The Shock of the Familiar: Talking to The Look of Silence Director Joshua Oppenheimer

07/15/2015 7:18 AM |
Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media

The Act of Killing, documentary director Joshua Oppenheimer’s first film about the 1965 genocide in Indonesia, jump-started a national dialogue about an atrocity that had been a toxic secret for decades. Largely unknown in the rest of the world, the killings were actively celebrated in Indonesia, where the perpetrators, who are still in charge of the government, described their gruesome deeds in heroic and triumphant terms. But as impressive as that was, it is not the most extraordinary thing about the film. After something much more transformational than merely revealing buried truths or eliciting the easy sympathy of moviegoers for victims from a far-off time and place, Oppenheimer sought out perpetrators, not victims, to tell the story of the genocide, inviting them to reenact their crimes for the cameras. It is deeply unsettling to watch mass murderers matter-of-factly act out some of their more horrific deeds, often enlisting terrified locals to reluctantly reenact the tortures, rapes and murder they are still traumatized by. It is even more disturbing to get to know the perpetrators well enough to see ourselves in them.

In The Look of Silence, the second of his films about the genocide, Oppenheimer switches to a victim’s point of view.

In an astonishing journey—the first time, Oppenheimer says, that a victim of a genocide has confronted the perpetrators while they were still in power—Adi, a middle-aged man who was conceived by his parents shortly after the slaughter to “replace” their murdered son, seeks out the neighbors who detained and killed his brother, confronting them with their deeds and asking why they did what they did. Like the first film, The Look of Silence covers a wide swatch of highly emotional ground, from Adi’s always loaded, sometimes explosive encounters with perpetrators to his often heartwrenching home life, where Adi’s mother still routinely talks to her dead son, Ramli, and Adi’s son comes home from school reciting lies he has just learned about the “bad” people who were purged by heroic freedom fighters in the 1960s.

Oppenheimer, who was born and grew up in the US but now lives in Copenhagen, was in New York earlier this month to promote the new movie, which opens July 17 at the Landmark Sunshine. With his smooth-shaven head and muscular body, he looks a bit like a Buddhist monk, radiating a supreme self-confidence that seems to be not so much arrogance as moral certainty. We talked for an intensely engaging half hour, during which his train of thought hurtled forward like the engine in Snowpiercer. Using the vivid language of a born storyteller, he built his case like a lawyer, backing up statements with facts or telling anecdotes. Among his points: why his films have had such a broad impact in Indonesia, why we sometimes brag most about the worst things we have done, and why the path to redemption must start with empathizing not just with the people killed in genocides but with those who do the killing.


You say you don’t think of yourself as an activist, but with The Act of Killing and now The Look of Silence, you are having a much greater impact on the real world than most documentary filmmakers ever dream of. What has changed in Indonesia as a result of these two films?

You can make a film that is deliberately crafted to be a campaign tool, but then it has to fit the message and the demands of the campaign, precisely and strategically, and it can therefore be less impactful. I think the reason my films have made the impact they have made is that they try to do what art should do, which is hold a mirror up and invite people to gaze at that mirror and see some of the most important and vexing questions that we face. If there’s a shock when you look in the mirror, it’s not the shock of the new; it’s the shock of the familiar. It’s this uncanny sense that, “Oh no—yes, that’s me! And I didn’t want to talk or think about that.” But now, having thought about it, having talked about it, you no longer can ignore it and you are compelled to somehow address it.

My two films have come to Indonesia like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” who says, “Look; the king is naked.” Everybody knew it but was afraid to talk about it. The first film said: “Look at the crime that has been committed here. There’s been a genocide, and we’re not talking about it honestly. We’re celebrating it. And look at the terrible regime of fear and violence and predation and corruption that the perpetrators have built in their impunity, that we’re all stuck living in.” That makes it impossible to keep ignoring the genocide by repeating the government lies about it.

And then the second film comes, entering the space opened by the first film, to say: “And look now at the prison of fear in which each one of us is now condemned to find our way in the world and raise our own children.” It becomes impossible to keep repeating the lie that this is a democracy and we’re all free, when evidently we’re not free.


