Joshua Oppenheimer released The Look of Silence last year as the companion piece to his critically-lauded 2012 film, The Act of Killing. Rather than studying the perpetrators as closely as he did in his earlier work, Oppenheimer uses The Look of Silence to focus on the survivors, memories and the haunted spaces left by the 1965 genocide. After interviewing with the director for our launch piece last year, we caught up again at the 2015 Melbourne International Film Festival to discuss his latest work.
The opening line “Why am I singing? To relieve my broken heart” really encapsulates the fundamental tonal and stylistic shift that The Look of Silence takes in moving away from The Act of Killing. I guess to open things up, I was interested in whether you always intended for The Look of Silence to be the deeply sombre and affecting piece it was, or if it came together while you were shooting?
I think I wanted The Look of Silence to be a kind of poem, composed in memoriam, and for all that’s been destroyed; and also with a sense of outrage. When I say all that’s been destroyed, I don’t simply mean the people that were killed in 1965, I mean all the lives that have been broken by half a century of fear and can never be made whole again. I wouldn’t say sombre to describe it, I wanted to capture the… hauntedness, the hauntedness of the space wherein the survivors are forced to try and rebuild their lives. The dead are not only unburied, but they’re also often unmourned. Mourning is a process of working through grief. Survivors of the 1965 genocide were never told that their families died – Ramli’s family is a unique case. And so, they couldn’t tell me their loved ones died. They would tell me they had never come home, out of deference to the ever fading, not-quite vanishing hope that they might return. I knew if The Act of Killing would be that non-fiction fever dream – articularly in the uncut version that was presented hear in Australia – then The Look of Silence would be a poem that makes the viewer feel what it is like to live in such a society as a survivor.
I think that’s a really interesting thing with Adi as a character, as I think his placement in the documentary says so much about the change of pace and message that The Look of Silence seeks to provoke. He’s got none of the flamboyance of a character like Anwar, and it made me think that a lot of what makes the killers such colourful characters comes from a really strong place of privilege within that society?
It’s interesting to talk about flamboyance as a kind of privilege, because the flamboyance of the perpetrators – the performativity of their accounts, and their accounts of how they killed – is of course fundamentally emerging from privilege. It emerges from the fact that they’ve never been removed from power, never had to admit what they’ve done was wrong, and still benefit from a victors’ history that celebrates what they’ve done. So they’re able to take this bitter rotten memories of atrocity, and sugarcoat them in the sweet language of this victors’ history; so that they can live with what they’ve done. So the boasting is, of course, defensive – but they’re able to boast because they have the discursive space; the stage. It’s not a stage that I gave them, the society is their stage, on which they can boast and perform. Adi hasn’t had that, that’s true. At the same time, Adi is a very humble man and I’m not sure that he would want that even if he had it.
Yeah, I guess someone like Anwar is dealing with an incredible amount of privilege…
No, I mean Anwar and the perpetrators have… when I wanted to show how they would talk about what they did with others, I encouraged them to recruit their own film crew. They got it from state television because state television in that region is basically their television network. Because they dominate that region politically, and therefore control state television there. So Anwar not only has the discursive space – the political freedom – to boast and act upon, but also to organise a large film production; or at least the production of large ambitious film fiction scenes, which if a survivor were to try and do… they would be shut down. When Adi started trying to gather survivors to tell me their story back in 2003, the army was surveilling everybody and monitoring all of the survivors in those villages. If they were meeting people, going somewhere new, and if they were talking – just that they were coming to Adi’s parents house to tell me their stories. That was enough to get the government to threaten them not to participate. Adi could never have done the same thing as Anwar in that respect. Of course, one develops one’s filmmaking approach and style in collaboration with the characters, and I would never have used the same methods with Adi as I would have with Anwar.
