Watching The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s compelling follow-up to his chilling Oscar-nominated documentary, The Act of Killing, is a soul-crushing experience. Through Oppenheimer’s footage of the perpetrators of the 1965 Indonesian genocide, a family of survivors discovers how their son, Ramli, was murdered and the identities of his killers. The documentary centers on the youngest son, Adi, who dares to break a pervasive silence that has engulfed the country for 50 years. His inquisitiveness, courage and determination to expose the truth and find closure lead to something unimaginable in a society where the murderers still remain in power.
In our exclusive interview, Oppenheimer talked about exploring the present day legacy of the genocide, how the film is not about the killings but the impunity that exists today, the consequences of building your everyday reality on terror and lies and living with that kind of cognitive dissonance for half a century, the dialogue he fostered between Adi and the perpetrators, his impressions of Adi and what he learned from him, how the finished film compares to what he envisioned, the contributions of executive producers Errol Morris and Werner Herzog and his anonymously credited co-director and crew, and his next project.
Check it all out in the interview below:
What was it about Ramli’s story that resonated with you and made you say I’ve got to make this film?
JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: Ramli was important because he was the one victim in his region where there was a body, where there were witnesses. Everyone else, tens of thousands of people from just that small region, had been taken away in the dead of night from political prisons, killed at rivers, and set to drift out to sea. Their families were never told that their relatives were killed, which meant that for decades and decades, even today, people would say, “She never came home” or “He never came home.” It forced everyone to live in this awful state of cognitive dissonance where they know their loved ones died but can’t say it. So, people would speak about Ramli in order to give expression to their grief to do even the very beginning of the work of mourning.
I’d also point out that I was introduced to Ramli’s family early on. It was really Adi who was special who, being born after the killings, didn’t know what happened and only knew what had happened to his brother. He latched onto my filmmaking process as a way of finding out what happened to his parents to make them who they are, what happened to his community to make it what it is, what happened to his country, and in a way how he became who he is. That really is what the film is about.
I would also finally say that’s why the focus is on them. The film is not about a particular story or a particular killing. It’s not about the killings themselves at all. It’s about impunity today. Both my films are. The Act of Killing is about the lies, stories, and fantasies the perpetrators tell themselves so they can live with themselves and the awful effects when they impose that on the whole society – the corruption, thuggery and fear. Of course, that makes it a film about escapism and guilt. So, it’s a flamboyant fever dream particularly in its uncut version, the director’s cut. And then, this second film is also about impunity today. What does it do to human beings to have to live for half a century afraid?
What were your impressions of Adi when you first met him? What was it like working with him?
OPPENHEIMER: Adi is this very gentle, very empathic man who rarely gets angry. He taught me that we must always be prepared to forgive, which is something that I wouldn’t necessarily have seen so clearly except that I saw it in his face, in his gaze, even when he’s watching the footage. I think when he’s meeting the perpetrators, viewers feel that. He’s not saying that the acts are excusable, or that we should sympathize with the perpetrators, but he’s saying we must empathize with their humanity enough, such that if they can take responsibility for what they have done and apologize for it, if they can stop identifying with what they’ve done and instead denounce the crime, then we can separate the human being from the crime and forgive the human being.
Adi is also determined. He apologized recently to me that he, as he put it, used me to expose this impunity to the world. After three weeks of working with him, he was gathering the survivors to tell their stories. They were all threatened not to participate in the film by the army. The first thing he did was to call me to a midnight meeting at his parents’ house and say, “Don’t give up. Film the perpetrators.” And then, after seven years of filming the perpetrators, he came and said, “I now need to meet the perpetrators.” First I said, “Absolutely not. It’s too dangerous.” He gradually convinced me. We realized that we could do it safely with maybe taking many, many precautions. He is determined also, almost stubborn and fearless, much more than I am. I think of myself as a coward. He is not.
Was it difficult to secure the cooperation of his family and the other survivors whose lives were put in danger by participating in your film?
