'Look of Silence' Director Joshua Oppenheimer Talks Art, Confrontation, and Genocide
The director of "The Act of Killing" and "The Look of Silence" has made two documentary epic poems about long-ignored Indonesian war crimes.
Image courtesy of Drafthouse Films
All clips and stills courtesy of Drafthouse Films
Joshua Oppenheimer's filmmaking career took off when he created The Act of Killing, one of the most conceptually baffling movies of all time; in it, former heads of Indonesian death squads cheerfully filmed reenactments of the mass murders they themselves committed in the 1960s, with the videos stylized in the manner of their choosing. The harrowing, brilliant, sometimes hallucinatory results plunge the viewer into the headspace of people who have done unforgivable things and gone unpunished for them.
Indonesia's relationship to its past genocides is somewhat unique. The imprisonment and mass murder of suspected communists during the rise of Indonesia's US-backed military dictatorship led by General Suharto was carried out more or less openly. The perpetrators of the killings, a ragtag group of civilians who were hailed as heroes at the time, became local celebrities; the public, including family members of victims, have spent decades terrified that if they challenged the prevailing heroic narrative they too could be machete-ed and tossed into the Snake River.
Oppenheimer has created a follow-up to The Act of Killing focusing on the family of a victim, rather than a perpetrator. In the more conventional, but no less powerful, The Look of Silence, we're given a more likable protagonist named Adi, the brother of one of the 1 to 3 million victims of the purge. Adi, an eye doctor in his mid 40s, is transfixed by Oppenheimer's footage of the death squads confessing. After watching a reenactment of his brother's death by his killers, he demanded—Oppenheimer insists it was his idea—to be allowed to confront these men. These confrontations become the central thrust of the film. Under the pretense of examining the killers' eyes, he asks them simple questions: "How did it feel?" "Did you cut your victims more than once?" "Why did you cut off the woman's breast?" "How do you do politics surrounded by the families of people you've killed?" "Is that better?" As he literally clarifies their vision by adjusting the lenses in his toolset, they find themselves seeing the past more clearly as well.
They usually react badly to the sudden clarity.
VICE recently sat down with Josh Oppenheimer to talk about these moments of truth, and whether it's his mission to find the world's monsters wherever they are, and in his uniquely empathetic way, find a way to slip his magic mirror in front of their faces and reveal their pasts to themselves for the first time.
Oppenheimer prefers to sit close to whoever he's talking to, and he listens intently, responding not just to the words his interlocutor says, but the emotion they didn't know they were conveying. That ability to connect makes him an incredibly intimate, persuasive conversationalist, and is undoubtedly his secret weapon.
Watch an exclusive clip from the 'The Look of Silence':
VICE: Even though The Look of Silence is a documentary about a genocide, I feel like you wouldn't mind me saying it's not educational. What were you trying to accomplish?
Joshua Oppenheimer: I go very small. I focus on one family and I don't tell you their experience, I immerse you in it. I make Adi you or your brother. I make his parents your parents or your grandparents. His children are your children, and if you don't have children, your nieces and nephews. I make you feel the texture of their bodies, the sounds of the spaces where they are, and the ghosts that are everywhere and looking at everybody all the time.
This film, and to an even greater degree The Act of Killing tend not to give the audience much exposition. Is that part of your filmmaking ethos?
Well, it's not an ethos. It's that I don't see myself as a journalist.
What's do you feel is the difference between art and journalism in the context of your films?
If journalism is about providing information, new information, putting it into a context so that people are able to, hopefully, deploy it in a public good, art is not about providing that window onto some new phenomenon that people knew little about. This is actually provoking a confrontation with the self. It's about forcing people—seducing people—to look in the mirror. And the shock is not the shock of the new; it's the shock of the familiar. It's the sense of: Oh, this is me. This is us. This is humanity. This is my country, too. This is the world. And is that really me? Is that really us? And what do we do about that?
But doesn't that exposure do some of the work of aggressive journalism? Like that old George Orwell quote: "Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations"?
I'm not saying that there aren't gray areas, and there aren't works that are both somehow. But I am saying that I think there's a cost to exposition, and the cost is that it is distancing. The cost is that there is a voice behind the camera or the point of view—the imaginary person who's putting the text into titles behind those inter-titles, who's addressing the audience, who's explaining and interpreting the visuals, the images and sounds that ought to be and otherwise would be immersive and very, very close. Exposition makes it very hard to have anything other than a window onto a far-off phenomenon that's being somehow interpreted.
When I was watching one of the parts about the death squads telling ridiculous lies to townspeople, I remembered the feeling of being a child, and believing ridiculous lies. Is that what you set out to accomplish?
Oh, that's wonderful. I'm so happy you saw that. That was your moment, in a way. The tile of the film, The Look of Silence, is all about making something invisible—normally invisible like silence—visible. It's a silence born of fear. It's a tense silence of nitroglycerin; it's potentially explosive. But it's also, despite that tension and the restrictions that places on everybody's freedom of action and thought and expression, it's nevertheless a space where Adi's family has found some love and some grace and built a life—albeit lives that had been broken by the silence and fear in which they lived.
Right! It felt like when I was a kid, and someone told me a dead baby deer was just waiting for its mother. Believing it was easier, but eventually, I had to deal with that deer being dead.
The Look of Silence implies this effort to make this invisible thing visible, and, for Indonesians, to make it impossible to ignore the prison of fear that comes with that silence—that that silence characterizes. In that sense, the film, for Indonesians, is like the child in "The Emperor's New Clothes"—The Act of Killing too, in a different sense. There, it was possible for people not to talk about the founding crimes of this regime and the impunity, fear, corruption, and thuggery that's been in play and has defined the regime ever since. Now this film makes it impossible for people not to talk about this other thing that was easier to ignore.
