"A Repeatable Experiment"

Joshua Oppenheimer talks how his documentary The Act of Killing paved the way for its follow-up, The Look of Silence, and social change

Movies Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Joshua Oppenheimer has dedicated the last decade of his life to exposing the Indonesian genocide that occurred between 1965 and 1966, but he first began to tell his story to the world back in 2013, when Drafthouse Films released Oppenheimer’s film The Act of Killing to critical acclaim and an eventual Oscar nomination. The doc acquaints its viewers with Anwar Congo, formerly a leader of one of North Sumatra’s most powerful death squads, and today an old man who spends his days drinking, smoking, and dancing to stave off his personal demons. Most docs follow a stock pattern in terms of construction. The Act of Killing blew that pattern apart while informing audiences, in great detail, of unimaginable atrocities committed with appalling informality.

Two years later, Oppenheimer takes us back to Indonesia with The Look of Silence, a follow-up effort that’s part prequel and part sequel all at once. Rather than stick to one of the genocide’s perpetrators, Oppenheimer follows Adi, a child at the time of the massacre and an adult today who’s driven by a burning desire to understand the war crimes that define the history of both his country and his family. Adi’s older brother, Ramli, was one of many victims of the killings. To find the peace he craves, Adi, an ophthalmologist, visits his brother’s murderers and interviews them with blunt intensity under the pretense of checking their eyes. It’s stunning work that’s colored by an ominous sense of peril and risk, and which examines not only the mechanics of fear but the ways we forgive and move on from traumas of the past.

Paste recently had the opportunity to speak with Oppenheimer about The Look of Silence, specifically how The Act of Killing paved the way for its production, what’s been happening in Indonesian politics since its release, and how humans can find peace while living with the knowledge of barbarities of bygone eras.

Paste: I gotta ask—can you ever go back to Indonesia after making this movie and The Act of Killing?
Joshua Oppenheimer: I can’t go back safely now, at least from the advice that I receive from the human rights community, and people who know the security situation there. I still receive fairly regular death threats, from I don’t know exactly who, but they’re conditional—“don’t come back, or else.” But I’m hopeful that one day I’ll be able to go back, not to make more films there but because there’s real change happening now. It’s part of the result of these two films. The Act of Killing helped catalyze this basic transformation in how the media talks about the past. With very few exceptions, the mainstream media used to be silent about the genocide, or celebrated it as the heroic extermination of the Indonesian left. Now, the media is talking openly about the genocide as a genocide, investigating how it was perpetrated in region after region of the country, and talking about, with honesty for the first time, the perpetrators’ regime of corruption, thuggery, and fear that has been in place in some way or another ever since.

That’s opened the way for The Look of Silence, which has now come in and also, like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes, forced Indonesians to talk, or, maybe better put, made it impossible for Indonesians to continue to ignore the abyss of fear and guilt that’s dividing everybody, the prison of fear in which they’re forced to somehow raise their children, and the urgent need for truth, reconciliation, and some form of trust. It’s still woefully inadequate, but nevertheless a great start that’s been introduced into the parliament, and there’s hope for a presidential apology.

Still, though, there’s a shadow state of the military and paramilitary groups, the intelligence organizations that operate completely above the law, and that’s what makes it dangerous for me to return.

Paste: If memory serves, when The Act of Killing came out, the response in the country to that was much different. It sounds like there’s actually been quite some movement with The Look of Silence. Maybe you can correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall that being the case with The Act of Killing.
Oppenheimer: I think The Act of Killing was doing different work. It was laying the groundwork for The Look of Silence. It opened the way for it. I mean, when The Act of Killing… its first screenings were in secret. One of the very first screenings was a press screening for the National Human Rights Commission, and the editor of Indonesia’s leading news magazine saw the film at that screening, and called me the next day and said, “Josh, your film, I’ve been censoring stories about this genocide for as long as I’ve been in my job, and I won’t do it anymore after seeing your film, because I see that I don’t want to grow old, like Anwar Congo, as a perpetrator, and so we’re going to break our silence on the genocide.”

And they did so in a very big way, trying to show that The Act of Killing was essentially a repeatable experiment. It could have been made anywhere in the country. He sent 60 journalists around the country to look for killers who would boast, and in two weeks, they gathered over 1,000 pages of testimony. They published 75 pages of perpetrators’ testimony, plus 25 pages about The Act of Killing in a double edition of their magazine, and in one fell swoop ended the mainstream media’s silence on the genocide. All the rest of the media started to report on it as well.

The film, in the end, screened thousands of times publicly, it was made available online, where it’s been downloaded millions, maybe tens of millions of times, and then when the film was nominated for an Academy Award, the government of Indonesia made this statement saying, “We know what happened in 1965 was a crime against humanity, we know we need truth, reconciliation, and some form of justice, but we don’t need a film to push us to do this.” So they were trying to dismiss the film even as they took the wonderful step of admitting what happened was wrong. And The Look of Silence has come into that space with a very public release, far more screenings, and distributed, actually, by two government bodies, the Jakarta Arts Council and the National Human Rights Commission, none of which could ever have happened were it not for the work The Act of Killing had already done.