OPPENHEIMER: His family, from the very early days, was very eager to make the film. I met Adi through his family. His mother and father were already filming with me when I met Adi back in 2003. With the confrontations, the sequence of scenes in the film is somewhat out of chronological order. What we realized we needed to do to explain what Adi’s intentions were was to shoot some kind of a test. So, we filmed the scene with Inong Syah as a kind of test because we knew Inong had terrible relations with his superiors and he would have no one to complain to. Also, Adi doesn’t tell Inong that his brother was killed. That comes later. So, we filmed that as a test because we knew it would pose no risk for us. Then, Adi told his mother and his wife what he was doing and they react as you see in the film. Then we all sat down and watched that scene and they said, “Oh, this is very important, because you’re breaking [the silence]. You’re saying everything that people couldn’t say for half a century.” They then asked, “Do you think there’s some way we can do this safely?” and we said, “If we proceed carefully, and we take the myriad safety precautions we took, we can do it. But we have to be prepared to quit at any point and maybe to evacuate the family.” Indeed, during the most powerful confrontations with the most powerful perpetrators, Adi’s family would be at the airport ready to evacuate in case anything went wrong. In fact, not just at the airport, but in the front of the ticket line, letting the next person go and the next person go, for three hours at a time, waiting for a signal that everything was okay.
What about the perpetrators who are still in power and responsible for the genocide?
OPPENHEIMER: To get the cooperation of the perpetrators was different. I would return to them after all these years, having filmed them briefly for the most part from 2003 to 2005 when I was still filming every perpetrator I could find before I met Anwar Congo, the main character in The Act of Killing. I would come with Adi and I would say, “I’m back after all these years.” I would remind them that I’d made a film since I’d seen them with their highest ranking commanders so that they would remember that I’m believed to be close to the most powerful politicians in the country, which would be what protected us because of course they hadn’t seen the film, The Act of Killing, yet. So, they were not yet threatening me and sending me death threats. I would remind them of that and then I would say, “This time I’m back, I don’t want you to dramatize what you did the way I did the last time. I just want you to talk to my friend who has a different perspective on these events but also a very personal relationship.” I probably said a little less because it was always up to Adi whether to reveal he was a survivor. I may have said, “He may have a different view, but he has a personal connection to this history, too. I simply want to film how you talk about it and I hope you’ll listen to each other. You may agree or you may disagree, but try to listen to each other.” I was also trying to foster that dialogue Adi was hoping for. I would say, “Adi is an optometrist, and as a thank you for your time, he will test your eyes and we will give you as many sets of glasses as you might need if you want them.” That was what gave us the space to do this work. That’s how you work as a filmmaker. You think, “What can I say that’s truthful and also opens the space for the occasion you’re trying to create.” It’s not that you just walk into a room and you film what’s happening there.
Why was it important to you to explore the present day legacy of the genocide rather than doing a more historical style documentary?
OPPENHEIMER: Well, because that was the thing that outraged me and stunned me to the point that it made me stop everything I was doing, all my other projects, and focus on this. It was the sense when I realized that all the perpetrators were reading from this shared script boasting about what they had done. I had this horrible feeling that I had wondered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust only to find the Nazis still in power, if the rest of the world had supported the Holocaust while it happened, which accounts for the shameless way they talk about it. I knew that from the way I’d first come to Indonesia, which was working with plantation workers who were brutally oppressed. The women workers were condemned to die in their forties because they were made to spray these toxic chemicals. I had this feeling that I knew this situation in Indonesia, both the terrible conditions on the plantation and this kind of atrocity with no justice, which is not unique to Indonesia. I knew that actually there were atrocities across the global south where people live in fear because regimes of violence and intimidation remain in power. I thought, “What if this awful idea of the Nazis having won is not some surreal science fiction scenario, and it’s not the exception to the rule, but is the rule across the global south? What if this kind of impunity is the story of our times?”
Can you talk about the role your executive producers, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, played in the making of your film?
OPPENHEIMER: They were both intimately involved in the conception. Errol was involved from early on looking at clips and asking difficult and inspiring questions from all the way back to 2009, I think. Werner came on board after I had finished the uncut version of The Act of Killing. Initially, he became furious with me when he found out I was going to make a shorter version of the film, actually several shorter versions – TV versions and various theatrical cuts — because he said it was a crime to shorten this film. He still feels that the director’s cut of The Act of Killing is the only definitive version. He announced in Berlin that if you haven’t seen the director’s cut, it’s the only legitimate version of the film. But actually, despite that, he nevertheless overcame that and then said, “I also understand why you want this to be seen by a lot of people. It’s best at 2 hours and 40 minutes, but show as much as you can at 2 hours for a wider audience.” He gave hours and hours of his time, days of his time, to watching and giving feedback on shorter cuts of the film, and then was equally supporting in the very finishing of The Look of Silence.
