Aster balances that half of his skill set by being a deft director of performance too, drawing daring work from Collette, and then again from Florence Pugh in his acclaimed follow-up Midsommar.
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The genius behind the legendary rap group The Coup used the same subversive energy he brought to that project when he made his first feature film, a stunning satire that feels like the love child of Terry Gilliam and George Clinton. Lakeith Stanfield stars as a young man who climbs the corporate ladder of a telemarketing company to discover the poisonous culture that lives on top. The plot is smart, but what makes this such a stunning debut is the style and ambition Riley brought to it. It’s the kind of project that makes one instantly curious about what the filmmaker does next.
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Some actors segue to the director’s chair with more grace than others. Bradley Cooper not only took to that chair with ease, but he did so in a film he also co-wrote, produced, and starred and sang his heart out in. Remaking the classic William Wellman film for another generation, Cooper knew exactly how to make this classic story connect with modern audiences, stepping out of the spotlight so Lady Gaga could dominate it in the way only she can. The big moments in A Star is Born are already iconic, but what makes this so promising is the way Cooper directs the small, character-driven scenes too. It feels like he could do literally any kind of film he wants for his follow-up.
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Brought to life through the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs with the help of backing from Kickstarter, Nia DaCosta’s debut was so well-received that Jordan Peele tapped her to direct his anticipated remake of Candyman. What did he see in this debut? A balance of character work with greater themes about the state of large sections of a country that has been devastated by the drug trade. Tessa Thompson stars as a former drug runner in North Dakota who is forced into one final job across the Canadian border.
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Breakthrough filmmaker Mati Diop clearly learned a thing or two about filmmaking by working with the legendary Claire Denis, but what elevates Atlantics beyond its dreamy visuals is the sense that this is a deeply personal story for the French-Senegalese actress/director. The story of an oceanside community in Senegal, and the class and gender issues that seem to control it, led Diop to become the first black female director ever to appear in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, where her film won the Grand Prix.
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It’s hard to make a memorable directorial debut with a teen comedy. Most of them are pretty disposable, and they don’t often allow for a director to really show their skills. That’s one of the reasons that Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart felt like such a splash of cold water this year – it’s fresh, new, daring, and wonderfully directed. Not only does Wilde fully embrace the flaws of her teenage characters, she proves that she knows how to use music, editing, and composition to turn what could have been an average comedy into something extraordinary.
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One of 2013’s most discussed and lauded films, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing takes a by-turns chilling, humorous, and insightful tour in the company of Indonesia’s infamous death squad leaders — the men behind a series of 1965 massacres that were among the worst in history — as they gleefully recreate their crimes through the skewed lens of old Hollywood movies and bizarre musical numbers. With The Act of Killing arriving on Blu-ray and DVD this week — and collecting an Oscar-nomination for Best Documentary — we spoke with Oppenheimer on how the film has generated new forms of dialogue with audiences, the nature of what he calls “the humanity of evil,” and his conflicted relationship with his “star” — charismatic mass murderer Anwar Congo.
It’s been a tremendous year for this film: people are still discussing it, it topped Sight and Sound‘s year-end poll — even though you got a bad review in the magazine. How does it feel to still be talking about The Act of Killing, all this time later?
Joshua Oppenheimer: Well, above all it’s been pleasing, and a great honor, that viewers and critics — but especially viewers all over the world, above all in Indonesia but everywhere — have opened themselves to the film’s painful, mysterious, and complicated message. By allowing themselves to approach men like Anwar Congo and his friends through my intimacy with them, through my closeness with them, they choose to become close to Anwar and his friends, and see a small part of themselves in men like Anwar. I think in that moment something else happens that I think is pretty radical — the whole paradigm in which we divide up the world into good guys and bad guys collapses, and people start to ask all kinds of questions about their own humanity and the nature of evil. I think that reaction, and the courage that it takes people to go through that, is really heartening to me. Especially when that reaction has taken place in Indonesia.
So yes, it’s a long time to be talking about the same thing [laughs], but I’ve learned a lot about the film through the audience. You finish a film not in the editing, but in the conversations that audiences have with themselves — and in that sense every viewer is making a slightly different film. And that’s wonderful. I’ve learned a lot. Of course, there is some repetition, but above all it’s invigorating, because the film that took eight years to make has grown millions of manifestations of itself when everyone sees it.
It’s interesting that you say the film invites a dialogue with the audience, because it doesn’t take the easy path of condemning these men. What’s something you learned about the film from that dialogue — say from an audience reaction — that you perhaps didn’t think about before?
