Interview: Joshua Oppenheimer of “The Look of Silence”

Posted on July 30, 2015 at 11:40 am

Copyright Drafthouse Films 2015
Copyright Drafthouse Films 2015

Joshua Oppenheimer has made “a companion piece” to his stunning documentary about government-sanctioned gangster killings of more than a million Indonesians in the mid-1960’s, “The Act of Killing.” In “The Look of Silence,” we see Adi, the brother of one of the men who was killed sit with the people who participated in the genocide and ask them about what they did. It was a pleasure to speak with him again, and I look forward to our Q&A tomorrow at the E Street Theater in Washington, D.C.

Your images are so gorgeous and so striking; they could be in a very different kind of film, like a lyrical romance. Why is it so important that your visuals be so beautiful?

There are two things that those kind of images do in the film. I think first of all I am trying to create the sense of the hauntedness of the space in which Adi’s family, his mother, his father have to live, the presence of ghosts. And I don’t think the images are beautiful in a postcard way. I think they are haunting, and I think that’s achieved through a certain kind of enchantment, there’s a sense of something beyond just a picture but a swarming, a presence of ghosts that have never been properly buried, the dead that have never been properly buried, that has never even been properly mourned.

I hope the tender way in which I tried to film the family and the precision with which I tried to look for the traces of fear and decades and decades of living with fear on their faces, in their bodies and also created a space for the grace and the love that they have managed to find and to live despite having to leave in fear, surrounded by the perpetrators who killed their loved ones. In general I felt that my task with this film was to create a kind of backward-looking poem in memoriam for all that’s been destroyed, not just the dead who obviously can never be wakened, those who were killed but also the lives that have been broken by a half a century of fear that can never be made whole again because in some way whatever justice, truth and reconciliation, whatever form of justice might in the future occur in part perhaps as a result of these two films, it will never make whole what’s been broken.

The film tries to honor and do justice for all that’s been destroyed, and for all that’s been destroyed not just during the genocide but in the years after. It doesn’t end with the killings if the perpetrators remain in power because people’s life continue to damaged, wrecked by fear and trauma that they can’t work through.

I thought it was very meaningful that in this case your lead character wasn’t even born when his brother was killed and that shows how the trauma goes on to the next and the next and the next generation.

That’s right and it also is a source of hope in the sense that first of all he has the courage to confront the perpetrators. That is in part because unlike the rest of his family he’s not traumatized by the actual events of the killing itself, yet he is trying to understand what happened to his parents, to his family, to his village, to his country to make them the way they are and in a sense make him who he is. He is born into a situation that didn’t know and understand and that is what gives him the courage to do what he does. He finds this one person who was able to give him what he is hoping for, which is an acknowledgment that what happened was wrong and an apology. It’s also someone born too young to remember the killings or born after the killings, the daughter of one of the perpetrators who hears for the first time the details of what her father did. And we see her realize that he is not the hero she hoped he was and we see her face collapse in that moment and realize that she’ll have to spend the rest of his life caring for a man who is in some terrible way a stranger now. And yet instead of doing what any guy would do in that moment which is panicking and kicking the film crew out of the house and needing to collect herself she becomes very quiet and listens to herself and her conscience and takes the extraordinary step of apologizing on her father’s behalf and saying to Adi, “Let’s be family,” trying to reach across this abyss of fear and guilt that divides everybody in Indonesia.

Sadly, throughout the world we have seen many genocides there have been many many different ways of responding and moving forward from it. We’ve seen the Truth and Reconciliation Commission model and the Nuremberg and Rwanda models. I guess you could even include the Indians and the United States. What do you think is the best way for a community to respond and to find some kind of meaning and healing from an experience like that?

You need an acknowledgment of what happened in the past. You need a thorough recognition that this is a wrong. I think although we the efforts in postwar Germany were incomplete I think the effort by the next generation, the generation born by the end of the war in the late 60’s to actually demand a kind of honesty from their parents, the reconciliation of the past in the late 60’s and 70’s going forward is the best human beings have come, the closest human beings have come to acknowledging their past. All the examples you gave with the exception of the Native American genocide ended with the perpetrators being removed from power and whether it’s the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process in South Africa or Nuremberg trials or a tribunal in Rwanda, these steps happen after perpetrators were removed from power. The Americans genocide of the Native Americans is surely the closest and we can see how the effects of that linger today.

People sometimes saw “The Act of Killing” and would say, “Isn’t it tasteless that someone wants to produce West cowboy scenes essentially in a desperate and ultimately doomed attempt to glorify what he’s done?” And my feeling when I would hear that question is “No, I feels it’s absolutely appropriate because after all the whole genre of the cowboy movies, the Western from its outset was to glorify genocide, the native American genocide.” Native Americans families experience living surrounded, living in increasingly small reservations surrounded by the society that destroyed their civilization and are still stigmatized. For decades and decades for hundreds of years except in Indian schools they weren’t allowed to speak their language. That stigma takes a terrible toll. It lasts frpm generation from generation to generation until a society has the courage to acknowledge the past. You see, we can never run away from our past, the past will catch up to us because it is us, it is a part of us, it’s what makes us we are, it’s what delineates the borders of our societies. It’s what gives us here in United State a common language, English. It’s who we are. And so all we can do is find the courage to stand still and to look backwards. Despite our politicians endlessly saying we need to look to the future, actually we need to look backwards and we need to accept our past not in the sense of making excuses for it but truly accepting it and taking responsibility for it, so that we can then turn around again and move forward into the future but knowing ourselves honestly really for the first time.

