Director Joshua Oppenheimer received international acclaim a few years ago for The Act of Killing, a groundbreaking documentary about the Indonesian genocide of 1965-66. Rather than deliver a straightforward history lesson, Oppenheimer introduced viewers to several perpetrators of the genocide, who not only described the atrocities they committed, but even dramatized some of them onscreen. This shocking approach conveys the horrifying reality of contemporary Indonesia, where the perpetrators of the genocide remain in power, having never been brought to justice for their crimes. Tomorrow the Music Box will begin a run of The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer’s companion film to Killing. More subdued but no less haunting than its predecessor, Silence considers the perspective of Indonesians who lost family members in the genocide. The film centers on an optometrist named Adi Rukun, whose older brother was among the many casualties in 1965. In a series of powerful sequences, Rukun confronts some of the men responsible for his brother’s death—not with the purpose of shaming these men, but rather so he might forgive them and come to peace. I recently spoke with Oppenheimer about the making of Silence and his approach to filmmaking.
Ben Sachs: How did you meet Adi Rukun?
Joshua Oppenheimer: It was back in 2003. We were introduced when I began my work on the present-day legacy of the 1965 genocide. I had been teaching plantation workers how to make their own films to document their struggle to organize a union. This was the plantation where [Adi’s brother] Ramli was murdered. And Ramli had become synonymous in that region with the genocide as a whole, because his was the one murder that had witnesses. Tens of thousands of people had been killed and their families had never been told of their murders, which meant that they couldn’t properly mourn, or even talk about what happened, really. They couldn’t say that their loved ones had died—they would simply say that they haven’t come home yet.
So people would talk about Ramli as a way of giving expression to the grief they couldn’t articulate in relation to their own loved ones. It was inevitable that I was introduced to Ramli’s family, because he was the most well-known victim in the region. His mother, Rohani, wanted me to meet Adi, saying that she was going crazy in 1966 and ’67, after Ramli was killed, and having Adi enabled her to continue living.
She called him to the village, and I met this young man who was profoundly curious to understand what had happened to his parents to make them who they are. Adi had never known that every house in his village had lost between one and three people in the genocide. But he knew that something had happened that no one was talking about, and that there was this terrible absence in his own family. He latched onto my filmmaking as a way of answering these basic questions about his country, his village, and his parents. He started gathering survivors to tell me their stories. And then, three weeks into that process, the army came and threatened the survivors not to participate. Adi called me to a midnight meeting in his parents’ home and said, “You must not give up. You must film the perpetrators instead.” And that’s what led to The Act of Killing and ultimately to The Look of Silence.
So you shot the first footage of the perpetrators in 2003, and it’s 2015 now. What’s it like living and working with such horrifying material for more than a decade? How did you grow as a filmmaker across that time?
I think these films have made me the filmmaker who I am. It was Adi who forced me to see the perpetrators as human beings. He often knew them from his community—some of them were his schoolteachers. He didn’t realize that they were involved in the murders until after he saw my footage. He already knew them as people, so he had no choice but to see them that way. He couldn’t indulge in the escapist fantasy that we somehow have nothing to do with these people.
Once I recognized that the perpetrators were human, then I realized the only hope to prevent this kind of violence is to understand how human beings do this to one another and how their humanity is involved in the self-deception that produces a “victor’s history.” I came to realize that in order to understand these human beings, I had to become close to them. And that involved spending the better part of a decade exploring some of the most painful aspects of what it means to be human. Doing that was painful and frightening, but it was ultimately a privilege. Not only did I learn a great deal, but this helped me overcome that most crippling fear of all—which is really the enemy of any genuine art—which is the fear of looking.
Much of the movie is about exactly that—looking. You have these sequences where Adi is watching footage of the perpetrators on a TV screen, and rather than show the footage, you hold these long close-ups of Adi’s face. It’s almost like he’s a surrogate for the audience. I was wondering what motivated these parts of the film.
I wanted to show the viewer what these men look like through Adi’s humanizing gaze. In early 2012 when I returned [to Indonesia] to make The Look of Silence—this was after editing The Act of Killing, but before the film had its first screening, because I knew I couldn’t safely return to Indonesia [after the film premiered]—it was Adi who said to me, “I need to confront the perpetrators, because I think if I go to them not seeking revenge, they will welcome this as an opportunity to take responsibility for what they’ve done. And I think I’ll be able to forgive them, because I’ll no longer identify them with their crime. I’ll be able to separate their humanity from the crimes they’ve committed.”