Oppenheimer: That’s a really good question. How would I answer that? There’s so many things I’ve learned, but what’s the most interesting thing I’ve learned from an audience reaction? Two things, I guess, and they’re related. First of all, there was a very striking moment when someone said, “You have forgiven Anwar.” And I said, “I don’t feel that that’s my role. I don’t feel like either forgiving or condemning is my role. It’s not my purpose, for me to do that; I’m not a court.” And the viewers have corrected me there on a number of occasions, and said, “No, by seeing the human being beyond the actions, that is forgiveness. That is what forgiveness is.” And that left a pretty strong impression on me as I thought about who I am after making this film. And whatever viewer told me that — I don’t remember, for such a precious lesson it’s a pity I don’t remember who told me that — that left a strong impression on me.
The other thing that’s somehow related to that is about where Anwar is at the end of the film. I’ve resisted the notion that Anwar is in any way redeemed, and I think that’s correct — I don’t think that he is redeemed. I think that some people have been quick to say that there’s this catharsis at the end. It may be cathartic for the viewer to discover in Anwar that, despite everything, there remains this indigestible residue of humanity that physically and morally rejects what he’s done. Once I was asked very, very plainly, “Does Anwar regret what he’s done?” Instead of saying “Did Anwar feel remorse?” which would involve Anwar more reflectively considering his own feelings, the question “Does he regret what he’s done?” stood out as immediately easy to answer. I said, “Yes, of course he regrets what he’s done; he’s been tormented by it for years.” That also was a discovery.
And then of course, what I was trying to emphasize, the biggest discovery about the film was its capacity to stand as a mirror for people. The whole method is that it’s a dark mirror for Anwar, but it’s also a dark mirror for Indonesian society as a whole, and it’s a dark mirror for all of us. And perhaps that capacity of the film to stand as a mirror, and the willingness of people from all over the world to look into that mirror, however dark the image they see there, has been really heartening and, by implication, a real discovery for me.
It’s that familiar scenario that many have commented on: the banality of evil. Because the killers are very human, it makes it possible for an audience to see themselves in them.
Oppenheimer: You made a leap there, which is good, but I think that it’s worth pausing and reflecting on. The film shows something by approaching Anwar and his friends as human beings. Unless we see them as human we won’t be able to understand how we do this to each other, and the effects — how we as humans, after having done such things, live with ourselves, and the effects of the stories, the lies, we tell ourselves to justify our actions because we’re human. You talk about the banality of evil, but what I think the film is really exploring, somehow, is the humanity of evil; the involvement of our humanity and morality — not immorality — in the practice of evil. And what I mean by that is, I think one of the most frightening things the film witnesses, and you see it all the more starkly in the longer director’s cut of the film, is the way that because we’re human, after we commit atrocities we have to lie to ourselves to justify what we’ve done. And that is not a sign of our immorality, that’s a sign of our humanity, and our morality — our vulnerability to the tormenting effects of guilt.
Anwar and his friends have won, and in having won they’re been part of writing a victor’s history. As one of them says in the film, If you can get away with killing and you get paid enough for it, go ahead and do it. But then you must make up an excuse so you can live with yourself afterwards, and you must cling to that excuse for dear life. Well Anwar and his friends — and there’s a whole section about the anti-communist propaganda in the longer version of the film — have clung to the lies justifying what they’re done for dear life, so that they can live with their selves. Although they know they’re false, they’ve acted as if they’re true, because that’s the only way that they can live with themselves. To maintain those lies, it inevitably leads to a downward spiral of further lies and corruption that can only end, somehow, in a moral vacuum. Now they have to blame their victims for what they’re done, because that’s what the propaganda says — that it’s the victim’s fault. They have to dehumanize the victims, because it’s much easier for them to live with themselves if the victims are not fully human in their eyes. And above all, they must kill again, or torture again, because the government now says to Anwar and his friends, “Kill this group of people, for the same reason that you killed the first group.” If they refuse, it’s equivalent to admitting it was wrong the first time.
So the repetition, this hypothetical repetition that I’m talking about, happens not because Anwar is a sadistic monster who carries on blindly committing evil, but because he’s a human, and being human he knows what he’s done is wrong and he can’t cope with that. So we see here, in the longer cut of the film, in the terrible sequence of film noir scenes that culminates in Anwar playing the victim at the end. In that movement through sadism, before Anwar finds himself in the victims’ chair, I think we somehow start to feel that remorse that he starts to feel in the nightmare sequences when he burns down the village. Remorse is painful for Anwar. Instead of reacting to it with more remorse, he reacts to it with sadism. He pushes it away. He gets angry, because he feels hurt. Having killed has damaged him, and who does he blame for that? He blames the victims, and throws himself all the more readily and despairingly into his sadism, and finds himself playing the victim. If there’s a single omission from the shorter version of the film, it’s that sequence. The whole rhythm of the director’s cut, the pace, the peculiar pauses that allow you to rest after moments of real violence, the whole structure and pace is all building up to that final descent into Hell.