The eye device that Adi uses, as an optometrist, is such an aesthetically and visually overwhelming motif throughout the film. I thought the fact that the content and presentation of the film alone were able to turn something mundane into such a meaningful and metaphorical object was one of the most fascinating features of the documentary. I’m not sure if I read too much into it, but I always saw this sort of duality in that the eye device is both necessary to help these killers, but is also used to pacify them in a way; whilst providing the scenes where the audience’s vision is broadened the most.
It certainly was, and so was the parallel between the eye and the fish. The Act of Killing begins and ends with the fish and The Look of Silence opens with the eye. Robert Bresson talks about vision being the mysterious force that binds your two or three most disparate images. Robert Bresson was a fiction filmmaker, but when you think of non-fiction filmmaking as an exploration as opposed to storytelling, as I do: you don’t have a map, you don’t have a script, but you do have a vision, and that’s your pole star. That’s what guides you. For me, if you think of the first three shots of The Look of Silence – Inong’s eye framed by the test lenses, the beans jumping on the floor in the title of the film, and Adi’s face watching the perpetrator singing – in between those three images is really the vision for the whole film. That’s something… you have to look for those metaphors really early into the shoot otherwise you’re lost. You’re right that the eye tests… when Adi proposed that he wanted to confront the perpetrators I said, “No, that’s too dangerous,” but when he proposed this method I thought it might be safe to do so. I thought it would be both wise from a safety perspective, and insightful from a poetic perspective, to approach these men through eye tests. I realised it would disarm the perpetrators – that vulnerability you talked about – and they would be able to speak openly while Adi could prolong for as long as necessary.
For the perpetrator to describe for Adi the same things he would have described for me years earlier – so that Adi would have had a basis for the confrontations without ever having to say, “I know what you did from Joshua’s footage,” which would have made the perpetrators feel trapped. But I also understood that, given how I expected the perpetrators to talk – the tone – I kind of assumed their boasting would take a slightly more sinister tone with Adi. I assumed that talking to an American, they would have been trying to impress me assuming I approved of what they did. With them talking to an Indonesian at that point I knew they would boast, but as a kind of threat. I anticipated what you kind of see with Adi’s first confrontation with Inong, where he would tell these stories – one after another – and then pause, letting the story hang in the air for a frightening effect. You would see storytelling as an instrument of terror.
Indeed, the confrontation with Inong begins with Adi asking, “Are the people in your community.. Do they know what you did?” He says, “Yes, everyone is afraid of me.” Then he starts telling these awful stories and it’s clear that the reason people are afraid of him is because of these stories. Then because of the ways he talks, and seeing that, I understood that him using storytelling as an instrument of terror – and telling such unspeakable stories – while Adi impassively, or at least struggling to remain impassive, tests his eyes – would be this kind of metaphor for blindness. Here’s a man whose profession and mission is to help people see, confronting people who are wilfully blind, and exploiting their power – so their blindness is never confronting, and using storytelling to frighten others into accepting their power. So when I was shooting and heard him telling stories like cutting off women’s breasts and drinking blood with his eyes being tested, I felt like I was looking at an image from a Hieronymus Bosch painting. That was when I recognised this would be the key image of the film, like I figured out with the fish – even though I figured that out with the fish a lot later into production.
I think it’s interesting how someone like Inong is very passionate about telling his stories, but seems incapable of reconciling with the moral consequence or culpability.
It’s moral blindness, and moral denial. He’s not denying what he did. He’s denying its moral meaning.
Yeah, and I remember when Adi’s pushing him on this, saying: “Every killer I meet – none of them feel responsible.”, “You’re trying to wash your hands of it.” Adi’s main concern feels very self-examining, concerned with this idea of navigating his, his family’s, and that of survivors more generally, collages of pain and fear. There’s that one line where he’s pushing Inong and he responds, “You ask much deeper questions than Joshua ever has.” Did you expect Adi to go to this extent with his questioning?
