Towards the end of our conversation, a big, broad smile crosses Joshua Oppenheimer’s face when I ask if he’s ready to move on to a new project. He makes clear his happiness doesn’t stem from leaving behind his work for the past decade, bringing attention to the Indonesian genocide of the 1960s that continues to live on as perpetrators continue to live side by side with relatives of their victims in a military state in the extraordinary and incendiary “The Act of Killing” and now, “The Look of Silence” – if it’s been a burden, he wears it lightly with unflagging grace. Instead, his excitement comes from the idea of doing something new.
For all the accolades that Oppenheimer has received since “The Act of Killing” set the world stage afire in 2012 – an Oscar nomination, a MacArthur Grant, among other plaudits – and all the good it’s done as copies have filtered their way through Indonesia to make its populace less scared of confronting their leaders, what might be lost in the conversation, however paltry as it may be in comparison, is how the filmmaker may have revolutionized the documentary form. By asking Anwar Congo, the merciless killer in the Indonesian army at the center of “The Act of Killing,” to reenact his crimes in the fantastical Hollywood terms that he saw in his head, Oppenheimer and his anonymous collaborator (unnamed for his protection in his native Indonesia) opened up the subconscious of his subject in a vein rarely tapped before onscreen.
While the filmmaker overtly drops the artifice in his followup, “The Look of Silence,” the two probe even deeper into the idea of performance as they trail Adi, an optometrist whose brother Ramli was murdered 50 years earlier by a death squad tasked with slaughtering suspected communists. It was Ramli’s murder that first set Oppenheimer down the path for “Act of Killing” after arriving in Indonesia in 2003. The filmmaker had gone to Southeast Asia to show the toll of globalization on the working class least likely to benefit from it. But he soon found something even more troubling in the oil palm plantations he visited, with many of the workers telling him in hushed voices about the night that Ramli was taken from his family’s home by a pair of men – Amir Hasan and Inong – who told his parents he would be taken to the hospital, when in fact he was tortured and killed in a murder that would haunt the region every day up until the present, so much so that Adi sets out to question Hasan and Inong about what they did, under the facade of conducting eye exams for the elderly.
Unlike a great many documentarians who believe the camera fades away when placed in the background for long enough, Oppenheimer’s contrarian view has led to a particularly chilling observation of human nature, using the most extreme example imaginable to show those justifying their behavior with boasts of behavior they fundamentally have to know is wrong and watching their self-constructed personas crumble while leaving the space for an audience to question their own moral complicity in what they’re watching. The filmmaker’s insistence that he’s only “just scratching the surface” with this approach is most exciting news indeed, but rooted in tragedy, it remains secondary to what specifically he and Anonymous have been able to capture in the one-two punch of “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence,” and as the latter makes its way into theaters, Oppenheimer spoke of the enormous responsibility of making these films, his unique position to make them happen and the growing confidence that led him to push the envelope even further with his latest film.
We shot this film after editing [“The Act of Killing”] and in the director’s cut, the delirium of Anwar and his lies and persona is cut through with these moments of silence — times where it stops and you’re in the space of the absent dead. Because I had finished editing the director’s cut of “The Act of Killing,” I knew that the audience should be immersed in any one of those haunted silences and feel what does it do to human beings to have to rebuild a life here? Especially as survivors surrounded by the man who killed their loved ones. I wanted to show what this invisible silence born of fear looks like. In fact, I had the title, “The Look of Silence,” long before we came up with the title “The Act of Killing.”
But when we started editing “The Look of Silence,” “The Act of Killing” had started to make a real impact in Indonesia and I understood that it was like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” — it made it impossible for Indonesians to continue to ignore the horror that occurred in 1965 and the horror of the present day regime that the perpetrators had built — the corruption, the thuggery, the impunity, and violence — out of fear. I felt that the second film, by showing what this silence looks like, also should come therefore like another child, pointing out something new, something else that everybody already knows. Namely the prison of fear in which they’re forced to raise their children when living in that kind of silence.