But both versions of the film witness that so much of what we call evil may stem from our morality. And this is counter-intuitive and it’s very frightening, because it shows that not only are there not evil people among us who we could somehow deal with if we could find them, but evil is not a sectioned-off part of ourselves — it is an integral part of who we are, and it has something to do, I think, with despair, and surrender, and anger. It ultimately comes down to humanity, and in witnessing that last act in The Act of Killing, certainly in the long version, viewers are seeing “Oh no, this is who we are” in a very frightening way.
Next, Oppenheimer on how he got access to the death squads to tell their stories, and his thoughts on the relationship he’s developed with Anwar Congo.
The scene is frightening because, like a lot of the film, it’s mixed up in not only real terror but a very dark humor at the same time. There’s something I did want to ask you about, for the people who perhaps haven’t read this before. Going back to the beginning, you originally set out to make a documentary on the survivors of the massacres, before you were put in touch with these guys. Did you come up against any resistance? Weren’t they suspicious of you?
Oppenheimer: Oh yeah, that’s right — when we began making the film. Did I come up against resistance when I started working with the perpetrators? I started this whole project working with survivors in this small plantation village, and when the army got wind of the fact that the survivors were participating in the film, they told them not to participate any more. They survivors with whom I was living said, “Okay, Josh — if you can’t film with us, before you give up you should try and film the aging death squad leaders living around us, because they may be able to tell you how our loved ones were killed.” So I approached these men — one of them was living directly across from where I was staying — I approached these men cautiously, unsure if it was safe to talk to them about the past and the killings, but to my horror every single one of them was immediately open and boastful about what they’d done. I don’t know why those first perpetrators I met weren’t suspicious of me, given that I was living with the relatives of the people they’d killed, but perhaps that coexistence was so normal to them that it didn’t signify much. Perhaps the army, not wanting to worry them, hadn’t told them that I was exploring that stuff that happened in 1965.
In any case, we got away with it in the first village. Then, when I showed that footage to those survivors that wanted to see it, and the human rights community, they told me to continue. They said, “Keep filming the perpetrators, you’re on to something terribly important. Through this material you can expose the entire regime.” So I obliged and filmed every perpetrator I could find over two years, by which time I’d moved far enough away from the orbit of the small community of survivors that there wasn’t so much of a risk of people finding out what I was up to. If I was being monitored by the military or the government, I had worked myself so far up the chain of command of the perpetrators that I thinking the low-level intelligence officers — if they were monitoring me — wouldn’t dare raise suspicions with such powerful men at that level. Some of them will be in my next film, which is forthcoming. So through the process I don’t think there was much suspicion of me.
What was your pitch?
My pitch was very simple. As I filmed perpetrator after perpetrator they would tell me stories, often with smiles on their faces, often in front of their wives, children or little grandchildren, and then afterwards say “Hey, I can take you to the place where I killed?” and the next day we would go. At the location they would tell me what they had done and then launch into these sort of spontaneous demonstrations of how they killed, and often they would bring along props. If they’d forgotten to bring along props they would complain: “Oh, I should have brought along a machete.” Sometimes they’d bring along friends to play victims, as well. So the scene on the roof with Anwar, where he shows how he killed the wire and dances the Cha, Cha, Cha, that in fact was the very first day that I met him; that was typical of a first day of filming with a perpetrator in North Sumatra. Anwar was the 41st perpetrator I’d filmed, so by that time I’d filmed dozens, and long before I’d said to them, “Look, you’ve participated in one of the biggest killings in human history, I want to understand what it means to you and your society; you want to tell me what you’ve done, so go ahead and show me in whatever way you wish. I will film the process, but I’ll also film you and your fellow death squad members talking about preparing those reenactments. In that way I’ll make a film that shows what this means to your society, and how you want to be seen.”
I could be that open with them because they were that open with me — if not about their feelings about what they’d done, but at least about the facts of what they’d done. The method was not a trick to get them to open up — this method of reenactment — it was a response to their openness, a way of trying to understand why they’re so open. I lingered on Anwar, not because I was looking for the right main character, but because his pain was close to the surface — even if he was doing something as grotesquely boastful as dancing where he’d killed hundreds of people. In fact, it’s not boastful — it’s a manifestation of radical denial. I started to intuit that his boasting was not really a sign of pride, but a sign of the opposite — that all of these men know what they’ve done is wrong. They’re boasting because they’ve never been forced to admit it was wrong by some invading army or a court.
