Interview: Joshua Oppenheimer (The Look of Silence)
Matthew Turner | On 13, Oct 2015Reading time: 20 mins
Joshua Oppenheimer delivered one of 2012’s most powerful films with The Act of Killing, which asked the perpetrators of the supposed anti-Communist killings in Indonesia to re-enact their crimes. Now, he has returned to the same subject with The Look of Silence, a documentary that follows Adi, whose brother was killed by one of Indonesia’s death squads, as he confronts those who committed the murders.
We sat down with Oppenheimer to discuss this unique film, its connection to the previous project and the role the Internet played in its release in Indonesia. (You can listen to an abridged version of this interview in our podcast.)
The Look of Silence is a much more directly confrontational approach to the same subject as The Act of Killing. How did the film come about and why did you decide to take that more direct approach?
Well, it’s about a completely different thing to The Act of Killing. They’re both dealing with present day impunity in Indonesia, but they’re dealing with complementary aspects of that impunity, so The Act of Killing is dealing with the lies, the fantasies, the stories that the perpetrators tell themselves, so that they can live with themselves, first of all, and then the terrible consequences on the whole society when inevitably, because they’re still in power, they impose those lies on everybody else. The corruption, the fear, the thuggery, all kind of a response. Well, all initially enabled by their own fear of their own guilt. The Act of Killing therefore is a film about storytelling, a film about escapism and so it’s not surprising. I think this becomes clearer when you recognise that there are no re-enactments in The Act of Killing. These are not re-enactments, which is a kind of form, a technique maybe filmmakers would use to make visible a past which is no longer available to be filmed. These are dramatizations of the lies and fantasies in the present. And in that sense, being a film about escapism and guilt, it’s a flamboyant fever dream of a film, particularly in its uncut form, the two hour and forty minute original version of the film. And the second film is very reduced to focus on the political story. You should see the long version of The Act of Killing – Werner Herzog said at Berlin, in front of five thousand people at the premiere of The Look of Silence, he said, “If you have not seen the uncut Act of Killing then you have not seen The Act of Killing.” So, you can get it on DVD.
The second film is about something else, it’s about what does it do to human beings to have to live for 50 years in fear and in silence. Although these confrontations are the dramatic spine for the film, really the film is about memory and oblivion. I had The Look of Silence as a title before I understood I would be filming Adi confronting the man who killed his brother, because I knew the task was to show what silence looks like, this invisible silence born of fear. What does it look like? What does it feel like? What does it do to a human being not to be able to mourn, not be able to grieve, not be able to heal, therefore, from trauma? What is that prison of silence like? And I knew I would be creating a film that was sort of composed in memoriam, not just to the dead who were killed by the genocide, but the terrible sense that the genocide hasn’t ended because the perpetrators are still in power and everybody’s still afraid. I thought the film would be a poem composed in memoriam to the lives that have been broken by decades of fear, that can never be made whole again. Whatever justice might come in the future, it won’t put right Rohani’s life, Adi’s mother’s life, Adi’s father’s life.
The confrontations and that approach emerged when I returned in 2012 to shoot the film. I did not know Adi would be my main character, I knew he would be my main collaborator, though – I’d been working with him since 2003, he was the one who first encouraged me to film the perpetrators and he said, “I’ve been watching the footage you’ve been filming with the perpetrators for seven years, I need to meet them, I need to meet the men who killed my brother.” I said absolutely not, right away. “It’s too dangerous.” And he said, “Let me show you a tape.” He took out a camera that I had given him in 2009 or 2012, when we finished shooting The Act of Killing, to use as a kind of visual notebook, to look for metaphors that might inspire the making of the second film, before I even knew he would be the main character. And he was sending me tapes that he shot with his family throughout the course of editing The Act of Killing, and when I returned he said, “There’s one tape that I never gave you,” after he said he wanted to meet the killers and I said no. “So, there’s one tape that I never gave you because it’s too personal.” And he took it out, put it in the camera and started to cry. He was trembling while he put it in the camera and he started to cry and played for me the one scene in The Look of Silence that Adi shot and it’s the scene that comes at the end where we see his father, suffering from dementia, crawling through his own house, lost, not realizing he’s at home.