So the two films work as a single work in terms of their impact in Indonesia.

Paste: Sounds kind of like a domino effect where one movie comes out, then the next, and with The Look of Silence, more and more it sounds like things are changing over there. To me, it’s just amazing that The Act of Killing didn’t induce change all on its own through exposure, but obviously exposure isn’t the solution in and of itself.
Oppenheimer: Well, I think The Act of Killing forced people to look at the problem, but the problem is actually a state run by thugs, or a shadow state, a part of the state that’s run by thugs, and a military that enjoys complete legal not just impunity, but immunity. If an army general in Indonesia orders the massacre of an entire village, he cannot be put on trial in an Indonesian court. The only way that there could be justice there is if either the parliament convened a special human rights court, and then they’d have to be constituted by an act of parliament, or if the military itself decided to convene a military tribunal.

So essentially, the military operates beyond the law, legally. The Act of Killing confronts viewers with these kinds of terrifying legacies of genocide, impunity. That gets people talking, and debating. What The Look of Silence shows is what the next steps could look like, and how urgently that kind of dialogue that Adi, and even the daughter of one of the perpetrators, is trying to initiate in the film.

Paste: That moment for me … obviously it’s significant, but it felt almost like not the answer, but an answer to the catharsis that he’s looking for. He doesn’t get the apology he wants, or he does, but it’s actually from one of the killer’s family members and not from the killer himself. Is that, for you, maybe one of the main messages of the movie?
Oppenheimer: Yes, I think that that scene suggests, and I think this is probably true, that what change will come, what reconciliation will come, will happen at the admission of the younger generation, people who are not implicated in the crimes and therefore are not living their lives in desperate denial of their own guilt, so that they’re able to live with themselves, and not so traumatized by what happened that they’re afraid to speak. Adi … it’s very important for the film that Adi was born after the killings, and therefore has this intense curiosity about what happened, and the courage to try and speak, the courage to actually go and visit the neighbors who’d been terrorizing his family, to say, “Come on, let’s try and live in some kind of peace. If you take responsibility, we can forgive and move on.”

That, I think, is something only someone born [after the killings], or probably something that only people who don’t have a direct experience with the trauma, could do. And also I think it’s important that the perpetrator’s relative who apologizes was born after the killing, and didn’t know about it … or, not that they didn’t know about it, but didn’t participate in it, and therefore doesn’t have her own conscience to run away from, really.

Paste: So you would say that maybe people move on, or countries move on, from this kind of systemic barbarism just through the passage of generations?
Oppenheimer: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think that countries necessarily move on. I mean, I think that it takes courage and breaking silence. I think if you’re in the United States, we’ve seen people trying to speak out in different ways, and trying to make themselves heard about the United States’ failure to move on generationally, given the long-festering wound of our history around race. I think you can see that the Armenian genocide is still a volatile, even explosive issue, in Turkey, and I think that the past doesn’t just sort of … we never just run away from our past, or get past our past, because the past is who we are. It’s always there, and actually it takes a concerted effort and the courage to stop in our tracks, stand still, turn around 180 degrees, confront and face what we’ve done, and therefore who we are and who we’ve become, and accept, not in the sense of making excuses, but to accept that this is who we are and what we are and take responsibility and then move forward, knowing ourselves, really, for the first time. And there’s nothing inevitable about that but the passage of time.

Paste: Of course. Talking about courage, the thing that really suppresses that are the mechanics of fear, like the way that fear is used as a tool of governments for control. That seems to be, to me, one of the motifs that unites The Look of Silence to The Act of Killing, but how do people fight through that fear? Because it seems like the very idea of talking about it, in and of itself, is dangerous.
Oppenheimer: Some people … I mean, Adi is somebody who refuses to accept fear as a condition of his family’s life. And so he conceives of a rather desperate response to it, which is to go and actually go and visit the still powerful men who have been threatening his family, at great personal risk. I think, knowing Adi, he would have done it even if I wasn’t with him, and it was only because I was with him, and that they thought I was close to their highest ranking commanders—because we had filmed The Act of Killing but not yet released it—that no one got hurt, no one got arrested, and nothing happened to anybody.

But Adi, out of pure desperation and feeling trapped, decides that it’s so unbearable, he needs to go meet the men who killed his brother and talk to them, that if they can’t talk, if they can’t break the silence, that he will. He’ll go and he’ll say, “Look, I know what you’ve done. This is what you’ve done. Can’t you take responsibility for it for the benefit of everybody, so we can live together in peace and be neighbors, and live together as neighbors instead of as victim and perpetrator, afraid of one another?” I don’t know if there’s any kind of universal rules or types of people, about how one stands up to fear, but that’s what Adi did.

