Conversation — January 26, 2015, 8:00 am

Absent Victims

Joshua Oppenheimer, the director of The Act of Killing, discusses his follow-up documentary, The Look of Silence, about those who survived the Indonesian genocide of 1965

Adi tests the vision of a death squad leader who helped kill his brother. Photograph by Lars Skree © Final Cut for Real

When a new documentary by an unknown director appeared on the program of the 2012 Telluride Film Festival, few knew what was in store. The fact that two celebrated auteurs—Werner Herzog and Errol Morris—had attached their names to the project as executive producers hinted at its distinction. But even by their standards, and those of a film festival renowned for premiering the finest films of the year, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing was astonishing work. Its subject was one the least-known genocides of the twentieth century, the awful months in Suharto’s Indonesia, between the fall of 1965 and the spring of 1966, when at least half a million suspected Communists and sympathizers—along with artists, intellectuals, and residents of the wrong village—were slain by a regime with ties to a Cold War-era CIA. But unlike most historical documentaries, Oppenheimer’s film wasn’t concerned so much with exposition, with establishing the hard facts of the atrocities. The young American director instead took a radical tack: he turned his camera on the perpetrators. He asked a charismatic crew of aging killers, none of whom have ever had to answer for their roles in the genocide, to reenact their crimes on film. In doing so, they employ film noir tropes, footage of majestic waterfalls, and music-video kitsch involving giant plastic fish. The result offers us a rare glimpse at the tales mass murderers tell themselves to cope with their ruthless pasts.

Since its launch, The Act of Killing’s bevy of prizes and plaudits has grown to include a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination for best documentary. More remarkably, it has “opened a space for conversation,” Oppenheimer says, in a country that has yet to collectively reckon with this dark chapter of its history. The conversation continues in his new film, The Look of Silence, which considers the genocide from a different perspective. Whereas The Act of Killing examines the lasting impacts of violence through the narratives of its perpetrators, Oppenheimer’s follow-up focuses on victims. Less radical and more intimate than its predecessor, The Look of Silence, which will be released in June, tells the story of a village optometrist, Adi Rukun, who lost his brother to the genocide. We follow Rukun into the home of his aging parents, and then into the lush yards and houses of similarly aged killers nearby, where he questions the transgressors with gentle force—often while giving them eye exams—about not-forgotten crimes.

In Telluride, where The Look of Silence was screened, public radio journalist Mirissa Neff and I interviewed Oppenheimer about his craft and his decade-long, two-film project which, a couple of weeks after we spoke, earned him a MacArthur fellowship.

It seems fair to say that The Look of Silence and The Act of Killing aren’t so much two discrete pieces as they are two parts of a single project. How did this larger project come about?

There’s a key moment in The Look of Silence when you see two perpetrators take me down to a clearing by a river, the Snake River, and then show me how, in that very spot in 1965, they helped kill ten thousand people. These men take turns playing victim and perpetrator, showing how they brutalized people, how they kicked them in the river. And then they produce a camera when they’re done, and pose for photographs—snapshots as souvenirs from a happy day out.

For me, that day was a really terrible afternoon of filming. I had this awful sense that the boasting signaled something political, a kind of political nightmare on a national scale, which was allegorical for impunity everywhere. And the thing that drove home that allegory of impunity was how they finished that scene, in the spot where they’d killed so many, posing for snapshots, giving the thumbs up and the V for victory. After I shot that footage, in January 2004, I returned home to London, where I was living at the time, pretty upset, even traumatized a little, by that day. And then in the spring of 2004, the Abu Ghraib photos came out: American soldiers were posing and giving the thumbs up while humiliating people, while torture was happening. Those terrible tableaus. And I think the Abu Ghraib photos somehow helped me understand what was so upsetting about those perpetrators taking snapshots by the Snake River. I had this feeling that the real horror was neither the killings in 1965 nor the torture taking place in Abu Ghraib, although both are horrible. What made both sets of photos so unsettling was the moral vacuum in which they must have been taken, the moral vacuum in which such photos could be seen by anybody as a memento, as a souvenir, as something to be remembered with relish. I’d had this feeling of wandering into Germany forty years after the Holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power. And I had this sense from the Abu Ghraib photos that this was not the exception but somehow the rule. That these stories of violence and impunity are everywhere—that they’re everywhere, especially, in the Global South, and in places like Indonesia, where the United States was clearly involved in supporting and encouraging these massacres. And I had the sense immediately that there were two basic thematic areas that needed exploration.