So are those issues being publicly discussed in Indonesia now?

Yes. The Act of Killing already helped catalyze a fundamental transformation in how the mainstream media in Indonesia talked about the past. Where there was silence or actual celebration of the genocide, now there’s talk of the genocide as a genocide, as a crime against humanity, and talk of the terrible present-day legacy of the genocide, in terms of corruption and violence and so on.

An editor of Indonesia’s leading news magazine, Tempo, saw The Act of Killing at one of its first screenings. The Act of Killing began its life with secret screenings in Indonesia, for leading journalists, publishers, writers, artists, celebrities, intellectuals. The editor called me the day after he saw it and said “I’ve been censoring stories about the killings for as long as I’ve been at this job, and I won’t do it any more, because your film shows me that I don’t want to grow old as a perpetrator like Anwar Congo. So we are going to break our silence on the killings and we are going to do it in a big way, where we cover your film extensively but we’re also going to show that your film is a repeatable experiment that could have been made anywhere in the country.” He sent 60 journalists all over the country to look for perpetrators who would boast, and everywhere they went, within seconds of asking people “Who was killing here?” they could find the names, because the killers were boasting. They gathered, in two weeks, over 1,000 pages of boastful testimony from all over the country. They published 75 pages of it and 25 pages about the film in a double edition of the magazine on the first of October 2012. The magazine went through three printings, and then they came out with a book.

That opened a space for The Act of Killing to start having public screenings. In the end, there were thousands of public screenings around the country. We made the film available for free online, and it got downloaded millions of times. And then when the film was nominated for an Academy Award, the government finally spoke out and said, “Look we know what happened in 1965 was a crime against humanity. We know we need reconciliation. “ It was a wonderful moment, because it was the first time the government admitted it was wrong.

Then into that space came The Look of Silence. It had a much wider release, right away, and the first screening was public. There were billboards announcing it around Jakarta, and it was hosted by two government bodies, the National Human Rights Commission and the Jakarta Arts Council. Three thousand people came to the first screening. The venue held only 1,500, so they put on a second screening. Adi was at both and received a 15-minute standing ovation after each screening. A month later, the National Human Rights Commission made itself the official distributor of the film, so it’s being distributed by the government. Now, the government’s not unified, so the military, the police, the shadow state of paramilitary, they of course hate the film—and they hate me. I think they are the people behind the regular death threats I still receive.

Now we’re at over 3,500 public screenings, and we estimate that at these screenings, around 300,000 people have seen the film. It was declared kind of the film of the year by much of the Indonesian media last year.


Joshua Oppenheimer, by Daniel Bergeron

Aside from the success of the films and the special issue of Tempo, what other changes have happened?

It’s massive. All of the media is talking about this now. The government has now introduced a Truth and Reconciliation bill into the parliament. It’s not adequate; it will be a struggle for human rights activists to improve that bill, but it wouldn’t have happened before. And I just saw this morning that the president said, “We have to apologize to all of the survivors.”

There was a backlash. The Look of Silence was so widely released that the army started hiring thugs to threaten to attack screenings, using that as an excuse to demand that screenings be cancelled. That was denounced by most of the media. Then a group of students stood up to thugs at one university. They barricaded themselves in and held the screening. That was so widely praised in the media that the army stopped that strategy: there weren’t any more cancellations. And the Indonesian History Teachers Association is just now completing an alternative history for the period including 1965. The official history remains the same, but nobody believes it any more. So now teachers can say: “This is the official history that we have to teach you, and now here’s the truth.” And for upper secondary school students, it includes watching the two films.



Yeah. It’s really exciting.


I would imagine you had two audiences in mind for the two films: people in Indonesia, probably first and foremost, and then people in other parts of the world. And for those other audiences, you’ve often talked about how it’s very comfortable and easy to empathize with the victim in films made from the victim’s point of view, but we’re actually a lot closer to the perpetrators—

Equally close to the perpetrators.