How did you make me identify so closely with Adi?
Every viewer makes her own Adi in her own head because Adi is silent. Adi is a canvas which we can inhabit and call our own.
But that doesn't mean he was generic. I felt particularly close to him when he was watching your footage of the killers confessing. I went through a phase where I watched nothing but Holocaust movies, I think for a similar reason. I had family members who went through it, and some who died.
Yeah, I did too. My father's family narrowly escaped the Holocaust. A lot of the family wasn't so lucky. My stepmother's family, almost all of the family, was wiped out. Her parents escaped. I went through that stage before Schindler's List, but yeah.
Is Adi really an optician?
An optometrist, yes.
I ask because the metaphorical significance is so obvious—about helping people see clearly...
...who are willfully blind. You know, a metaphor in cinema is something you can call out to a viewer with exposition—I think actually Werner [Herzog] does that sometimes very beautifully. It's not crude; it's a difficult thing to do when he does it, and he does it beautifully. I kind of grow metaphors organically, whether it's the fish in The Act of Killing, or Adi's career. I understood midway through shooting The Act of Killing that Adi was now seeking out patients over the age of 60 just so he could ask them their memories of the killings. And I started to see that he must be getting amazing responses, and decided if Adi becomes the main character in the next film, I should film him doing that.
How did Adi become such a good interviewer?
When Adi convinced me—and he really had to convince me to film the perpetrators—to confront the perpetrators with him, I realized that we would have to find a way of getting their guard down. The eye tests were perfect for that because you're disarmed when you're chatting with a doctor or a dentist or a barber, your guard is down. And Adi could prolong the test for as long as necessary until all of the important details that he'd studied in my old footage had come out.
How'd you convince people to talk to the brother of a guy they murdered?
I would bring Adi, and I would say, "Here I am. I'm back after all of these years. I went on to shoot a film with..." and I would drop the names of some of the most powerful names in The Act of Killing so they would realize that they ought not physically attack us or detain us because they might offend their superiors.
For more on Indonesia, check out 'Tobaccoland':
I hope they didn't know what was in The Act of Killing when you said that...
The Act of Killing hadn't screened yet, so they didn't know what kind of film it was, and therefore I was still believed to be close to some of the most powerful men in Indonesia. I would say, "This time I'm not here to ask you to dramatize what you've done. I'm here with a friend who has his own perspective and personal relationship to these events. You may agree. You may disagree. I hope you'll listen to each other, and I want to just film your conversation. Thank you for your time. Adi's an optometrist, he'll test your eyes and if you need glasses, we'll make as many pairs as you should require."
What did Adi want out of these conversations? And did he get it?
I knew we wouldn't get the apology that Adi was hoping for. But I thought if I could do my job well, and film the inevitably recognizably human reactions that anyone could empathize with—not necessarily sympathize with but empathize with—that are inevitable when someone comes in your house and says, "You've killed my brother. Can you take responsibility for this?"
And they wouldn't. But you just wanted to literally see the looks on their faces, right?
Right at the beginning, [one man] says that everybody in the village is afraid of him, and then he starts telling these horrific stories with these terrible details while Adi is very calmly testing his eyes. He would say one awful thing after another that would challenge both of our composures, frankly, and Adi would just slip in another lens and say, "Do you see more clearly or less clearly?" And then he would say "more clearly" and then continue or "less clearly" and then continue on with another awful story. And he would tell the stories in such a way to kind of let the horror of it linger in the air.
That scene definitely stands out. Is that how you got the image for the poster?
I told my cinematographer, "Let's move this camera, which is getting the complementary angle, and make it completely frontal so it's up on his face for this first part of the scene where he's telling his stories, because this is a metaphor for blindness."
These killings were partly the result of US's anticommunist influence. Aren't there CIA guys out there who deserve to have "the look" captured on film? And are you going to track them down?
[With] most of the historical records about what happened in 1965, the US involvement remains classified. All of the CIA documents pertaining to Indonesia from 1964 to 1966 are classified. All of the defense documents are classified. And we're working with senators to hopefully pass a sense of a senate resolution demanding that the US declassify those documents—well, recommending, because that's all they can do in those resolutions is recommend that the US take responsibility.
But there must have been some guys who we know were around back then.
I interviewed this man who worked in the US embassy in Jakarta whose job was to compile lists of thousands of names of public figures—writers, artists, intellectuals, journalists, unionists—and hand them over to the army to kill these people. Tick off their names when you kill them, a death list of thousands of names. And he talked about it as though this was real intelligence work he was doing. And I came to realize that these were public figures, and the army was deployed in every hamlet. They would know who their opponents were. What this really was was incitement. It was an unmistakable signal from one of the world's superpowers: Kill everybody. We want you to go after everybody who might be opposed to this new regime. [This was] reported in The New York Times.
You talked to him too? What'd he say?
I said, "How do you feel about all of this?" Robert—he was in Bethesda, Maryland, a couple of miles from where I grew up—he said, "Oh, I'm really glad this didn't happen in Bethesda."
I'm so glad you reacted that way. Not everyone knows why that's so shocking, but I just sat there thinking that's really what this is all about. But the problem is—unlike thugs, who could be killing in their early 20s—these men were in their 30s, even 40s, 50s. They will be in their 90s, late 80s. At the youngest anyone in influence or power—which is what matters when you're talking about national policy—would be in their early 90s, or deceased.
So that's not going to be your next film?
My work on this particular genocide is over. There's plenty of other things to make films about. It's like Werner Herzog said when I first started working with him, "Joshua, your next film should be an Eddie Murphy comedy."
Joshua Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence opens in New York today. It expands to LA next week before rolling out nationally.
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