Adi said it was the first day that his father couldn’t remember any of his children or Adi’s mother. The whole family was together for the Idul Fitri holiday and he couldn’t remember anybody and everybody had been trying to help him all day but it just aggravated his fear because everybody, they were strangers to his father and Adi found it unbearable to just allow his father to be lost and not be able to do anything, so eventually he picked up the camera, which I think he just brought along to make holiday videos, not to shoot things for me. He picked up the camera and started to film and started to question: “Why am I filming? I’m not able to help him.” And he realized, he said, in that moment that he was filming because this was the day that it became too late for his father to heal. He’s forgotten the events that have destroyed his life, so he won’t be able to work through it anymore. He won’t be able to grieve, he won’t be able to mourn, he will be trapped in this prison. But he hasn’t forgotten the fear and he’s trapped.
Adi felt that his father’s fear was somehow an echo from Ramli’s murder, an echo of a sound where you can’t hear the original sound anymore, you can’t even remember what it was, and Adi felt that his father is trapped in this prison of fear, like a man, he said, locked in a room and you can’t even find the door, let alone the key. And then he said: “And I don’t want my children to inherit this prison of fear from my father, from my mother and from me, and I think if I visit them and I come gently, and I come with understanding and empathy, they will greet this as an opportunity that they’ve long unconsciously hoped for, to acknowledge the meaning of what they did, the moral meaning of what they did, they’ll acknowledge it was wrong and then of course I’ll be able to forgive them and we’ll be able to finally have peace and some form of reconciliation, we’ll be to live together as neighbours, as human beings, instead of as killer and victim afraid of each other.”
And I went home and thought about it and talked to my crew, I was very moved, and they said, “You know, maybe we can do this, because of course after all, Joshua, you’re famous in north Sumatra for having made The Act of Killing, which hasn’t screened yet.” We knew that once it had its first screenings, I couldn’t safely return to Indonesia, but until it had its first screenings, I was widely believed to be close to some of the most powerful perpetrators in the country, the vice president of the country, the governor of the province, the head of the paramilitary movement, and these men that Adi would want to confront would have to think two or three times before physically attacking us because they wouldn’t want to offend their commanders. And that became this very unusual situation, of having shot a film like The Act of Killing, [which] allowed us to do this thing that was completely unprecedented in the history of non-fiction film, namely filming the survivor confronting the perpetrator while the perpetrators are still in power. I knew that the film should not just be a political story about coexistence; this should be a film about that oblivion, about memory and oblivion, a poem about memory. And I knew that the litmus test as to whether we would succeed or fail was whether I could end the film with that scene that Adi shot. I also suspected we would fail to get the apology. And so I knew that by filming these confrontations rather than looking forward, rather than being a forward-looking film, a kind of pointing, but a model of what truth and reconciliation might look like, we would instead be shedding light on the abyss of fear and guilt and the fear of guilt that the perpetrators hold, that divides Indonesians from each other, Indonesians from their own neighbours, from their own relatives, and even from their own past and consequently from their own selves.
You mentioned the sense of danger – there is a real sense of danger in those confrontation scenes. Were you concerned for Adi’s safety, and your own?
One more thing I’ll just say to the previous question. I had in fact told Adi I thought we would fail, and I said that even if we fail to get the apology you’re seeking, if we can show why we failed, if we can make visible this fear that divides people, we will maybe succeed in showing how torn the social fabric is here to younger Indonesians and therefore inspire younger Indonesians to struggle for truth and reconciliation and some form of justice. And so maybe we’ll able to succeed in a bigger way, through the film, where we fail in the individual confrontations. And I knew that that would be dangerous. We took many precautions including having a getaway vehicle so that we would be able to be leave without being followed, if necessary, or make it harder for them to follow us if we had to run away. Having Adi’s family packed for all of the important confrontations and at the airport, ready to evacuate if anything went wrong. And then, of course, it’s taken a team of some 25 people the better part of a year to work with Adi and his family to try and turn this terrible situation, that they should be treated like fugitives, when they’re so clearly trying to have reconciliation with their own neighbours, into a series of opportunities for the family, where the family’s moved to a safer place and the children are in much better schools, that we’ve raised funding for Adi to open an optometry shop, instead of having to go door-to-door selling glasses, which is a very hand-to-mouth existence, providing for the children’s higher education and bringing Adi and the family out from under the kind of shadow of the people who’ve been terrorizing them for decades, and into a much more supportive community, from which Adi is able to play the leading role that he’s now playing in the human rights movement in Indonesia. He’s seen by many in Indonesia as a hero. I’m suspicious of the language of heroes, but I think that he deserves a great deal of admiration for his courage and his dignity and his kindness.
