How Joshua Oppenheimer Created Two of the Best Movies of the Decade

The Look of Silence is about an ophthalmologist who confronts the perpetrators of a genocide that killed his brother
The Look of Silence is about an ophthalmologist who confronts the perpetrators of a genocide that killed his brother

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, about Indonesia’s 1965 genocide of more than half a million alleged “communists,” was not only the best documentary of 2012 but also one of the finest films of the past decade. In it Oppenheimer persuaded the perpetrators of mass murder to re-enact their crimes on camera.

No surprise, then, that his companion piece to that effort, The Look of Silence (which debuted to raves at last year’s New York Film Festival), is also masterful. An intellectually rigorous, emotionally wrenching return to the subject of Indonesia’s genocide and its present-day impact, Oppenheimer’s latest shifts its gaze from the murderers to a family of survivors. They’re led by Adi, an ophthalmologist who sets out to conduct interviews with those who perpetrated the government’s anti-communist massacres (including the murder of his brother Ramli), and who still hold prominent positions in the country today.

On the eve of the film’s premiere in New York, Oppenheimer discussed the reasons he chose to return to the subject, the dangers the project entailed, and the way in which both of his documentaries are, fundamentally, about cinema. He'll be in L.A. at the Nuart this Friday through Sunday, July 24 to 26, and Sunday, Aug. 2, to do Q&As after the 4:50 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. shows.

Why make a companion piece to The Act of Killing?

The Look of Silence is much closer, in theme, to what I initially set out to do. All of the film’s perpetrators are people I knew from the two years before I met Anwar [Congo, a killer seen in The Act of Killing]. So chronologically, although it comes second, it comes first in my heart and head. And I can see people seeing it first and then going to see The Act of Killing — from what I’ve heard, it works just as well, maybe better.

The scene in The Look of Silence which is the genesis of both films, and the genesis of my commitment to spend a decade on this, is where [government-supported murderers] Amir Hasan and Inong walk down to the river and take turns playing victim and perpetrator, re-enacting with glee as Inong produces a knife as a prop, which he thought to bring from home, and Amir Hasan complains that he didn’t think to bring a machete. That was in January 2004. I was traumatized by that afternoon’s filming.

How did they seem different from the other killers you’d interviewed previously?

They weren’t the first perpetrators I’d filmed, but what I’d done that was new there was to bring two perpetrators who scarcely knew each other together, to see how they would speak. They were from neighboring villages; they didn’t really know each other; they didn’t kill together. And I had this feeling, at once, that they were reading from a shared script.

That transformed and elevated the boasting I’d up to that point seen from individual perpetrators, in the sense that I recognized at once that their boasting was political and collective. I imagined that, if the Nazis had won and the aging SS officers were allowed to go back to their villages, maybe they would be unofficially encouraged — though Hitler said famously quite the opposite, that, should they win, they should never speak of this glorious but painful chapter in their history — to tacitly boast about what they had done, so they’d become feared proxies of an ongoing totalitarian regime, keeping locals and survivors afraid.

Anwar, center, in The Act of KillingEXPAND
Anwar, center, in The Act of Killing

Did you realize, even that early on, that there would be two films?

I always knew there would be two films. The first would be about what happens when killers win, and are able to justify their actions by writing a victor’s history. What happens when they impose that on a whole society? What do those decades of self-deception do to their humanity? What moral vacuum does it create, politically? I wanted to make a kind of epic exposé about what that does to our collective humanity. Note, that’s a film about the present, not a film about 1965. And of course that became The Act of Killing — it’s exuberant, it’s flamboyant, it’s a film about self-deception, storytelling, escapism, fantasy and guilt.

Then I knew I wanted to make another film, which was also a film about now, which was about what it means for survivors, and what having to live for decades and decades in silence and fear does to humans. And that became The Look of Silence.

Did you always know you’d make them in this order?

I don’t think one takes precedence over the other. Of course, inevitably, one would have to come out first. And The Look of Silence, such as it is, could never have been shot had we not made The Act of Killing. And it could never have been shot if we had already released The Act of Killing. Once it was released, it would be unsafe for me to return.

When Adi said he wanted to meet the perpetrators, I said absolutely not. Then he explained why. He said, “I’m hoping when they meet me, their victim’s brother, they will acknowledge that they killed human beings, and they will acknowledge therefore that it was wrong. Then I’ll be able to separate the crime from the human being, and forgive the human being. And in that sense” — as he says so eloquently to his mother in the film — “I’ll be able to live side by side with them, no longer as perpetrator and victim divided by fear and suspicion, but actually as human beings. And lift my family out of this trap of fear.” That was his motive.

I wasn’t optimistic we would succeed in that, because I could see that working with Anwar for five years scarcely led him to have a resolved sense that he had done something wrong. But I understood that this was the essence of what truth and reconciliation ought to be if it can succeed, and I knew that I couldn’t simply dismiss such a profound motive.

