The Look of Silence/Joshua Oppenheimer

Perpetrators responsible for massacring nearly a million of their countrymen are still in power in Indonesia. Many live next door to their victims’ families, who remained ignorant of their loved ones’ fates due to a culture of silence imposed by a continuing reign of terror. That culture of silence was shattered by Joshua Oppenheimer’s film The Act of Killing; the perpetrators, thinking Oppenheimer was recording them in order to glorify their deeds, reenacted how they killed hundreds of thousands of suspected “Communists,” including a man named Ramli. Ramli’s brother Adi encouraged Oppenheimer to keep filming the perpetrators, but with a twist:  Adi himself would confront his brother’s killers to interview them about the massacre.  These astounding interviews constitute The Look of Silence, which was a highlight of the 2014 New York Film Festival.  •Availability:  Opens in New York City at Landmark Sunshine Cinema,  Friday, July 17;  in Los Angeles, Friday, July 24. National rollout to follow. Thanks to Susan Norget, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.


DT:  You shot this film before releasing The Act of Killing because you knew that once Killing was released, you could never return to Indonesia. Can you elaborate on that?


JO:  There’s a scene in The Look of Silence that is the genesis of both films. It’s the scene where the two men take me down to the river and reenact how they killed their victims. They were having a lovely afternoon out, but it was one of the worst afternoons in my life. I was thoroughly traumatized,  because I had a feeling that this is what it would look like if the Nazis had won WWII and two aging SS officers who hardly knew each other got together to reminisce about their work in a death camp.  Secondly, I understood that that awful hypothetical scenario is not the exception to the rule but is the rule across the global south, where we have helped impose regimes of fear and terror.


DT:  You mean the Southern Hemisphere, not the global south of Indonesia?


JO: I mean the third world, the developing countries. I knew then that I would spend as many years of my life as it would take to address that situation, and I knew there would be two films.  One would be about what happens when killers win and there’s total impunity and the perpetrators are free to invent their own version of history and lie to themselves and to the society to justify their actions. It would be about what happens to their humanity living with that guilt and those lies for so many decades and what happens to the whole society.  I knew there would be an epic expose of a regime of fear and the corruption and moral vacuum that that inevitably generates.  That became The Act of Killing, a flamboyant film about escapism and guilt and fantasy and truth.  And I always knew there would be another film—that once the regime was exposed, if you like, there would be a film about what it’s like for the survivors to have to live in that regime.  What does it do to human beings to have to live surrounded by the men who killed their relatives, men who are still in power?  What does it do to a body?  What does it do to a life?  What does it do to a family?  What does it do to emotions?  What does it do to how we grow old?  How we die?  What does it do to children? And I knew that would be a kind of poem about silence and the necessity of breaking silence and the trauma that comes with breaking silence. That of course became The Look of Silence.

I don’t think The Look of Silence could have been shot had The Act of Killing already come out, because although none of the perpetrators we meet in The Look of Silence appear in The Act of Killing—it’s all different people—they believed that I was close to the vice president of Indonesia because he’d been in The Act of Killing.  They thought I was close to the head of Indonesian police.  They thought I was close to the governor of the province.  They thought I was close to the national head of the perpetrators’ paramilitary organization.  So before they would attack us, before they would call their thugs and bodyguards, who were always standing by to physically attack us or detain us, they would have to think two, three, four times, and I think that’s a large part of how we got through it safely.

When Adi proposed that he wanted to meet the killers, at first I said No, that’s dangerous. We’ve never seen a documentary where the survivors confront the perpetrators while the perpetrators are still in power.  Then I realized that because the perpetrators all know me, since I’d filmed with them before, and because they all think that I’ve become close with some of the most powerful people in their network, if we do it quickly enough, and if we work from the lowest-ranking ones to the highest-ranking ones, maybe we could do it.  So I thought, If Adi has a good reason for wanting to do it, I should think about it.

I asked him why he wanted to do it, and he said because he wanted to forgive them.  That astonished me.  I said, Why do you want to forgive them?  After all, at that point he’d spent seven years watching my footage with the perpetrators.  And he said, Because if they could meet me and say this is the brother of someone we’ve killed, they have therefore killed human beings, and maybe they will acknowledge that what they did was wrong.  And if they can acknowledge that what they did was wrong, I can separate the human being from the crime because they’re no longer identifying with it.  They’re no longer saying it was good.  And if I can separate the human being from the crime, perhaps I can forgive the human being and we can then live side by side. He says this in the film to his mother: “We can live side by side as human beings rather than as perpetrator and victim.”  I wasn’t optimistic that that would succeed, because even after working with me for five years, Anwar [the main perpetrator in The Act of Killing] could only glimpse that what he did was wrong, and it was utterly traumatic for him.  He couldn’t  ever acknowledge it in a consistent and self-conscious way.  In a self-aware way.  That was too frightening for him.  So I assumed it wouldn’t work, but I thought it would be an excavation into what truth, reconciliation, and healing could look like if there were social change that would allow it to be a  big social process.  You can’t have a one-man band of the truth and reconciliation process.  So that was why the films were shot that way.