How has the film been received in Indonesia between audiences and the media?
Very powerfully and very beautifully. The Act of Killing had already helped to catalyse a transformation in how Indonesia talks about its past, with the media no longer remaining silent on the genocide or celebrating it as the heroic extermination of the Indonesian left and finally talking about a genocide, a crime against humanity and into that space, The Act of Killing was already screened thousands of times and then made available for free download and it was downloaded or streamed online millions of times into the space opened by The Act of Killing. So you could say The Act of Killing opened the way for The Look of Silence, so The Look of Silence had a much bigger release.
The Act of Killing started its life in secret, with secret screenings until the media started really supporting it. The Look of Silence began immediately with a large public screening. The distributor in Indonesia is the National Human Rights Commission – that’s part of the government, that’s unimaginable with The Act of Killing, it was unimaginable that the government would be distributing the film then. It’s a sign of the work The Act of Killing helped to do. And now because The Look of Silence had this larger release – 3,000 people came to the first screening, there were 500 public screenings on the first day of the release, there’s now been 3,500 screenings – the film has really shown Indonesians how torn the social fabric is and how urgently truth, reconciliation and justice are needed. It’s forced or it’s helped younger Indonesians to talk about the conditions of fear in which they are living, and to articulate that this is not something they want their children to grow up in and to inherit, just as Adi felt.
How important is it rise and the advent of VOD in the success of something like this?
Well, actually, although we built an infrastructure of community screenings to release The Act of Killing, so as not to provoke a ban from the film censorship board, which we felt would criminalize any viewing, even at home, and make people afraid to watch the film, the pattern of the release was traditional, in that we have wanted people to watch the films in groups, together, and to talk about it. And so we held off with The Act of Killing on putting the film online for Indonesians to view for as long as there was still a brisk demand for actually holding physical screenings, because we felt that the discussions after screenings are the most important things and local journalists would come to screenings because they were events, and local media would start talking about the silence breaking in community after community.
We’re doing the same thing with The Look of Silence. That said, once the screenings are finished, once that infrastructure and the community groups and film clubs and universities have reached the audience that they can reach, it’s probably an audience of several hundred thousand people. Then we put the film online so that anybody can see it. But at that point there’s already a robust archive of articles and there’s thousands of articles about both films in Indonesia, so that people seeking information can find it and that yet the films have time to really make as maximum an impact in the media as possible. You see, when a film is difficult and when it forces a confrontation with things that people are uncomfortable talking about, with things people are afraid to talk about, it needs time for journalists, it needs time for community groups to find the courage to screen the film, it needs time for people to find the courage to go to screenings, it needs time for journalists to overcome their fear of writing about the film. That said, video on-demand is crucial for reaching a wider audience and because bandwidth is limited, not just streaming but downloading is very important because then people who have the bandwidth in a developing country like Indonesia can get the film and then distribute copies. So we know the film has been downloaded millions of times, but presumably those copies have been shared widely, so that the number of downloads is just a fraction of the number of people who’ve actually seen that copy that’s been downloaded. It’s not like here where everybody has the bandwidth so there’s no need to copy the file. I think that outside Indonesia as well, these are painful films, these are confronting films, these are challenging films, these are, I hope, films that leave the viewer actually feeling less afraid than they were when they come to the film, because by watching the films you overcome your fear of looking, which is the most crippling fear of all. And for the same reason, I think, we haven’t rushed the theatrical rollout and the festival release, the theatrical release, and we’ve allowed video on-demand and home video to come later, so that there’s enough time for national discussions to build in every country where the film’s come out, because it takes time for people to find the courage to watch.
How difficult is it to keep your own personal feelings out of the film? You’re present, off-camera, but how difficult is it to remain impartial?