How dangerous was it, for Adi and for yourself, to stage these confrontations?

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I realized that, because I’d made The Act of Killing, and because they hadn’t seen it yet, the perpetrators thought I was close to the vice president of Indonesia, the head of the police, the governor of their province, the head of the paramilitary organization that they had nationally, and so on. And as a result, they’d have to think two, three, four times before they would call out thugs — who were always standing by as bodyguards — to attack us.

With that as our basic understanding, I was then able to come up with various precautions: shooting only with a Danish crew, and not bringing my usual Indonesian crew with me, for those confrontations. Having a getaway vehicle so it’s harder for them to follow us. Adi not coming with any ID, so it’s harder to figure out who he is, so that hopefully they don’t know by the time we get help from our embassies. Having his family and the rest of my crew packed at the airport, ready to evacuate in case anything goes wrong.
And then, of course, shooting all of those confrontations in very rapid succession, and starting with the lowest-ranking and then working our way up.

Joshua Oppenheimer was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grantEXPAND
Joshua Oppenheimer was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant
John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

How did this entire Indonesian odyssey begin?

I was sent to help a group of plantation workers make a film that would document, and dramatize, their struggle to organize a union on a Belgian-owned oil-palm plantation in the aftermath of the Suharto dictatorship, when unions were illegal. When I arrived, the conditions were terrible — this Belgian company made the women workers spray a weed killer with no protective clothing, and the mist would go into their lungs and their bloodstream and destroy their livers. And a number of the women, just in the six months I was there, died in their 40s from liver disease.

When these workers would try to do anything about this, the company would hire Pancasila Youth Group [an Indonesian paramilitary organization seen in The Act of Killing] to threaten them. They were easily intimidated because their parents and grandparents had been in a strong union until 1965, when they’d been killed for it. So they were afraid this could happen again. They were dying as much due to fear as to poison.

After we made that film, I never intended to stay. But these people wanted to make another film together about why they were afraid. I was in my mid-20s, and I’d never been as moved and horrified by anything in my life. And at that age, you just go!

On that plantation, there was one name in particular that was synonymous with the whole Indonesian genocide in that region. That was Ramli. And I came to understand that was because Ramli’s murder had witnesses, unlike everybody else who was brought to rivers and decapitated and dumped. People saw Ramli’s body, they saw him being tortured, saw and heard him calling for help. His body was ultimately left on the plantation and then buried by Ramli’s parents.

So to speak of Ramli for the survivors was to insist that these events — which had traumatized everybody, and which the government demanded everyone pretend had never happened — was to insist that these events actually occurred. It was to pinch yourself to say, “I’m awake. I’m sane. We’re traumatized and afraid for a reason.” It was to insist upon the link between the initial crime and the present-day fear, which is essential if you’re going to have any hope of recovery from that fear.

This is what led you to Adi?

It was inevitable that I would very quickly be introduced to Ramli’s family. I sort of fell in love with Ramli’s mother, and then I was introduced to Ramli’s younger brother Adi, who was born after the genocide. This was all in early 2003. Adi was different from the rest of his family because he hadn’t witnessed the horror firsthand, but he’d grown up in a family that was terrified and traumatized. They couldn’t even speak to him about what happened, lest he go to school and mention it and get into trouble.
Adi was looking for answers. “What happened to my village? What happened to my parents? Why are they what they are?” Things I think we all ask as kids as we grow up, especially if there’s been a loss.

He then latched on to my filmmaking process as a way of answering those questions, and was very active in organizing survivors to come and tell me their stories. We were all threatened by the army not to continue, but the survivors told me to keep going. Adi had an even more sophisticated analysis — he said, “Everyone who sees this will see that something is terribly wrong here now, not just in 1965. That’s the trap we’re all in.”

There’s a complex dynamic in The Act of Killing between reality, performance and the camera’s presence, and I felt something similar going on in The Look of Silence. What impact do you think the camera had on Adi and the killers, during their conversations?

When you think about the process I just described, none of this would be possible without the filmmaking process. Adi would never meet these perpetrators, and we wouldn’t know who they are — so that’s part of the film. So The Look of Silence becomes, just as much as The Act of Killing, a film about filmmaking, and therefore a film about cinema.

There’s a line in The Look of Silence where Adi says, “What would happen if I came here during the military dictatorship?” and the perpetrator says, “You can’t imagine what I would have done to you.” But I think viewers can infer that if Adi had asked, “What would happen if I came here alone?” the answer would be the same. I think there’s a restraint that comes from the fact that they’re being filmed.

Throughout, the perpetrators keep insisting that “the past is the past,” seemingly in order to cement their version of the truth and then to close the discussion. And the past can’t be past so long as people don’t acknowledge what that past is. The past will always haunt and be present if it’s encrypted in silence and lies.


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