So these shots force us to see the perpetrators through that perspective. We feel Adi’s sadness and disquiet and grief and anger in response to these shockingly boastful demonstrations of how they killed his brother. And seeing that he’s watching the footage [reminds us] that we’re seeing the result of a filmmaking process. In that sense this is a film about cinema itself, about cinema’s capacity to intervene in a context of forced forgetting.
In your opinion, how does cinema differ from journalism, in terms of how it can intervene in reality?
Journalism, I think, is about going out, finding new information, and framing it so it can be understood in the service of some public good. That’s what journalism, at least, should be—I’m not sure if it usually is. In that sense, journalism provides a window onto phenomena that people need to know about but otherwise wouldn’t. My films, rather, provide mirrors, in which everybody sees themselves. The shock is not the shock of the new, but the shock of the familiar. It’s when you look in the mirror and are forced to confront a mysterious and painful aspect of who you are.
I should add that both journalism and art can open the way for activism. Art forces us to talk about some of our most important problems. Once you have to talk about them, it becomes inevitable that you address them. The only alternative is to pretend that the problem isn’t there and return to a kind of silence that the artistic encounter has rendered impossible.
But there’s also the experience of consuming art, which you seem to value highly. I’ll never forget your filmed introduction for The Act of Killing, where you described it as a “magical” experience. I didn’t expect to hear that, based on what it was about. Could you talk a bit about your definition of movie magic and how that relates to your work?
In my films, I’m looking to immerse people in a world of mystery. I see my task as a filmmaker as translating the mystery I experience in shooting a film into an experience for the viewer. But I think a better answer to your question can be found in the relationship between the two films, The Look of Silence and The Act of Killing. [Killing] isn’t a documentary, but a kind of nonfiction fever dream, where we’re immersed in the delirium of the perpetrators. The director’s cut [which was released theatrically in Europe and Asia and can be seen on the American DVD] is shot through with these abrupt cuts to silent, haunted landscapes. That’s the one part of Act of Killing that I shot at the same time as Look of Silence, these haunted landscapes where there’s just one or two figures, often surrounded by derelict buildings or shopping malls where you feel this cold hollowness. These are abrupt shifts in perspective from the perpetrators to the absent dead, to the ghosts that haunt the space where Act of Killing takes place.
In Look of Silence I tried to bring the viewer into any one of those silences that punctuates the director’s cut of Act of Killing and make you feel what it would be like to live there as a survivor, surrounded by the still-powerful men who killed your loved ones. I see the result, again, not as an issue-oriented documentary, but a highly dramatic poem, composed in memoriam to all that’s been destroyed—to the dead, of course, but also to the lives that have been broken by half a century of fear and unresolved trauma. I hope that these two films are experiences of mystery and, consequently, of magic. They’re not films where we’re having a distant world explained to us. We’re actually being immersed in that world, so it’s no longer distant, so it becomes our world.
I understand that you spent several months working on the sound design of The Look of Silence. Could you talk about the significance of the soundtrack?
Sound is immersive—it’s almost physical. So I wanted to remove all the ambient sounds that other documentary filmmakers might have left in, sounds that create an authentic sense of what a place sounds like. I wanted people, for the most part, to be in the intimate spaces between the characters. I spent ten weeks just removing the ambient sound, so all there were were voices. Then I put sounds back, building up the soundtrack from zero. This way the viewer would feel the environment only when I wanted them to.
For example, during the confrontation between Adi and the perpetrator whose daughter finds the courage and humanity to apologize to Adi, we hear—after she realizes that her father was not the hero that she thought he was and that she’d have to spend the rest of her life looking after a man who’d become a stranger—we hear the sound of her children crying outside. I wanted you to realize at that precise moment that she’s also a mother who has children to raise. I took out the sound of the children laughing and playing elsewhere in the scene, when I didn’t want you to think about that. In another scene, I put in the sound of a passing car when one of the perpetrators is boasting about some of the horrific things he did, so you understand that this took place in a society. And in some of the landscape shots, we hear this chorus of crickets—16 tracks of crickets, in fact—that form this kind of symphony. I think of it as a symphony of ghosts.