I guess I did of sort of know that… Adi said recently at a Q&A we were doing in Paris together that, “Joshua had no choice but to make this film with me and to confront the perpetrators with me, because if he didn’t, he knew I would go on my own, and then I would maybe be killed… and with Joshua there they couldn’t touch me.” I did know that Adi would face his brother’s murderers, with this incredible mixture of composure, and calm, and empathy, and honesty – moral honesty. You see Adi’s not afraid to speak the moral truth. That’s why he’s a great collaborator for me. If there’s anything that motivates both of my films it’s an intolerance for hypocrisy, at the deepest and most insidious and most subtle levels. That said, I feel that there’s also a practical point that’s probably obscured from viewers. If you think about The Act of Killing, with Adi Zulkadry when I say to him, “What you did was a war crime,” and he responds “War crimes are defined by the winner and I’m a winner,” before he says, “Look, maybe everything you’re finding out is true, but it’s not good.” I say, “Well look, for the millions of victims’ families, if the truth comes out it’s good.” I think that scene shows I’m on the side of the victims. I think it’s easy to forget such lines and think the difference between The Look of Silence and The Act of Killing is that Adi and me are more confronting together – that’s not entirely true. In The Act of Killing we’re pretty confrontational as well.
In The Look of Silence, Adi’s meeting men who I’d only filmed for one or two days, not for five days. I’d filmed those men, like Inong, when I was filming every perpetrator I could find, working my way up the chain of command. I didn’t confront them, because I was still trying to find out what happened and how it happened – and I didn’t want the process to stop before we’d even begun. The one exception to this is the final family we confront, where I’d gone beyond the research stage with that family. I’d spent three months working with them to dramatise the illustrated memoir of their father. It never occurred to us that they would lie to us, because I would know that they’re lying. The idea of that scene was that Adi would go and say, “I know who you are, you know who I am, and we have to live together. It’s not your fault what your father did. Wouldn’t it be a tragedy if my daughter wanted to marry your son and we couldn’t come together because of their past – how shall we live together?” But because they knew I had them on film talking about these things, and because I came with Ramli’s brother, they panicked and they lied and they pretended they didn’t know what their father – Amir Hasan – had done. And in confronting them with the old footage, it wasn’t to humiliate or upset them, but simply to get beyond that lie.
I guess it’s less about the process of Adi confronting these men and their reactions, but also about looking for the first time at the face and emotional responses of a survivor in this story. I feel this unwavering way in which Adi moves through the documentary is astounding, and that bravery in how he pushes and pushes each figure he’s questioning is incredible. Did working with him so intimately compromise how you viewed figures like Anwar, or do you feel that the sense of empathy The Act of Killing creates isn’t really compromised by The Look of Silence, but instead broadened in a way?
One of the problems with storytelling and dramaturgy is that we empathise very often with one character at the expense of another. I think it’s also worth distinguishing between empathy and sympathy. I think in The Act of Killing we empathise – and maybe sympathise but not necessarily – with Anwar. I think in The Look of Silence we see the perpetrators and we see the boastful demonstration and dramatisation of the perpetrators through the survivors’ eyes; and we understand what it’s like to live in haunted silence while surrounded by this boasting. I think the perpetrators react with panic as they’re forced to look into the moral mirror of Adi. Adi in The Look of Silence is the equivalent of Anwar’s dramatisations in The Act of Killing. They panic not because they’re afraid of Adi or because they’re afraid of me, but because they’re afraid of themselves. They’re afraid of what they see in the mirror of Adi’s questions, in the mirror of Adi’s gaze. Adi looks at them as a human being and insists upon seeing them as human beings because he says, “If you could just take responsibility for what you’ve done, I could forgive you.” That doesn’t make it easier though, it makes it harder – because they have to see the survivors as human beings. They’re forced to empathise with the survivors for a second, and in that moment they see Adi, Ramli and all their victims as human beings and the armour of lies they’ve predicated on not feeling the humanity of the survivors’ breaks. Having the courage to go and look at them in this humanising way, they’re forced to see their victims as human beings. That said, we’re forced to see them through Adi’s eyes, as human beings. And that doesn’t mean we sympathise, we might identify more with Adi in those confrontations, but we surely focus with intimacy and precision and empathy on the reactions of the perpetrators – which, albeit disappointing, are understandable from a human perspective. If somebody comes into your home and says, “Look, you’ve killed my brother, can you take responsibility for this?”, and if you’ve lived your whole life in denial of the moral meaning of what you’ve done, of course you’ll panic. The reactions of the perpetrators are recognisable, familiar, human reactions – so of course they receive empathy too, even if we’re wishing they’d react differently.