Yeah, right. But another way of looking at these two films is that the first one was about getting inside the heads of the perpetrators and realizing, “Oh God, they’re us—or a lot closer to us than we want them to be,” whereas this one is about the victims and their families, about how you live with the effects of something like this when it’s been done to you, not by you. Did you worry that this film might let Western audiences off the hook by making it too easy to sympathize with the victims and condemn the perpetrators?

I don’t think it does. I hope it doesn’t. First of all, I think that this film also looks at the perpetrators, through the eyes of the family. And Adi approaches them with such humanity and empathy that, although we have perpetrators and survivors in one film, it resists the escapist narrative that there’s good guys and bad guys.


Well, Adi’s uncle was a guard at the prison where his brother Ramli was being held before they killed him.

That’s right.


I actually thought the scene where Adi’s mother denied having known that was very interesting, because up until then she seemed to be a pure truth teller, a victim of the crimes who was not afraid to talk frankly about them. But when she said that, I thought, well maybe she didn’t know, but that seems highly unlikely. It put her in the category of people who were sort of complicit in what was going on because someone they loved was caught up in it—

Well, maybe not complicit. Maybe it also was painful to acknowledge it. I mean, she was powerless to change it, and he’s her brother.


Right. But that brings up the whole question of who became a perpetrator and how did that happen.

Also, that it [being a victim and being a perpetrator] is within the same family. And maybe also—I mean, cognitive dissonance is a theme in all of this work. The mother may have had to believe that her brother wasn’t involved, even though she kind of knew that he was.

I think the thing I wanted to say, before we kind of went off on a tangent, is that Adi approaches the perpetrators as human beings, and their reactions are filmed with precision and intimacy—these recognizable, inevitable human reactions. When Adi comes into someone’s home and says “You killed my brother, can you take responsibility for this?” we see panic, shame, guilt, fear of one’s own guilt, leading to denial, leading to anger, leading to threats. These are reactions we understand because they’re not the reactions of monsters; they’re the reactions of most people we know.

Even the boasting of the perpetrators, I think, we come to understand as not a monstrosity. I think we come to understand that, like all boasting, it’s defensive. If you and I boast, we do it because we’re feeling small, and like birds we puff our feathers up to look bigger than we are, or than we think we are. And that’s of course the secret of the boasting of the perpetrators. They are haunted by these awful things they did, that give them horrible nightmares, and yet they’ve never been removed from power, so they still have available to themselves this victors’ history that celebrates what they’ve done. So they do the natural human thing, which is to take these rotten, bitter memories and try to sugarcoat them. I think that by not having a narrator who condemns one side and vindicates the other side but who says “Look at the abyss of fear and guilt that divides all of us,” that this film is, I hope, equally difficult.

The Act of Killing doesn’t end with redemption for Anwar—certainly not in the so-called director’s cut, which is the version that was released internationally but not in the US (although it’s out in the US, on Netflix). While he’s retching at the end, he’s still repeating to himself: “I killed because my conscience told me to do it.” We see that he’s not redeemed; he’s destroyed. But at least there’s this hope there, that if even a man like Anwar knows what he did is wrong and is destroyed by it, then we ought to be able to find ways of living together where we’re able to encourage the practice of the widest possible human empathy—and also skepticism about the lies told by authorities. And find ways of living together where this kind of unimaginable violence actually becomes impossible. So these painful recognitions that the perpetrators are human is the only hopeful stance. Otherwise, we’re condemned to say, “Well, there’s monsters among us and all we can do is somehow neutralize them,” and then we become like them. There was a line from Primo Levi, which is so central here: “There may be monsters among us, but they’re too few to worry about.”


What did Adi want from this film, and is he satisfied with what he’s gotten from it so far?

Adi initially was hoping that he would find peace with his neighbors. And that didn’t happen. He showed me the scene of his father crawling around the house at the end of the film that Adi had shot, and he said “this is the prison of fear that my father is now condemned to die in. I don’t want my children to inherit this from my father and my mother.” And then he said, “I think if I go and confront the perpetrators, they’ll greet this as an opportunity to find forgiveness from one of their victims’ families and they’ll want to acknowledge that what they did was wrong and want to stop this manic boasting.” He said, “I think this will be my chance to make peace with it.”

