Interview With Joshua Oppenheimer

With the likes of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris proclaiming The Look of Silence as ‘One of the greatest and most powerful documentaries ever made’, it’s no wonder the film has become the most anticipated documentary of the year. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, the film follows a quiet Indonesian optometrist, Adi, as he confronts the perpetrators of the barbaric 1965 Indonesian genocide, in which his older brother was viciously murdered. In less than a year, between one and three million people were murdered by government ‘death squads’ in an anti-communist purge.

Yet this part of Indonesian history was silenced and repressed by the powers that be for nearly fifty years – until Oppenheimer’s powerful first film The Act of Killing, which features ageing gangsters recreating the murders in increasingly elaborate, surreal and cinematic ways. In The Look of Silence, which forms a diptych with its predecessor, Oppenheimer turns the camera on the victims themselves and explores the prison of fear and suffocating silence imposed by the perpetrators.

We spoke with Joshua Oppenheimer about his latest film, during his return to Berlin for the ’s exclusive preview screening of The Look of Silence + Q&A which took place on the 20th June 2015.


How was it possible to return to Indonesia to shoot The Look of Silence after the hugely controversial release of The Act of Killing? And why was it so important for Adi to confront the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide and his brother’s death?

We shot The Look of Silence in 2012, after editing The Act of Killing but before releasing it – at which point we knew it would no longer be safe for me to return to Indonesia. When I returned, Adi told me that he wanted to meet the perpetrators. I initially refused, saying it would be too dangerous – after all, there has never been a documentary film in which survivors confront perpetrators while the perpetrators still hold a monopoly on power. Then, Adi explained his reason for wanting to meet the perpetrators. He hoped that they would take responsibility for what they did and apologise. If they could do that, he felt he could separate the crime from the human being, and forgive the human being.

What was it about the murder of Adi’s brother, Ramli, that was so significant, considering this is just one of literally millions?

In early 2003, I began investigating one 1965 murder that the plantation workers I was interviewing spoke of frequently, Ramli, who’s name was used almost as a synonym for the killings in general. I came to understand the reason this particular murder was so often discussed: there were witnesses. It was undeniable. Unlike the hundreds of thousands of victims who disappeared at night from concentration camps, Ramli’s death was public. There were witnesses to his final moments, and the killers left his body in the oil palm plantation, less than two miles from his parents’ home. Years later, the family was able to surreptitiously erect a gravestone, though they could only visit the grave in secret.

Survivors and ordinary Indonesians alike would talk about “Ramli,” I think, because his fate was grim evidence of what had happened to all the others, and to the nation as a whole. Ramli was proof that the killings, no matter how taboo, had, in fact, occurred. His death verified for the villagers the horrors that the military regime threatened them into pretending had never occurred, yet threatened to unleash again. To speak of “Ramli” and his murder was to pinch oneself to make sure one is awake, a reminder of the truth, a commemoration of the past, a warning for the future. For survivors and the public on the plantation, remembering “Ramli” was to acknowledge the source of their fear—and thus a necessary first step to overcoming it.


Did you feel that the camera protected or endangered you when confronting the killers and revealing the role they played in the massacres?

I was known throughout the death squad veteran community for filming the governor of the province, the Vice President, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, and the national and regional leaders of the paramilitary organisation, Pancasila Youth, for The Act of Killing. We knew that the men Adi wished to confront would be reluctant to physically attack us, or even to detain us, because they would be anxious not to offend their highest ranking commanders – people they knew had participated in The Act of Killing.

In general, Adi and I would arrive unannounced, and I would tell the perpetrator that I’m returning after all these years with an Indonesian friend, Adi, who has a personal relationship to these issues. I would say that this time I am interested in documenting their dialogue, to see how they speak of these things together. I would explain that Adi is an optometrist, and as a token of our thanks he is offering an eye test and, if necessary, free spectacles.

Blindness is a powerful metaphor throughout the film, brought to life in an incredibly tactile way through the use of these eye tests. How important were these eye tests in serving the purpose of the film?