The oblivion that Anwar and Herman exist in often makes them come off like big kids. It reminded me a little of Idi Amin. Did you ever see the Barbet Schroeder documentary on him?
Oppenheimer: Yeah, it’s wonderful. One of my very, very favorite films.
In that film, even though you know what Amin’s up to, you can’t help but laugh because he’s very charming — albeit in an entirely deranged manner. I felt a little of that in Anwar, although, as you say, you can see the denial bubbling under.
Oppenheimer: I’ve always talked about that humanity, but I think with Idi Amin there’s something else going on with his enjoying an act. There’s a way with which Idi Amin is filmed enjoying an act. And Anwar is enjoying his act, and enjoying acting in the film, but because he’s told us that he would walk out of the cinema, out of an Elvis Presley vehicle in 1965, and enjoy the intoxication of his cinematic identification with Elvis and dance across the street and kill happily, there’s a kind of radical denial into which Anwar slips, into which I slip with him, as he enjoyed the act of making the film much in the same way as he would have enjoyed the act he had to throw himself into in order to carry out the act of killing.
There’s a very strong sense that you’re empathizing with Anwar as the film progresses, and I know that you’ve stayed in touch with him. Did you find yourself at a point where you were enjoying making this film? Not in the sense that you were enjoying the subject matter, but that perhaps you had warmed to Anwar’s company.
Oppenheimer: There were many levels of enjoyment in making the film. I had the most wonderful Indonesian crew. They were my second family and dearest friends. We had a lot of fun making this film, although it was very painful as well. The making of this film gave many of us pretty tough nightmares and insomnia and so on. Of course I could enjoy Anwar as another human being: he’s funny, he’s charming; you’ve seen it in the film. That open view to Anwar is an essential part of how the film works. We open to Herman and Anwar because they’re funny, they’re generous, they’re charming — and then they do something terrible, and we’re forced to confront the humanity of evil. I opened to him as well. I think I had to, in order to deal honestly with him as a human being. I made a decision that I would never make the leap from thinking because Anwar has done something monstrous I will treat Anwar as a monster at all times; I will treat him as human at all times. And to treat someone as human is to be open to them and allow yourself to be close to them and be charmed by them or to like them. So of course I liked Anwar at times; of course I liked parts of Anwar. The frightening aspect of that is what that reveals: that liking somebody — whether someone’s likeable or nice — is wholly immaterial. In fact, being likeable and nice may make it easier for some people to commit evil. It’s the very thing I was saying earlier: committing evil does not depend on being a monster. And yet I will say one thing as well. I would feel a deep internal resistance every time I would have to go back to Anwar unexpectedly. If, say at the end of a day of shooting I’d forgotten something at his house and I had to go back and collect it, or if I had to call Anwar an extra times, or if I had to go visit — and even now I stay in touch with him; I want to stay in touch with him; I care for him — I’m conflicted about it.
The Act of Killing is released on Blu-ray and DVD this week, and is available through iTunes, Netflix and VOD.
The 23rd Annual Gotham Independent Film Awards were celebrated on December 2nd at the Cipriani Wall Street in New York City. Inside Llewyn Davis was the big winner of the evening awarded as Best Feature of 2013. Fruitvale Station took home the two breakthrough categories with Michael B. Jordan receiving the Breakthrough Actor award and Ryan Coogler the Breakthrough Director. See the complete list of winners and nominees below.
Inaugurated in 1991, the Gotham Awards seek to honor the very best in independent filmmaking every year, including foreign films.
The BFI’s venerable Sight & Sound magazine has voted on its favorite movies of 2013, with Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing — the documentary that infamously depicts Indonesian war villains re-enacting their atrocities — taking first place.
Gravity and Blue is the Warmest Color continue to factor in to year-end proceedings, and there was more well-deserved love for both Jia’s A Touch of Sin and Cahiers du Cinema‘s fave, Stranger by the Lake.
Bafflingly, The Croods remains neglected.
The top 10 follows. For more, including commentary and the staff’s personal picks, head over to the magazine, here.
1. The Act of Killing (Dir: Joshua Oppenheimer)
2. Gravity (Dir: Alfonso Cuáron)
3. Blue is the Warmest Color (Dir: Abdellatif Kechiche)
4. The Great Beauty (Dir: Paolo Sorrentino )
5. Frances Ha (Dir: Noah Baumbach)
6. (tie) Upstream Color (Dir: Shane Carruth) / A Touch of Sin (Dir: Jia Zhang Ke)
8. The Selfish Giant (Dir: Clio Barnard)
9. (tie) Norte, the End of History (Dir: Lav Diaz) / Stranger by the Lake (Dir: Alain Guiraudie)