Surely that affected how we edited the film, although not in conscious ways. I never discussed it with the editor while we were putting the film together. We were just working to some extent in reaction to it, but at the same time knowing that the two films should form a whole greater than the sum of the parts at least when taken with the director’s cut of “The Act of Killing.” Within that, we also knew that the film has to be entirely a whole work in and of itself.
You’ve spoken before about feeling as if you made a breakthrough on “Act of Killing” by realizing that by pushing Anwar to reenact his crimes in fantastical ways, you were able to get closer to the truth. Were you emboldened by what you were able to achieve and apply it here?
I learned a lot about confrontation while shooting “The Act of Killing” and editing it. In “The Act of Killing,” you see Anwar go through this recursive process several times, which is really how we made the film of shooting a scene, watching it, shooting a scene, and watching it. Every time [Anwar] watches it, we see doubt all over his face. Something missing in the shorter versions of the film [is that] you don’t feel his doubt in the same way. He tries to run away from the horror of that by proposing another scene and yet that next scene just provokes a confrontation with a deeper doubt.
I came to understand that what matters here is to show the cracks in this facade that would glorify genocide. Those cracks lie in the moments of silence, in the reaction. So I came to understand that Adi confronting these perpetrators [in “The Look of Silence”] would also provoke a similar confrontation with the self, that they would, of course, become afraid — not of Adi or me because they know that politically, physically, legally they’re untouchable. But they would be afraid of what they see in the moral mirror of Adi’s questions. They would be afraid of their own conscience, and they would scramble to put together new excuses or ways of escaping from that confrontation with the self. That would include threats, lies that they weren’t responsible, and trying to get rid of Adi. But I knew that just before, as they’re scrambling, looking around for how to respond, we would see this doubt and that’s what I should train my camera on. So we shot the confrontations wherever possible with two cameras, so that I could cut the scenes not for words but for those reactions — the silences for all that’s being said between the words.
Midway through the shooting of “The Act of Killing,” Adi was seeking out patients who are in their sixties so he could ask questions about the genocide. That was interesting to me, so one of the first things we shot together was Adi visiting the old woman at the beginning of the film, part of his daily going door-to-door selling glasses, and she responds saying, “You shouldn’t ask about this, this is too dangerous.” Then I understood when we were preparing for the confrontations with the perpetrators that the eye tests would help keep the situation safe because it was very important to come up with a context where [the perpetrators] could talk and for as long as necessary until everything important come out and they would be unlikely to say “Oh, I’ve told you enough.”
I realized that an eye test would do that, particularly if Adi, instead of responding to what they were saying, would just continue to test their eyes until everything came out. They’d wonder why is he not reacting and try to get a reaction by telling another story. Your guard is down when you’re in a dentist chair or the doctor’s office. The eye test was something we could prolong for as long as necessary that would allow the perpetrator to tell what he’d done which would prevent the situation from getting confrontational prematurely. They were less likely to be violent.
I also realized as we began this work, the very first time I heard some of the horrific stories coming out from a perpetrator’s mouth — Enong — while he’s wearing these scarlet test lenses, I felt that I was seeing a tiny detail from a Hieronymus Bosch painting. I took the second camera, which was on the complimentary angle to get these reactions, and moved it, so it was a close-up treating Enong’s face as he would tell these honorific stories one after another as a tableau, starting to develop into this kind of metaphor that it is. When we started editing the film, I knew that would be the first shot [you see].
Since you had heard some of these stories of these horrific murders told over and over for the past decade, did you find that they would change over time? Not necessarily in what was described, but more or less boastful or candid?
The higher ranking perpetrators say less later. They’re savvy enough to read the situation. I even would say to them when I’d arrive, “This time I’m back with a friend, he has his own personal relationship to this history, it’s different from yours, you might disagree, but I just want to document how you discuss this and try to listen to each other and understand each other even if you disagree.” They were savvy enough to close down a little bit. With the others, the stories were pretty consistent. The tone is different, I think viewers who are astute will notice it, but every viewer will feel there’s a slightly different tone when they’re with me alone or with each other and when they’re with an Indonesian whose origin they don’t know. And that’s important — that’s precisely why an Indonesian could never have made these two films. It would be too dangerous for them because at some point they would have fallen under suspicion.