DT:  So the perpetrators in The Act of Killing didn’t realize you were making a film that would expose the massacre?


JO:  There’s a talk show in The Act of Killing where they’re hyping the film production while we were still making it.  It was well known that all of these political leaders were making a film about 1965.  It was known all across the province that all of their superiors were making this film with me, but they hadn’t seen the film.  Anwar, of course, understood that the film was going into his nightmares and his pain and his trauma, but all these powerful politicians who have little cameos just thought the film was glorifying them.


DT:  You didn’t go to Indonesia to make this film; you were there making another film, when the workers on the plantation asked you to come back to make a film about the 1965 massacre.  You came back almost immediately.  What was it about their request that made you respond so quickly?


JO:  The situation on the plantation was terrible, and it was haunting me.  I had been asked to go there for six months to help make a quick film, and I knew nothing about Indonesia. But over the course of the six months I started to learn Indonesian and I became really close with the people I was working with and discovered that the conditions were awful. I was in my twenties, I hadn’t seen all that much of the world, and I couldn’t let it go.  This Belgian corporation called Societe Financiere was making women spray an herbicide with no protective clothing. It was getting into their lungs, then into their bloodstreams, and then destroying their livers. It was killing women in their forties. When we talked about what they could do about it, they were afraid that the company would hire Pancasila Youth squads to attack them. When I told them that was better than dying in their forties, they started opening up about the 1965 genocide—their parents and grandparents had been in a union and had been killed for it, and they were afraid that their whole families could be killed again.

I don’t think the government was killing people for being in unions in 2001, but the fear was still so palpable.  We started to talk about the source of that fear and what had happened, and it was like Garcia Marquez’s Hundred Years of Solitude, where you wandered into this village and you discovered there was the Macondo massacre and then you learn it wasn’t just the Macondo massacre, it was a million people killed. And then you discover the American press was celebrating it.  I just couldn’t let it go, so I went back.


DT:  I was very struck by the fact that the plantation workers urged you to film the perpetrators.  Why did they do that?


JO:  Because they knew I wasn’t out to glorify the perpetrators. Listen, nobody knew what happened during the massacre. All they knew was that their relatives were taken away and never came back.  Everybody on the plantation would talk about Ramli almost obsessively because Ramli was the only murder that had witnesses. To speak about Ramli was to insist that these events really happened.  They heard rumors; the killers—who were their neighbors—would boast about killing people at Snake River, but it was as though people were traumatized by something that the government had threatened them into pretending had never occurred. They would therefore cling to this one shred of reality, almost like a secret talisman. They would cling to Ramli as proof.  And then they thought, Maybe the killers will tell Josh what happened.  So I began to speak to the perpetrators, starting with my next-door neighbor. He’s the man in The Look of Silence who uses his wife to demonstrate how he killed women. When I showed that to the survivors, they saw I was getting details, so they urged me to keep going.  I was getting the only evidence—incontrovertible, because it was confessions from the perpetrators—that this had actually occurred.

It had never been researched in this area.  I showed it to the national human rights commission, and they said, Get this material; we don’t know if the government will accept our reports, but you’re getting the information we’ve never been able to get.  So that was one level of urging:  Keep filming the perpetrators.  Then Adi said, Anyone who sees this material anywhere in the world will be forced to acknowledge just by hearing the way these men speak that something is dreadfully wrong now, not just that something terrible happened then.  And so I think he saw that we could expose and maybe demolish, or change at least, this regime of fear that’s in place today.  So that’s why I spent two years filming all the perpetrators I could find.


DT:  The perpetrators threatened the victims into believing the massacre never occurred, then threatened them with the possibility of it occurring again.  That kind of double speak can make a person psychotic.


JO:  It’s crazy making.


DT:  Exactly.  What effect did you find it had on the villagers and Ramli’s family in particular?


JO:  Terror.  People were afraid all the time.  Ramli’s mother, Rohani, had such beautiful dignity, and I think we love her because there’s a kind of burning anger in that woman.  It’s so refreshing, because it’s a strength that she hasn’t succumbed to the psychological torture of being told this never happened and then having her neighbors boasting about drinking people’s blood.  This woman witnessed and went through such horrible things.

That double speak you’re talking about was precisely what destroyed Rohani’s life and her family. I’ll tell you what happened. After he’s hacked up in the truck, Ramli escapes and gets back to his house, badly injured. Rohani is nursing her son, trying to prevent him from dying.  Then along comes Amir Hassan [the death squad leader] with his people to pick up Ramli, to take him to be killed.  Rohani knows, of course, that they’re taking him to be killed, but she also knows she can’t fight back because she has six other small children around, including Ramli’s children. If she resisted, everyone would be killed.  They had machine guns, and there were a lot of them, so she had to hand her son over to be killed. Now, to make that possible, Amir Hassan says, “I’m going to take him to the hospital.” And Rohani has to believe that in order to be able to do what she has to do, which is to give Ramli over. So in her head, she becomes complicit for the rest of her life.


