Chattering Class

Joshua Oppenheimer Aims to Move Beyond Fear in ‘The Look of Silence’

The Oscar-nominated documentarian discusses his follow-up to "The Act of Killing." In "The Look of Silence,"an Indonesian genocide survivor confronts killers still in power.

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Photo Credit: Daniel Bergeron

Rico Gagliano: Last year, we spoke to documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer about his astonishing Oscar-nominated documentary “The Act of Killing.” It takes place in Indonesia, where in the ’60s, the military regime labeled hundreds of thousands of citizens “communists,” and enlisted civilian death squads to murder them en masse.

Many death squad members are now in position of political power in Indonesia, and in “The Act of Killing,” Oppenheimer convinced them to re-enact their atrocities. Which they did with a stunning mixture of pride and deep psychological denial.

Joshua has now followed that up with a companion documentary called “The Look of Silence.” It hits theaters this weekend. Joshua, honored to have you back.

Joshua Oppenheimer: It’s great to be back, thank you.

Rico Gagliano: This film also deals with the mass murders in Indonesia. For those who haven’t seen it — most people — tell us: how this is different from the first one?

Joshua Oppenheimer: Well in “The Look of Silence,” we follow survivors who confront perpetrators who remain in power. That’s never been done before, because it’s too dangerous.

Here we have the main character of the film, Adi Rukun, meeting the men who killed his older brother — killed before he was born, a brother he never met. And asking — while testing their eyes, he’s an optometrist — he’s asking them to take responsibility for what they’ve done, and then confronting them about what it really means and what it’s meant for his family.

Rico Gagliano: So, in the first film, the killers kind of tell their own story. In this one, one of their victims confronts them.

As you say, this is a very dangerous task Adi undertakes. Tell me about him. Why did he rise to do this? How did he have the courage to do it? I mean, you told me last time you were here, that for your last film you tried to interview survivors of the killings, and when the government found out, it forbade them from participating. How was Adi able to do this?

Joshua Oppenheimer: Actually, it was Adi and his family that I was working with back in 2003 when the army threatened all of the survivors not to participate in the film. And it was Adi who most insistently said, “I need to meet the men who killed my brother. I need to confront them.” I immediately said, “Absolutely not, it’s too dangerous.”

Well, I had given Adi a camera. It was kind of visual notebook I had given him. And when I told him, “No, we cannot do this,” he said, “Let me explain why it’s so important to me.”

And he went and he got that camera, and he got one tape, and pressed play, and immediately started to cry. It’s a scene where his father was crawling through the house lost, calling for help.

Adi and his mother, Rohani, share a solemn moment in Drafthouse Films' and Participant Media's "The Look of Silence." Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media.
Adi and his mother, Rohani, share a solemn moment in “The Look of Silence.” Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, at the end of this film that scene appears, right?

Joshua Oppenheimer: It comes at the end of “The Look of Silence.” It’s the only scene in the movie Adi shot. His father is lost, calling for help in his own house. A man who’s 103 years old, according to his ID card.

Rico Gagliano: Yes, he’s very old. [And in this scene] he’s clearly suffering from dementia. He doesn’t really know where he is anymore.

Joshua Oppenheimer: And Adi said to me, “This is the first day my father could not remember me, my brothers and sisters, my mother. This is the moment it becomes too late for my father to heal. He has forgotten the son whose murder has destroyed his life, his family’s life… but he has not forgotten the fear.”

We watched the scene play out in silence, and then he said to me, “Joshua, I don’t my children to inherit this prison of fear from my father, my mother, and from me. And I think that if I approach the perpetrators with an openness — not seeking revenge, not out of anger — they will greet this as this opportunity to, first of all, make peace with some of their neighbors. And above all, to be forgiven by one of their victims’ families.”

Adi, an optometrist who seeks to confront the death squad leaders responsible for his brother's death during the 1965 Indonesian genocides in Drafthouse Films' and Participant Media's "The Look of Silence." Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media.
Adi, an optometrist who seeks to confront the death squad leaders responsible for his brother’s death during the 1965 Indonesian genocides in “The Look of Silence.” Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media.