How does the final film compare to what you originally envisioned?
OPPENHEIMER: I never could have imagined. I think that that question only makes sense when you take the very understandable sense of what filmmaking is, which is storytelling. The filmmakers have a story they want to tell and they go get the material they need for it. The film either exceeds or fails to meet up to their expectations or it’s different. But for me, I’m a filmmaker because above all I’m an explorer. It’s my way of exploring and investigating the problems, the questions, and the mysteries about what it means to be human that vex me most, that keep me up at night, and that when I finally fall asleep insinuate themselves into my dreams. So, I think I have no vision of what the finished film is when I start.
That said, it’s the thrill of shooting, and I don’t know quite how to reconcile this with what I just told you. But, it’s the thrill of shooting, and when you’re gasping, it’s always because you’re encountering something unexpected that you unconsciously always hoped for. And that’s vision maybe. That’s what it means to have a vision, that you did know you were going for something, that you’re not just like a sawed-off shotgun shooting in all directions. You have this sense that there’s something very important there and you’re digging and you’re looking. That’s, for example, why I think I focused on the boasting of the actual executioners rather than their commanders, because they have this need to take these bitter, rotten memories of horrible, unspeakable things and sugar coat them in the sweet language of a victor’s history that’s still available to them because they’re still in power that celebrates what they’ve done. That’s why they boast about the most unseemly things because those are the bitterest memories for them and the hardest things for them to swallow. I think I honed in on that because it is that boasting about the grisly details that belies the victor’s history itself, belies the claim that this was heroic and justified. You don’t know quite what you’re going to do with it, but you follow it. You interrogate it, you reframe it with Adi’s gaze, and you try to confront them in some way. Whether in Anwar Congo’s case, in The Act of Killing, with the successive products of his own dramatization when he’s confronting himself, his own lies, his own fantasies one by one, or in the case of The Look of Silence, with the steady, unflinching, indeed loving gaze of the survivor, of the victim’s brother.
Many of the end credits are anonymous. Can you talk a little about the contributions of your co-director and crew?
OPPENHEIMER: First of all, I should say that these are people who changed their careers to make these films because it took so long. Some were academics who took a sabbatical thinking it might be a year and didn’t return to their universities. They spent ten years. Some of them were heads of NGO’s who took sabbaticals and the same thing happened. Some were human rights lawyers who stopped practicing law. Some were journalists and editors who stopped being journalists to do this work, risking their personal safety, knowing they couldn’t take credit for their work until there’s real change in Indonesia because it’s too dangerous, all because they felt it was that important. They filled every function including bringing the films safely out of Indonesia, and looking after others who remain nameless who weren’t involved with the making of the film, making sure Adi’s family is safe. Perhaps the most important function, and the reason I’ve credited one of them as a co-director on both films, was my second camera person, who was also my production manager, my assistant director, and my sound recordist often. In his intimacy with everything we were doing and his brilliance, he was my main creative sounding board while shooting, and that dialogue is what ensured and made this film. I hope every choice we made in the editing and in the shooting makes it feel authentically Indonesian, so that Indonesians don’t see this film and think this is some kind of journalistic or from-a-distance interpretation of their society for foreigners. They see a universal film that feels entirely Indonesian, and I know that’s what accounts for the film’s impact there. It becomes a mirror instead of a reframing of their society from the eyes of outsiders, which also might make a different kind of impact. It just becomes an authentic mirror in which they see themselves and suffer not the shock of the new but the shock of the familiar, that moment where you recognize yourself in an uncanny way and you think, “Oh no, is that me?,” and you have to do something about it afterwards. At least, you can’t forget it. It’s also what I think has made the film impactful outside Indonesia, because instead of viewers taking this as something they see through a window as this phenomenon and political nightmare on the other side of the world that they don’t care about and don’t know about, they see it because it becomes universal. It’s not a phenomenon to be explained to people far away. It just becomes about all of us. It’s a mirror in which we see ourselves.
What do you have coming up next that you’re excited about?
OPPENHEIMER: Oh that’s a very brief answer. I’m not saying. (Laughs) It’s not that I wouldn’t like to, but I like to keep my dialogue with my collaborators pure.
Will it be another documentary?
OPPENHEIMER: It’s sort of a hybrid like the director’s cut of The Act of Killing is.
The Look of Silence opens in New York on July 17, in Los Angeles and Orange County on July 24th, and continues to rollout nationally throughout the summer.