DT:  How did it make you feel when your footage revealed Ramli’s killer to his family?


JO: That’s probably why that afternoon when I was filming those two men was so terrible. Suddenly there they were telling me how Ramli died; you hear in the film where I say, Wait a minute, continue about Ramli.  We didn’t know—we knew bits of it, we knew that he’d been taken away, but there were lots of things the family didn’t witness.  I guess I had the feeling that I had this horrible message addressed to them that they shouldn’t have to open if they didn’t want to: a letter in the form of this footage.  Adi wanted to see it right away.  Ramli’s children, who barely remember the night he was killed, and Rohani, Ramli’s mother, wanted to see the footage. Ramli’s mother watched it with stoicism and anger.  Ramli’s daughter, who’s older than me, totally fell apart, not because of the details of her father’s death but because of the shameless boasting about how they’d done something so terrible, coupled with the fact that growing up she’d been badly stigmatized.  She’d been singled out in school—in fact by Amir Hassan’s wife, who was a schoolteacher and would single Ramli’s daughter out as a Communist. She would make her stand in front of the class, and they  would ridicule her. That, combined with seeing the shameless and evil, really evil, way that they spoke about this, made her totally upset.  It was terrible.  It was a burden to have that footage.


DT:  The film was executive produced by Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, and Andre Singer.  What was their involvement?


JO: They were so supportive and so important to completing The Act of Killing. Errol was very important in helping create a debate around The Act of Killing and helping audiences come to see it.  When I decided to shorten The Act of Killing to make a shorter version for American cinemas, Werner helped us, with great reluctance. He first told me that was a sin, because he much prefers the uncut version, but then he was very, very helpful giving me fresh eyes through that process, because he understood how important it was that many people see the film.  With this film, I didn’t approach them until I had a fine cut, because I was making the film while I was releasing The Act of Killing, and I wanted Errol and Werner and Andre to do whatever they could for that film.  But when they saw The Look of Silence, they said they wanted to be involved in just the same way.  So they weren’t very involved with shooting or making this film, but they are very supportive now.


DT:  You explore the relationship between political violence and the public imagination.  I imagine that the public imagination changes when the political violence is brought home.  It’s very easy to look at political violence somewhere else.


JO:  I think one of the reasons The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are painful films for people is that I tried very much to not make them films about Indonesia but to make them universal stories. Also, you see very strong, interesting reactions in different countries, depending on how those countries have addressed violence in their own recent history.  America’s a nation of denial, but we’re so polarized that there’s a part of the country that’s very desperate, thirsty even, for people to express political violence that we’ve committed.  We’re also a narcissistic country, so people sometimes respond to the film saying, Why doesn’t the film focus more on American involvement, because surely the CIA did all of this?  And the fact is we were involved, and I talk about that endlessly, but it’s not the case that the Indonesians are not capable of having their own history without the CIA as a puppemaster.  People are making history all over the world, and Indonesians and the CIA involvement is largely still classified. I’m now fighting to get the details of CIA involvement declassified, but until we know that, it’s hard to make an authoritative historical documentary about what our involvement was.  We don’t know, and as I said earlier, these are both films about now.  About today.  Not about what happened in 1965. I really want to look at these issues here at home, too.


DT:  Can you describe the effect that The Act of Killing had on Indonesia?


JO: The Act of Killing has heped catalyze a real transformation in how Inodonesia talks about its past, starting with the media.  The media now reports on the genocide as a genocide.  There was a long editorial in the Jakarta Post yesterday [11/12/14] talking about The Look of Silence and the need to address this genocide, whereas before The Act of Killing, the media couldn’t talk about the killings at all. The public and the media are also arguing that we urgently need to address the genocide’s terrible legacy in the present.  The corruption.  The impunity. The thuggery.

The film’s been screened thousands of times across Indonesia without ever having a commercial release because we didn’t want to provoke a ban by submitting the film to the censors, which you have to do before you release it commercially. If you provoke a ban, then it becomes a crime to watch the film, and that becomes an excuse for the army or paramilitary groups to physically attack screenings. To avoid that, we set up a kind of vast network of community screenings, which was much bigger than you could ever achieve with a commercial release anyways.  And then we made the film available for free online.  It’s been downloaded or watched online millions of times in Indonesia, and its impact has surpassed my most audacious hopes.

There’s a lot more to be done. The Act of Killing has opened a space for talking about the most important problems the society faces. Into that space I hope will come The Look of Silence, showing how urgently we need truth and reconciliation, and how that’s actually possible.



Copyright © Director Talk 2015