Paste: I watched the film both at Independent Film Festival Boston and, recently, I watched it again, and I wondered what, to you, was so unique about Adi and Adi’s story? What drew you to him as your protagonist for this film? Was it just that refusal to give in to fear or be silent?
Oppenheimer: I didn’t know Adi would be the protagonist of my film until, when I returned … it was Adi who first back in 2003 pushed me to film the perpetrators, and even earlier than that I met Adi, and Adi was this man who was born after the killings. In 2003, I was introduced to Ramli’s family, Adi’s mother and his father. They wanted me to meet their son, because they said Adi was a replacement for Ramli, and Rohani said, “Because I had Adi, I was able to continue living. I was going crazy. Then I had another child, and that’s what allowed me to somehow, at least, in some way keep living. And he’s just like Ramli,” she had said to me. “He speaks like him, he talks like him. You must meet him.”

And she called Adi to the village, and the fact Adi, of course, never knew Ramli, and was born after the killings, and because his family insisted that he was almost a reincarnation of Ramli, he was denied his own identity by the family in some way. I don’t blame anyone for it, but I also acknowledge it was hard for him. And he grew up in this family where all he knew were the details of how his brother was killed, but nothing else. When he was 13, he saw this government propaganda film that had just been produced. It was shown in schools every year, essentially graphically depicting the history curriculum you see his son learning in The Look of Silence. In the director’s cut, the uncut version of The Act of Killing, you see Anwar [Congo] and Adi watching that propaganda film, and commenting on what a lie it is—actually, Adi is saying what a lie it is, and Anwar’s saying, “Yes, it might be a lie, but it’s the one thing that allows me to keep living myself, so please don’t say that,” showing how cognitive dissonance is key, self-deception is key to how perpetrators do this, and then how they live with themselves afterwards.

But anyways, Adi saw this film at 13 and suddenly understood that there was a bigger event than just Ramli’s murder, and gradually came to understand that the neighbors in his village, every single one of them, had lost one or two people in the genocide and no one had ever talked about it, because they were afraid. When he met me, he saw this opportunity to find out, basically, what had made his parents the way they are, what had made his family the way it is, what had made him what he is, and he latched onto my filmmaking process as the way to answer these questions. And then, when he started gathering survivors to tell me their stories, then the army threatened the survivors not to participate, and he called me to this midnight meeting at his parents’ house, and told me that I should continue to film the perpetrators. That led to this seven-year journey of my filming the perpetrators and making The Act of Killing, Adi watching everything I had time to show him.

And then at the end, when I returned to shoot The Look of Silence, which I always knew I would make—I always knew there would be two films that would sort of form a single work—I returned in 2012 and didn’t know Adi would be the main character. I sat down with him and said, “What do you think we should do for the new film?” And he said, “I need to confront the men who killed my brother,” at which point I said, “Absolutely not, it’s too dangerous.” He said, “No. I’ve spent seven years watching this material. It’s changed me. I have to do it, because it’s the only way that I can give my children a future where they’re not afraid, living in fear every day, not afraid of their neighbors. I need to go and make peace with our neighbors. I need to get them to acknowledge what they’ve done so I can forgive, and we can live in peace.”

That touched me very much, and I could see in Adi’s curiosity, and his insistence that I continue, it had always been a motivating force in my project. So I followed him, and worked hard to figure out a way that we could do this safely, and in that way took this journey with him. But it wasn’t like I … I don’t think of my filmmaking as storytelling, and I don’t think of my film as casting around for the right main character. It’s a journey, it’s people I discover in journeys that I take with him.

Paste: In that regard it sounds like Adi was absolutely crucial to you making the movie to begin with.
Oppenheimer: Absolutely. Adi was with me in Paris just a couple weeks ago, and at a Q&A he actually turned after someone had asked me about how it felt to have spent, essentially, my youth on this work. He turned to apologize to using me for, I guess it was 12 years, to do this work for him, as he put it. I wouldn’t go so far, and I apologized in return for using him! I think we found each other. It was a real collaboration of the two of us working together on something over many, many years.

Paste: So, you were talking about him compelling you to make the movie despite the dangers present to him … what keeps you safe in an environment like that?
Oppenheimer: Do you mean while shooting or now?

Paste: While shooting, I’d say.
Oppenheimer: Well, first of all, what really kept us safe is that the production of The Act of Killing was well known across that whole region. Because it hadn’t yet come out, everybody believed I was close to the most powerful perpetrators in the country, and indeed, some of the most powerful men in the country—the Vice President, the national head of the paramilitary movement, members of the cabinet, members of parliament, the governor of the province where we were. So the men Adi wanted to confront, we realized, the people who killed his brother, some of them were regionally powerful, but even the most powerful were not nationally powerful, and they would all have to think three or four times before physically attacking us or even detaining us, because they wouldn’t want to upset their superiors, whom they still believed at that time were my friends. Now, of course, the film’s come out, and those high ranking politicians with cameos in The Act of Killing presumably hate me. Anwar Congo does not—I still remain close to Anwar—but that was the main thing. And then we took all these safety precautions, like having a getaway vehicle so that we’d be able to escape more easily if necessary, having Adi’s family at the airport ready to evacuate if anything went wrong, and just working quickly before word could really spread about what we were doing; my spending time with Anwar to make sure that word hadn’t spread, knowing that if it had he would be told, and then Anwar would tell me, so every evening between confrontations, I would have to spend time with Anwar.

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65 percent Vermont craft brews.