Where The Act of Killing was very revelatory on the international stage, and caused some huge shifts in the way in which the issue is talked about in Indonesia, I was wondering – considering this is one of the biggest factors of the film that isn’t covered as much – how extensive the impact of the pair of films has been in this discourse in Indonesia?
I think… I mean, Indonesia’s a huge country. It’s as big in population and expanse as the United States. We think millions – perhaps tens of millions, but probably not – of people have seen The Act of Killing. But the country has 300 million people, and the bigger impact is the media response and the political response. Beforehand, the media was silent or celebrating towards the killings. Now the media talks about this as a crime against humanity. Now younger Indonesians are hearing all across the country, whether or not they’ve seen the film, that the present day oligarchy – which is what Indonesia is – emerged through genocide, and that the present-day oligarchs are either the perpetrators or connected to the perpetrators. Because of that there’s this rampant corruption, fear and thuggery. The Act of Killing led to some beginning of an acknowledgement. You can say what The Act of Killing fundamentally did was to create an intervention into the dynamics of cognitive dissonance. It forced people to acknowledge things and talk about things that they already knew, but were too afraid to discuss or didn’t have words for. You could say that the second film came into this big space, opened by the first film, also like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes, intervening in the cognitive dissonance, helping people to acknowledge the abyss of fear and guilt dividing everybody in this society. The second film has had a much wider release, it’s screened over 3,500 times across Indonesia. We estimate approximately 300,000 people have seen the film. But it was named the film of the year in much of Indonesian media last year and it’s energised this discussion. Everyone who has seen it, journalists and more progressive politicians, has come away from it saying, “We need a truth and reconciliation process and we need some form of justice.” You leave that film not feeling hopeful, but staring into this abyss that divides people; looking at the prison of fear in which survivors are forced to live their lives – and also where the perpetrators are forced to live theirs. And especially for younger Indonesians, those truths are intolerable once they are exposed and acknowledged.
I mean, it will still be a struggle, and I can only give you anecdotes because there’s been no systematic survey, but… an army general in Central Java made his soldiers watch it. There were these surreal photographs on Facebook of hundreds of soldiers in uniform sitting crosslegged watching it. Why he did that? I don’t know, but I’m sure they were all moved. The army has pressured the board to ban the film, and we know that the Human Rights Commission – the official distributor of the film – is appealing that. It’s not banned for community screenings, which continue unabated. But it’s banned for commercial cinema and festival screenings. We know for a while that the army tried to cancel screenings by hiring thugs to threaten to attack screenings and then using that as a basis to demand for screenings to be cancelled saying, “We can’t ensure public safety.” In response to that, a group of students in Central Java barricaded themselves into their university campus and went ahead with the screening and that was celebrated as so courageous by the Indonesian mass media that the army reconsidered their strategy of cancelling screenings, and that’s ended and screenings continue without being threatened. I think the biggest conclusion is that the distribution of The Look of Silence has exposed fault lines within the government. You have progressive agencies like the Jakarta Arts Council and the National Human Rights Commission distributing the film, and you have the film censorship film banning it, and you have the shadow state around the Indonesian Military doing everything they can to stop it moving forward.