And those two themes, then, became these two films.

Right. The first theme was: What happens when killers win? What stories do they tell? What victors’ history do they write to justify what they’ve done? What are the genres of that story? How do the perpetrators themselves use the story to cope with trauma and guilt? What does their clinging to these justifications do to this whole society, built upon terror and lies, wherein a kind of moral vacuum becomes inevitable? That became The Act of Killing. Which is a film about escapism and storytelling, really.

But then there was another theme, another film, that I also felt needed to be fully explored. And that one centered, again, around the question of what happens when perpetrators win—but focused on what that’s like for the survivors, who have to continue to live in the shadow of men who killed their loved ones. What does it mean for them to have to build a life, to survive, in the rubble that’s left by atrocity? I felt that such a film should somehow force one to look not forward to something hopeful, but back into the silence and the devastation caused not only by the killings but by the ongoing impunity—to force one to think about how lives are destroyed by the silence and the fear that echoes for decades after the events, so long as the perpetrators are in power. And that became The Look of Silence.

So The Act of Killing came out first, but you were in a sense working on both films concurrently, from the start?

Yes, because in a way I started with what has become The Look of Silence when I began working with survivors, exploring what it’s like for them to live alongside the perpetrators. That was in 2003. At that time, the army threatened the survivors I was working with; they told them not to participate in the film. But many of those people, like Adi [Rukun], urged me not to give up. “Don’t go home,” he said. “Don’t quit, Joshua. Try to film the perpetrators, and try to see if they’ll tell you how our relatives were killed.” So I started that process really at the encouragement of people like Adi. It was Adi, and other survivors, who pointed out the homes of the first perpetrators I interviewed in 2003, 2004. I was afraid to approach them, but then I did, and I soon found, to my horror, how boastful they all were. It was early in that process that I met the two men who took me down to the river—and through whom I later met Anwar [Congo], who became the main character in The Act of Killing. Adi asked to see everything I was filming. He watched this footage of the perpetrators with a mixture of devastation and rapt attention, and he always encouraged me to keep going. He’d say: “Keep going because what you’re finding is so important, because anyone who sees this anywhere in the world will finally be forced to acknowledge what’s wrong here.”

Adi saw that so clearly, I think, because he was trying to understand his own family. No one in his family except his mother was able to talk about it at all. They were all too afraid—you’re born after the genocide, you live in a family that’s devastated by these events, and you find that everybody around you is frightened and traumatized. But you don’t know why. They’re so traumatized, but they can’t even tell you why—that was Adi’s situation. And there’s this need to know—so you can understand the people you love, so you can understand what’s happening in your home, so you can understand the present. And I think Adi saw the filmmaking process that I initiated a decade ago as a way of getting those answers, so he watched everything I filmed. And then in 2010 when I finished filming The Act of Killing, I edited it and realized that I wanted the second film, The Look of Silence, to immerse the viewer into these long silent tableaus that punctuate The Act of Killing, that embody the perspective of those absent victims who are not in The Act of Killing, but who haunt every frame of it, I hope. So in 2012 after we finished editing that film, but before it premiered—I knew I wouldn’t be able to safely return to Indonesia once it did—I went back to Sumatra to start working with Adi. And Adi said, “Let’s not just gather the survivors as we did a decade ago. Let’s try and meet these perpetrators that I’ve been watching for all these years.” And then he took me on the journey that became The Look of Silence.

Since The Act of Killing’s release, it has had a huge impact in Indonesia. How exactly did you release it there, and what has that reception been like?

Well, we didn’t release The Act of Killing in cinemas in the normal way, because to do so you have to submit the film to the censorship board, which could provoke a ban—and we knew that if a film’s banned, it becomes a crime to watch it at all. Which in turn becomes an excuse for the paramilitaries, and indeed the military itself, to attack screenings with impunity. So to avoid that, we started with closed screenings for Indonesia’s leading journalists, intellectuals, artists. And many of those people, who were very moved by the film, said everyone in Indonesia should see it; they went ahead and held their own screenings, some public, some private. Because of the high-profile support they provided for the film, it became politically costly for the government to ban it. And by now there have been thousands of screenings. We’ve also made it available for free download on the Internet—it’s been downloaded millions of times.