I don’t try to keep my personal feelings out of the film. The central dramatic arc in these films, explicitly in both films, is the filmmaking process itself. The pivotal scenes in both films are being created for the film, whether it’s a confrontation between Adi and a perpetrator, or Adi watching the old footage of the men who killed his brother. And therefore there’s a story, part of the story of how these scenes came about involves me, right, but I want the audience in The Act of Killing to have their relationship with Anwar, and I want the audience [in The Look of Silence] to have their relationship with Adi and with his mother and with his children, and if I’m there narrating, they’re relating to him through me. And that’s not what I want. So although I am keeping my narration out and my reactions out, I’m very rarely hiding them from the people with whom I’m working. That’s not true of the earlier footage that Adi is watching, where I’m actually quite stone-faced as I’m trying to make sure that people continue speaking to me, because I’m finding out for the first time ever what happened at that time – all that old footage he’s watching was shot between 2003 and 2005, most of it long before I met [The Act of Killing’s] Anwar Congo, and my task then was to figure out what happened here and I didn’t want to show my horror, my fear, my sadness, and thereby risk stopping the whole process. But I express those feelings through the editing of the film, through the mood of the film. This is not a documentary in the sense that it’s documenting things happening in the world, this is a film, it’s non-fiction. People are themselves in the film, but it is a composed work that has a tone and the tone is my feelings and the audience knows that, I think.
It’s an extraordinary incidental metaphor, that Adi is an optometrist, that he’s someone whose job is to help people see more clearly…
It’s a coincidence, but it’s one that grew over the years and then was very carefully nurtured while shooting and editing The Look of Silence. While we were shooting The Act of Killing, maybe midway through 2007, I learned from Adi that he was watching everything I had time to show him, from the moment he asked me to start filming the perpetrators in 2003, until we were finished shooting The Act of Killing, and he would watch everything I had time to show him with the same emotions you see in The Look of Silence and midway through shooting The Act of Killing, he told me that he was now deliberately seeking out older patients in his work as an optometrist, because he wanted to use the eye test as an occasion to ask them their memories of the genocide. And he would get different responses – some people would say, “You’re asking sensitive questions”, some people would open up as survivors, others would open up as perpetrators – and so when I started shooting The Look of Silence, one of the first things we did was film him doing that. It’s a scene with an old woman at the beginning. And I could see she’s not a perpetrator, but she’s saying, “Let’s not look at this”, and his job is to help people see. I saw the metaphor clearly – the eye test served a practical function in the confrontations with the perpetrators, in that they were a context where the perpetrators could feel comfortable and reveal to Adi the same things they told me years earlier that Adi knew from my old footage, so that Adi would be able to begin a dialogue with them on the basis of what they had volunteered to him, rather than what he’d seen for me; if he’d said to them, “You said this to Joshua seven years ago”, they would feel trapped, understandably. To avoid that, and therefore encourage the emergence of the dialogue for which Adi was hoping, the eye tests were an occasion that he could prolong for as long as necessary while the perpetrators revealed what they had done. They also disarmed the perpetrators – you are disarmed when you’re in a doctor’s office or an optometrist’s office – they therefore made the perp confrontations that much safer, and they were part of an exchange where I said, “Now I’m here with a friend who has a different relationship to these events, I want to just document how you discuss this with each other in exchange for your time. He’s an optometrist, he’ll test your eyes and give you a pair of glasses if you need it.” You see, sometimes people think it was a kind of way of gaining access – of course, it wasn’t. I mean, these people knew me, and I’m back with a camera. Obviously, that was my way in: I just happened to be the same person who visited them before, now following a door-to-door optometrist. Of course, it wasn’t the way we gained access. But then when I saw Inong, the man in the poster image of the film, telling these horrific stories in a kind of whisper, a tantalizing whisper as though he’s trying to impress and terrify at the same time, right after he said that his whole village is afraid of him, and you realise that the medium, the tool by which he intimidated his whole village were these same stories, that that was the currency of fear in that community: stories.
When you see him whispering these unspeakable stories, with his eyes framed by glasses and the kind of frame of reason that they represent completely futile as they are kind of inundated by these stories, overwhelmed by these stories, it became this powerful metaphor, not for vision, not even for a man’s heroic quest to help people see who were wilfully blind, but the failure of vision, it actually becomes a metaphor for blindness.
The Look of Silence is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription. Read our review here.