The government has not changed the official school curriculum because to do so would be to acknowledge that the wealth and power of the oligarchs and the perpetrators is illegitimate – that it’s the spoils of murder and plunder. In response to that the Indonesian Association of History Teachers have produced an alternate history curriculum so they can say in school, “This is what we’re supposed to teach you, and now this is the truth.” For upper secondary students that involves showing my two films. So there’s an ongoing struggle over history in Indonesia that this film has catalysed. How long that goes for, and how it resolves and how long that process takes is anyones guess. There are just promising signs.
It seems like there’s almost this process of those in power, those oligarchs, having to negotiate with the fact that—
Their lives are no longer believed.
But also the genuine sincerity present in the possibility of forgiveness in reconciliation offered by figures like Adi. Does the slow gradual process of both of your films gaining this traction in Indonesia feel like it’s moving in this direction of a slow, but eventual process of truth and reconciliation?
It’s really hard to know. It’s a very big country. There’s also another piece to this, which is international exposure. A historian wrote that the history of 1965 genocide has entered a new stage now that the world is aware of it; and Indonesia’s celebration and denial of what happened is being exposed internationally – and there’s a self-consciousness about the Indonesian perpetrators’ policy now. This was true after The Act of Killing, and still is, but now the perpetrators in Indonesia never boast. You couldn’t make either of these films any more. Things have changed in that very simple sense. But it’s hard, it’s hard because the perpetrators realising the survivors are capable of forgiving doesn’t for the perpetrators as a whole make it easier – because it forces them to confront themselves. Also, there’s an open-ended question of justice. It’s not something I address in the film because Adi is perfectly incapable of delivering it and I’m not a court. But what justice? What ritual? I mean, if you define justice as a ritual that society must go through to return certain forms of behaviour firmly and publicly into the realm of the forbidden. What justice society requires is also an open question. And what survivors will be able to achieve; what they want; what the younger generation of Indonesians want; what the relationship between a truth and reconciliation process and justice will be – all of these remain open questions and questions for Indonesians themselves to determine.
I think there’s this interesting shift from the more Dusan Makavejev-inspired style of cinema verité of The Act of Killing to a more humanistic, slow-burning piece that borders on a character study as a study of pain. I was interested – with you mentioning Bresson in relation to its images – as to whether those earlier, more surrealistic and experimental influences and tendencies were still present while you were shooting The Look of Silence?
The Act of Killing is a film about escapism and guilt, so inevitably it’s a flamboyant fever dream of a film. The Look of Silence is immersing you in one family and I think actually, it’s less flamboyant, and maybe therefore in more subtle ways it’s just as unconventional. Take the sound design for instance, we removed all the sound. This is not normally done in documentary. Imagine you have these scenes, these confrontations – and you have dogs barking and cars outside and clattering in the kitchen – where we took all the sound out and you just have the voices left. Then we rebuilt it, adding only the sounds that we want you to perceive; adding sounds from outside the room only when we want you to perceive the fact that characters, after this confrontation, will have to return to their lives – and how will their new encounter with their lives be shaped, and forever changed? So in the scene where the daughter apologises to Adi on her father’s behalf, at some point we hear children crying outside and we’re reminded that she’ll have to return to her life as a mother. That’s because I want you to be where they are, in their heads, in this moment. When Adi’s talking to a perpetrator, they’re here and I want the viewer entirely here too. I don’t want the viewer thinking, “That’s what an Indonesian village sounds like,” so I’ve taken all of that out. It took ten weeks, it was probably more expensive than the shooting of the whole film. We took six weeks of sound mixing, where a normal documentary would have one to two weeks, where we layered all the sound and almost created a score out of the found sound. One of the other things that Robert Bresson said was, “Never use a score, let the sounds be the score.” There are 16 to 18 layers of crickets, and they’re separate, they’re different. There’s a solo cricket that trills, there’s a chorus of crickets, and there are many layers in between. When we’re on these haunted, wide open landscape shots, we’re playing these crickets like a symphony. And when we’re close to Adi as he’s washing his grandfather, there’s one cricket without any reverberation on it, so it’s like the ghost of Ramli right here.