Rico Gagliano: Let me ask you about some of those people that he talks to, though. They don’t seem like they all greet him with open arms, as a chance to finally express regret or to revisit their past. A lot of them, in fact, in one way or another, say that he’s opening wounds that shouldn’t be reopened.

And it’s not just them. Adi’s wife worries for his safety for doing this. A man who has escaped being killed, more or less says, “There’s no point in dwelling on this stuff, you have to move on. No good can come of it.” What’s your response to that?

Joshua Oppenheimer: Well again and again in the film, we hear people say, “Let the past be past.” The survivors always say it out of fear, and the perpetrators always say it as a threat. Indicating that the past isn’t past, that the wound isn’t closed, it’s right there. It’s empowering the perpetrators to threaten people, and it’s keeping the survivors afraid. And if it’s not addressed, there will be no way of moving beyond the fear.

Rico Gagliano: Is Adi safe, do you think, after this movie comes out? I mean, in some of these scenes, the perpetrators seem caught off guard that they’re suddenly being questioned about the killings. I’m surprised that some of them didn’t confiscate the footage as soon as you were done shooting.

Joshua Oppenheimer: Well, this is just it. After Adi explained to me why he wanted to do this, I then said, “Let me think about it.” I went back and talked to my Indonesian crew, and we realized that I was well known across that region for having made a film — “The Act of Killing” — with some of the most powerful men in the country. And, because “The Act of Killing” had not yet come out, people still believed I was close to these men.

Rico Gagliano: Oh, like they were your buddies or something?

Joshua Oppenheimer: Well, once “The Act of Killing” came out, the most powerful men in the film, of course, now hate me, and it’s their henchmen who send me regular death threats–

Rico Gagliano: But at this point, “The Act of Killing” hadn’t came out, so people thought you were somehow connected with them.

Joshua Oppenheimer: That’s right. And the men Adi wants to confront, the men who killed his brother, are regionally powerful, some of them, but not nationally powerful. And they would not dare to detain us even, let alone physically attack us, because they wouldn’t want to offend their highest-ranking commanders. And so that was the strange condition that allowed us to do this safely.

Adi questions Commander Amir Siahaan, one of the death squad leaders responsible for his brother's death during the Indonesian genocide, in Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary "The Look of Silence." Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media.
Adi questions Commander Amir Siahaan, one of the death squad leaders responsible for his brother’s death during the Indonesian genocide. Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media.

In the end, eight months before the film had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, we came together — me, my crew, Adi’s family — in Thailand, to look at a rough cut of the film and discuss whether we should release the film or not, whether we should wait until the perpetrators have passed away, or until there’s been real political change in Indonesia.

The family saw the film and said, “The film should come out now, we’re willing to move to Europe if necessary.” And the team involved with releasing the film said, “It should be possible, if the reaction is as positive as we think it will be, for Adi and his family to stay in Indonesia, provided they’re willing to move to another part of the country, out from under the shadow of the men in the film, the men who have been intimidating the family for so long.”

Rico Gagliano: Kind of local leaders.

Joshua Oppenheimer: The local leaders. It should be possible for them to stay in Indonesia and for Adi to play the very central role, that he now actually is playing. He’s seen by many in Indonesia now as a kind of national hero, by the public and much of the media.

Rico Gagliano: Actually that leads me to, I think, a good end to this interview. You told me last time that making “The Act of Killing” gave you nightmares, because it forced you to empathize with murderers. Did maybe this film help you sleep better?

Joshua Oppenheimer: Yeah, that’s a beautiful way of putting it.

With “The Act of Killing,” people always ask, “Weren’t you afraid of making it?” And I’m sure they mean “Wasn’t it dangerous? Because you were filming with powerful people who have done terrible things.”

It wasn’t physically frightening to make, because the government was rolling out a red carpet for everything we did. When we were confronting the perpetrators with the survivors, it was sometimes terrifying. But it was emotionally healing. It was a wonderful way to end this chapter in my life.

It’s sad for me that I cannot return to Indonesia. Unlike Adi who has not been threatened, I still receive regular threats. But to leave Indonesia, with this family that I love so deeply… has been a great privilege and a great honor.