The eye test serves several purposes. First, it is a powerful metaphor of a man whose profession is to help people see confronting men who are wilfully blind. Second, the eye tests helped keep the confrontations peaceful. They disarm the perpetrators. When we are in doctors’ offices, or dentists’ chairs, we are disarmed, vulnerable, less likely to erupt in violence. In this way, the eye tests helped make the confrontations safer. It is very important that the perpetrators voluntarily tell Adi the most important details of their crimes. Adi has viewed my old footage, so of course he could confront them by saying “I saw what you said in Joshua’s old footage,” but the perpetrators would feel trapped. It was important that the perpetrators know that they told Adi what they did. The eye tests allowed Adi to prolong the first part of the meeting, where the perpetrators describe their crimes, for as long as necessary until all the important details came out.


Did you worry that the perpetrators would talk to each other about what was happening before you got to them?

Yes, and to minimise this risk we worked quickly, shooting one confrontation per day. We were able to work in two batches, because there were, effectively, two chains of command – one leading to the politician, MY Basrun, and one leading to the paramilitary leader, Amir Siahaan. So we could take a break between these.

Were you surprised by any of the perpetrators’ reactions in the film?

Yes, in the final confrontation in the film – the meeting with one of the perpetrators’ family. In summer 2004, I had worked with Amir Hasan, his wife, and his two sons for three months to dramatise the memoir that Amir Hasan wrote (the book Adi shows them during the filming). It therefore never occurred to us that they would deny knowledge of Amir Hasan’s role in the killings. The purpose of our visit was for Adi to express that it’s not their fault what their late father or husband did, but we should find a way of living together as neighbours, as human beings. “My daughter may one day marry your grandson,” Adi said. “How shall we live together?” But because they knew that Adi is Ramli’s brother, they became worried and denied all knowledge of the killings.

Because I’d spent months working with the family to dramatise the killings (a kind of dress rehearsal for what I would begin one year later with Anwar), I never imagined they would lie in this way. They knew that I knew they were lying. When I confront them with footage from 2004 that proves that the mother is lying, I’m not trying to punish or humiliate her. Rather, I’m trying to get past the family’s denial so we can begin to have the dialogue for which we had come. Yet because the mother never would acknowledge that she was lying, we could not have the conversation about the future, and instead everything fell apart. The result exposes the tension and fear that cuts across Indonesian society, the abyss of an unspeakable past that divides neighbour from neighbour.

In terms of theatrical release and distribution in Indonesia – where the topics you explore have exposed a deep wound in the heart of Indonesian society – do you think The Act of Killing paved the way for the acceptance of The Look of Silence?

Definitely. It is because of The Act of Killing that The Look of Silence could have 500 public screenings on the first day of its release. This meant that there have been more screenings of The Look of Silence than there ever were of The Act of Killing – we’re now at over 3,500, and there are more screenings every day. This publicity and prominence, however, led to an army backlash against the film, in which the army organise thugs to threaten to attack the screenings, and then use this as an excuse to demand that screenings be cancelled. While less than 1% of screenings have been cancelled in this way, this intelligence operation (involving both conservative parts of the government and the shadow state) has meant that some screening organisers swapped open screenings for closed screenings. Only when university students in Yogyakarta defied police orders to cancel the screenings, barricading themselves into their campus, did this sort of intimidation end.


Which filmmakers influenced and inspired you most in the making of these films?

André Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu.

How will you move on from such an intense filmmaking experience? What will you be working on next?

A project that builds on the methods I developed in The Act of Killing. In the uncut version of the film (the so-called ‘director’s cut’, available in Germany on DVD and iTunes), I explore a space between documentary and fever dream, and that exploration is only the beginning of what is possible when people play themselves and stage themselves in whatever ways they wish. I hope the result will be wild, beautiful and important, though probably it is doomed to fail.


Tags from the story
, , Documentary, , , joshua oppenheimer, sheffield, the act of killing, the look of silence, toronto
Jack Howard
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