In the complete version of The Act of Killing it’s cut through with these moments of absolute silence, where time stops and we feel the haunted space in which the whole film is unfolding. Those landscape shots, which culminate in the final shot of the film – the fish – start in the haunted urban landscapes, with one figure off in dusky light. These landscapes, where the haunted place becomes a character, we shot at the same time as the landscape shots for The Look of Silence. I knew when I was shooting The Look of Silence that I wanted to bring the viewer into any one of those haunted silence that punctuate the so-called director’s cut of The Act of Killing and make you feel what it is like to have to live there. Then I was trying to find ways of filming Adi’s family where we’re focused very precisely on the subtle traces left by the fear that constitutes the silence; because it’s not a peaceful silence, it’s the stillness of nitroglycerin. It’s a potentially explosive silence. It’s like this tabletop. This tabletop seems inert, but if you wrap it with your knuckles it hurts, because it is actually constituted from trillions of electrons – in flux, swarming – pushing electrons back on your knuckles. So trying to make visible the ghosts, the fear, the trauma that forms a kind of prism in which the survivors manage to live with a kind of love, dignity and grace, it demanded we create a kind of poetic cinematic language which is far from conventional. I don’t know how much it … I mean, Dusan Makavejev is a flamboyant filmmaker. Maybe this film is less flamboyant than what I would normally be inclined to create, but it feels like the right tone.
On what you would normally be inclined to create… I was interested in your earlier films and noticed there was an article from The Harvard Crimson—
—in 1997, that looked at what I feel is this activism-driven tendency that is present in your work to date; this same kind of confrontational style where it read: “In London, Oppenheimer infiltrated a group dedicated to using prayer and electroshock therapy to turn gay men straight. Posing as the group’s security coordinator, he managed to help sabotage a conference by releasing locusts and flies in the church which hosted the event.”
Oh no! *laughs* I think I lied, maybe, about the the locusts and flies in the church… I don’t know.
Haha, I hope it’s true. It’s a fantastic anecdote. But yeah, I guess it’s just a certain early example of this much more matured technique, but also this element of activism and political filmmaking – even in the surreal and political The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase – that has been present throughout your career. I was interested in what kind of a role you feel activism has in cinema and what kind of a role you feel your own work plays in that?
I think I came to filmmaking not because I wanted to tell stories, but because I wanted to explore and then make visible and translate for viewers the mystery and the manifold forms of perception, and consciousness, and experience. And this is political, of course, because politics are not to be distinguished from the personal. It is how we live our lives, together as a species. You can’t distinguish between the individual and the society because we clothe ourselves, feed ourselves, and raise our children through our social relationships. And so, I think that going all the way back to the very early days of my experience as a filmmaker… what there is in common is this exploration of these very big questions about how we live together, but from a place of extreme intimacy and closeness. You use the word infiltration, maybe that’s what I used for what I was doing then, but of course that is about trying to explore the lived experience of a community and a society and an institution; of a phenomenon from a place of closeness… from within. I don’t see myself as an activist out of deference for activists, who have a much harder job than what I have. I see the role of the filmmaker, the role of the artist, as holding up a mirror to us – where we’re forced, or invited, or seduced, into seeing ourselves. What we see in that mirror shocks us, but it’s not the shock of the new, it’s the shock of the familiar. It’s this uncanny sense of, “Oh, is that really me? Of course it is, and now I have to address that.” This enables us – like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes – to acknowledge problems that are either too painful, too frightening, too difficult, or too mysterious for us to talk about. But having thus acknowledged them, activism becomes possible because now you can start to address those problems. You cannot address a problem that you’re too afraid even to acknowledge. So my films are political insofar as they open the way for addressing problems that we were too frightened to address before – or unable to address before, or reluctant to look at before. But they’re not activism in and of themselves, and the activism that occurs in Indonesia in response to my films would not be my work but the work of the Indonesian people.
I guess with not much time left at all… I wanted to know what you’re planning on doing next?
Musicals. That’s all I can say. *laughs*