I told him I didn’t think it would happen. But I did tell him that if I was able to capture these very human reactions we talked about earlier—the guilt, the panic, the anger—I can show why Adi fails to get that reconciliation. I can make visible this previously invisible but omnipresent feeling of a gulf that’s dividing everybody, and make it impossible for everyone who sees the film not to support truth and reconciliation at some point, and some form of justice.

Adi had to wait a long time—from the shooting to release was a couple years. He had to hold the disappointment he felt after each encounter, except with the daughter who was apologizing on her father’s behalf. And I think that was very hard for him.


But he must feel good about the truth and reconciliation bill that has been introduced, no?

Yes, the impact of the film has been very healing and cathartic for him. And also, I hear, for his mother. Since the first screenings, she’s no longer repeating, kind of morning, noon and night, the story of how Ramli died. I don’t know for sure if that’s because she’s finding some peace or comfort from the impact of the film, but I think simply the fact that this story has been heard and she knows it, and the suffering of her family has been recognized, that’s been very healing for everybody.


You shot this film after you had had shot the first one but before it was released, when a lot of Indonesians only knew you had talked to a lot of high-up former perpetrators and assumed you were friends with them and before they had seen what you did with those interviews. Can you explain why that timing was so crucial?

I knew I couldn’t wait to shoot until after The Act of Killing came out. Which meant we had to shoot on a very low budget, because I was still a first-time filmmaker. When Adi said he wanted to make peace with the perpetrators, I thought that we would fail, but I also took very seriously his impulse because, as I said, I realized that if I could show why we failed, it would be very important and very transformative. And I realized the making of The Act of Killing was well known across the region. As you said, I was well known to be close to people in power. The men Adi wanted to meet were regionally powerful but not nationally powerful, and they would know that I was close to their superiors, or think I was, and they would therefore not dare to detain or physically attack us, because they wouldn’t want to anger their bosses or the people in power.

And I thought if the word leaked out and it was reported to their superiors what I was doing, what I would say about it was, “Well, as you know, this is also part of my research [for The Act of Killing], to see how people with different perspectives would talk about it.” That was how I presented Adi to the perpetrators. I would say, “I’ve brought a friend who has a personal relationship to these issues and has a different point of view perhaps, and I want you to talk to him as a specialist. You don’t have to dramatize what you’ve done; you just have to talk. And since he’s an optometrist, he’ll test your eyes, and if you need glasses we’ll give you as many pairs of glasses as you need.” (laughs) That was how I set up these confrontations. They’re not interviews; they’re confrontations.


Did it ever feel like you were planning a heist? You had to do so much coordination and secret planning to make this movie.

It did sometimes. When we were filming the power brokers, of course I was hoping I was wrong and they would open up to dialogue. So I wasn’t lying to them in any sense. I was actually saying, “I really hope you’ll have a dialogue.” I was warning them: “You might disagree. Try and listen to one another.” But it sometimes did feel like a heist in that we had to make precautions.

For safety reasons, Adi’s whole family would be waiting at the airport with their bags packed, ready to buy a ticket if anything went wrong during one of these confrontations. We would bring a second car, so that if we had to run away we’d be harder to follow. Adi would have no mobile phone and he would have no ID card, so if they did detain him they wouldn’t be able to figure out who he was until, hopefully, we got help from one of our embassies. And I would shoot only with a Danish crew. Normally I would use an all-Indonesian crew when shooting, so everyone understands the language, but I wouldn’t bring any Indonesians on these shoots who didn’t need to be there.


Because of the risk of arrest?

Yeah. So of course it often did feel like a heist.

People often ask, of The Act of Killing, “Weren’t you afraid while shooting the film?” And they mean physically afraid. Well, I was emotionally afraid while shooting The Act of Killing, but not—well, rarely—physically afraid. But here I was physically afraid, but it was emotionally healing.