There’s a damning NBC news report from 1967 that you include in the film, painting a rosy portrait of Indonesia and how it’s so much better off with the elimination of communists. Where did you find it?
I was actually doing research at the National Security Archive where the key scholar looking at American involvement in the killings was working. He invited me to look through his papers and I found two really important things on that day — [one was] a folio of Indonesian army notes that said at the spot where we filmed on Snake River, 10,500 people had been killed by November. Killing started in October and Ramli [whose murder was the impetus for Oppenheimer’s work in Indonesia] wasn’t killed until January. That was astonishing to me, the numbers in that one little spot. Whether it’s accurate or not, I don’t know. It was just one folio of notes.
The other thing that I found was a Socialist Workers Party pamphlet describing the 1967 NBC documentary. It sounded so unbelievable and because it was from the Socialist Workers Party pamphlet, written in such inflammatory language that you would expect from that kind of pamphlet, I didn’t believe it. But I did note the name of the program and I wrote to NBC and said, “Did this program exist and if so, can I buy a screener of it?” They sent me the screener and lo and behold, it was exactly as described.
I put it in the film because it sets up the fact that later in the film one of the perpetrators looks me right in the eye, because I’m right behind the camera, and therefore looks at every viewer who’s American right in the eye, and says “I should be rewarded with a cruise to the United States because the United States taught me to hate the communists.” I felt implicated and I know that anyone watching the film who’s American will feel implicated and I wanted to go into that. The victims were presented as so emotionally incomprehensible, so exotic, so different that we find it hard to even empathize with them.
This news clip also reveals that the killings were presented quite accurately in general, in terms of the numbers being killed, and as good news on American television. There’s a clip where they say, mendaciously to be sure, that the victims would ask to be killed. That lets viewers of that NBC clip back in the 60s off the hook of caring. But the most important part of the clip is the last part where we hear that Goodyear, a multinational corporation with rubber plantations across Indonesia and Southeast Asia where they grow the natural latex that goes into their tires and the soles of our shoes and our condoms, were harvesting their rubber using slave labor drawn from death camps.
Twenty years after German corporations did the same thing at Auschwitz, here it’s being reported openly on American television as a victory for freedom and democracy in the so-called “free world” struggle against communism. This horrific moment should raise a doubt in the mind of any viewer who cares about freedom and democracy whether this really was undertaken for freedom and democracy or was actually a ruse to justify murderous, corporate plunder.
You’ve said this is going to be your final film on Indonesia, if for no other reason than the fact it would be dangerous for you to go back now. Still, can you be done with something like this? Has it been easy to transition to another project?
[smiles] Without saying what it is that I’m transitioning to, I will say it has been delightful transitioning to something else, but also full of question and doubt in the way that everything that I do in life is. Because I’m probably neurotic. I don’t think you can ever be fully done with anything in life. I say again and again that one of the messages of the film is that we can never run away from our pasts because we are our pasts. It’s not that the past will catch up to us, it is us. It’s how we talk to each other, it’s how we both have English as a language and sit here in Los Angeles and speak to one another and the language with which we understand each other, care for each other, frame our questions and our answers. This is our past. The present is but an instantaneous, infinitesimally thin, fleeting moment that’s perpetually renewed that is the past as it manifests in every moment. This is me, this is my youth, this is how I spent my youth and it’s made me the filmmaker that I am, it’s given me the obsessions that I have now, it’s helped me.
I feel tremendously honored to have been able to do this work. It’s been a great privilege because not only have I had the humbling honor of making something that’s participated in this process of change in a way that I never could have hoped, but also it’s helped me overcome what’s really the most crippling fear of all which is the fear of looking. That only strengthens me going forward. The other question there is that while I won’t make another film about this [subject] — at least I don’t think I will — I will continue to do what I can. It’s why I’m doing this interview right now to help deepen the impact of this work and to support the struggle for truth reconciliation and some form of justice in Indonesia for as long as necessary and for as long as I can be of help.