But one of the most moving things that happened at one of those early screenings in Jakarta, for press and human rights groups, occurred when the editor of Tempo magazine [one of Indonesia’s largest] called me afterwards. He said that he’d been censoring stories about the genocide for as long as he could remember, but that he wasn’t going to do that anymore. The Act of Killing, he said, had shown him he didn’t want to grow old as a perpetrator. He told me: “We’re going to break our silence about the killings. We’re going to send journalists around the country to look for men like Anwar, to show that this is a systemic problem that your film has exposed.”And he did. They sent sixty journalists all over the country, they gathered a thousand pages of boastful testimony from killers, they published seventy-five, and another twenty-five pages about the movie in a double edition of Tempo, in the autumn of 2012, and in one fell swoop the silence in the media about the genocide was broken. Everybody else started making their own reports.

And The Look of Silence, certainly, comes into this space where all these things can be discussed; hopefully it provides an urgent call for how important reconciliation is, a model for how these things need to be addressed, a model for how reconciliation can come about, for how important it is to heal this torn social fabric. There’s a scene in The Look of Silence when a daughter of a killer actually finds the dignity and the courage to apologize to Adi. Adi forgives her and then, on her behalf, her father. And I think she provides this model for people who are even related to the perpetrators—that this can be done: you can actually acknowledge what happened and acknowledge that it was wrong, that it need not lead to violence or vengeance, that it can lead to healing. Because the ideal here certainly isn’t justice as revenge, or, at this point, even throwing everyone in jail—it’s about justice as a ritual that society has to go through, to return certain kinds of behavior formally and forever to the realm of the forbidden. Because until you do that, you have impunity. And that, certainly, is what we still have in Indonesia—the perpetrators still hold enough power that we can’t demand justice. My whole crew on these films remains anonymous, for safety reasons. Adi and his family left North Sumatra and moved across the country, before we release The Look of Silence, to be safe.

Both of these films contain astonishing images. One way in which you gained those images, with The Act of Killing, was by giving the killers cameras, in a sense, and letting them make these wild scenes. The Look of Silence has a different visual language; it focuses on interior spaces, in a way, more than on public events. How did you find the distinct imagery that moves each film along?

Well, with The Act of Killing, I don’t think I gave cameras to people, really—they make their own scenes, but except for the few moments where you see them filming, and then a little bit of what they’re filming, almost all of the images were shot by me. Anwar would create a scene, and then, to make those images as strong as possible, we would serve as his crew and try to figure out exactly what we wanted. Certainly in the unabridged version of The Act of Killing [the two-hour-and-forty-minute version released in the U.S.], I think there’s a similar immersive, hypnotic quality… But The Act of Killing is a film in which we’re exploring escapist fantasy and we get lost in Anwar’s fantasies and nightmares. It becomes a kind of fever dream.

With The Look of Silence, the method felt in some ways similar, in that the core of my work is always about building very strong, productive relationships with the characters I’m filming, so that together we can create safe spaces that take them and me on a journey. And I find the visual language organically in terms of what metaphors, what images, what stories those relationships are generating.

I think one of the things that I realized very early on, with The Look of Silence, was that the best way to make the viewer feel what it means to have to build a life in a place that feels wrecked by endless fear, is to feel that in the most intimate way. Because those are very subtle personal things. And to understand something of what that’s really like, I thought, I would need to be incredibly microscopic. You’re entering a space where people are not putting words to what they experienced, where they’re too afraid to talk about it. I felt that I should try to create a kind of poem to a silence borne of fear, a poem to the necessity and trauma that comes with breaking that silence. The idea was to home in on the smallest details—the wrinkles in the ancient skin of Adi’s father, a crease in the brow of Adi’s mother—and to really focus on the silence, listen to that silence, and hear what it has to say.

One of the leitmotifs of the film is the perpetrators’ repeated refrain, when they’re confronted with what they’ve done, “Why can’t you let the past be the past?” One thinks of Faulkner’s line: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And certainly The Look of Silence, in all kinds of ways, is a meditation on that. But it’s also a film—don’t you think?—about the nature of memory. About what happens when the past is hyperpresent but not accessible, when memories are there but not articulated.

Yes, right. Because you know if the past were in the past, it would be absent. We only live in a present, but the present would have no meaning, and no intelligibility, if our pasts weren’t kind of swarmingly present. In the film, there are these confrontations between Adi and the perpetrators that provide a kind of narrative spine; there are some little scenes that are narrated with the family. But the real flesh of the film are these quotidian moments when nothing seems to be happening but everything is happening, because the silence is not just a counterpoint to a horrific past that’s no longer present. The silence is constituted by the past. The surface in which nothing appears to be happening is actually swarming, because what makes these people who they are in the present is all the violence that they can’t speak about, the jumping beans you see that have the larvae in them, struggling to get out.

I was thinking recently that maybe this is a magical-realist nonfiction film; maybe The Act of Killing is, too. Maybe magical realism is the genre for addressing atrocity in the context of total impunity. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, you only hear about the massacre in Macondo quite late in the book, but it’s the black hole around which everything circles—there’s a real parallel with The Look of Silence. In the same way, maybe, The Act of Killing aligns with my favorite of García Márquez’s books, The Autumn of the Patriarch, which is a kind of about being lost in the dreams of the perpetrator. But in The Look of Silence, the present is memory: it’s either memory being explicitly remembered or memory as it makes us what we are, this swarming force that’s sort of bursting through. And I think there are many images of that in the film, whether it’s the bats flying that you see at dusk, or the shot of Adi’s house at night with the light streaming through the gaps between the planks of the wall, or the jumping beans.There’s this sense of something just under the surface. No! It’s the surface as pressure, not something under the surface. It’s the surface itself as pressure.

Your mention of magical realism, and genre, makes me think of what Junot Díaz has said about how he’s tried—in his novels set in the Dominican Republic, another tropical island haunted by violence—to render dark histories visible by engaging idioms of fantasy and science fiction. But for you, as someone driven to delve into what happened in Indonesia, and to see it addressed, there are lots of things you could do—write reports, collect testimonies, make fiction films. But you make documentaries. What is it about nonfiction filmmaking in particular that you’re invested in as a medium for telling stories?

I think the nonfiction film camera, if used properly, can make visible things that are invisible, in a way that testimonies, reports, and journalism cannot easily do. Perhaps literature can, but in a different way. Because when you point a camera at someone, they start acting—always. You can hide that fact, but if you dont hide it, then you have a chance to see how they want to be seen, and how they really see themselves. The Act of Killing really explores that. And The Look of Silence, similarly, is about using the camera to make visible what is normally invisible: those swarming memories that make up the present, the motion of activity that is invisible unless you pause to see it. And the reactions: the reaction of Adi to the old footage of mine with the perpetrators, the reaction of the people in the confrontations. We’re always focusing on the listener, not the speaker. The pain that is etched in the tiniest details of a face, the doubt, the worry, the love—these things which show what cannot be said in words. They are, I think, the core of cinematic art. Cinema is a terrible medium for words; I’m not a fan of films that are just dominated by dialogue. One reason I love Errol Morris’s interview films is that he’s actually focusing on the pauses and doubts and inconsistencies of expression between the words, which very few interview films do. But in nonfiction film, something particularly interesting happens on top of that when people are playing themselves, because the stakes are really high—sometimes, the stakes for the whole society are high. And if the camera and the filmmaker and the participants are taking a journey together, it’s a journey that transforms both of them, and that has the potential—if the stakes are high enough—to transform the audience,or a whole society, too.

I think audiences of good nonfiction films feel that. In The Look of Silence, we see an optometrist who probes the silence that his family has lived under, and then confronts the killers. If we made that a fiction story, it wouldn’t have at all the same interest. In fact the metaphor of the optometrist would be all too neat. Similarly, a death squad that makes a musical about their killings would be ridiculous as a fiction. But when it’s real, what we’re watching is the transformative effect of the process on the people. And I think that’s why I make film. It’s why I make nonfiction film. And it’s also why, in all of my films, I don’t hide the apparatus of filmmaking by pretending to be a fly on the wall, or by being a transparent interviewer eliciting testimony from the subject. Because I believe that if one is honest, then the genesis of the drama, and the genesis of the transformation, is also the filmmaking process itself. Which means that both of these films, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, become movies also about cinema—and then, through the audience’s identification with the characters, I hope, films about ourselves.

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