Are you writing history or are you changing history with these films?

I was asked from the very beginning to do this work by survivors. It was Adi who first encouraged me. When I was first filming the survivors back in 2003, he then encouraged me to film the perpetrators. When the survivors were not allowed to make the film with me, he then watched as much as he could of what I was shooting with the perpetrators. It was Adi who then insisted that he could meet the perpetrators in 2012 when I returned to make “The Look of Silence.” It was the survivors, Adi’s family, the survivors community more broadly, the Indonesian human rights community as a whole, who encouraged me to do this work. I always felt in a funny way that I was not a foreign filmmaker coming in to expose a terrible political situation for the outside world. I felt that I was being entrusted to do a work that they couldn’t in order to intervene in the mechanisms of fear inside Indonesia. I’m humbled by the impact that the two films have made.

“The Act of Killing” has fundamentally transformed the way of Indonesia talking about its past with the mainstream media now talking about the genocide as a genocide and talking honestly about the regime of fear and corruption that the perpetrators have built into that space. There is a sense that the film has come to Indonesia, the second film as well, Like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” saying look how torn our society is, look at the prison of fear in which we are being asked to raise our children and we can no longer ignore this.

We have to support truth and reconciliation and some form of justice. And with justice, with truth comes a revision of the nation’s history curriculum, so a part of that movement is demanding a change of the national history curriculum which is still being taught in the way that we see in the film. So the teachers around the country until the government changes the curriculum can say, “This is what we’re supposed to teach you and now this movie is the truth.”

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Tom Cruise Tells Kevin McCarthy about the Airplane Stunt in “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”

Posted on July 30, 2015 at 8:59 am

My friend Kevin McCarthy asked Tom Cruise how he shot that incredible stunt that has him holding onto the side of a plane while it takes off for “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.” The 53-year-old actor did the stunt himself, no green screen, with contacts to protect his eyes that prevented him from seeing anything, and his primary concern was making sure his legs were dangling enough to make it look real.

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Trailer: “Risen,” with Cliff Curtis as Jesus

Posted on July 29, 2015 at 11:42 pm

“Risen” is the story of the Resurrection, as told through the eyes of a non-believer played by “Shakespeare In Love’s” Joseph Fiennes. It will be in theaters in January 2016.

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New From Oprah Winfrey: “Belief”

Posted on July 29, 2015 at 3:07 pm

Oprah Winfrey’s seven-chapter series “Belief” starts on October 18, 2015. It follows some of the world’s most fascinating spiritual journeys through the eyes of the believers. Episodes include: the largest peaceful gathering in the history of the world as a group of believers seek redemption along the banks of a holy river; a free climber on the side of a mountain who believes there is no greater power than just being present as he climbs without rope; inside the ceremonies of the past as a 21st century woman seeks to find a miracle cure using ancient ceremonial treatments; the quiet of the night as a culture seeks to hang on to its 50,000 year-old history by searching the stars for insight to share with future generations; and, a courtroom and prison where a grieving mother must grapple with forgiveness as she comes face-to-face with her son’s killer. These stories and others will all lead us to ask: “What do you believe?”

Sunday, October 18 *PREMIERE
“Belief: The Seekers”
Witness stories from around the world united by one of the most basic human needs – a desire to find purpose and meaning in our lives. First, 19-year-old Cha Cha, a devout evangelical Christian college student, hopes to reconnect with her faith after a recent trauma has shaken her to the core. Next, Reshma Thakkar, a young Indian-American Hindu woman from Chicago, travels to the banks of the Ganges River in India for the Kumbh Mela, joining millions at the world’s largest spiritual gathering. Meanwhile, in Budapest, Hungary, 13-year-old Mendel Hurwitz prepares for his Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish transformation from adolescence to adulthood. Mendel’s synagogue in Budapest once faced extinction, and this tiny population of Jews are struggling to keep their culture alive. In the final story, Terry Gandadila, an Aboriginal elder in Australia who is nearing death, passes on the wisdom and knowledge of his tribe to his grandson. Together, they walk the songline, an ancient roadmap that the tribe believes reveals how the world was created and how to live life in accordance with their ancestor spirits.

Monday, October 19
“Belief: Love’s Story”
Journey around the world in search of what it means to love one another. First, in western Pennsylvania, Ian and Larissa Murphy are two evangelical Christians who fell in love during college. Ten months into their relationship, Ian suffered a traumatic brain injury, dramatically changing their relationship while also showing them what it means to love unconditionally. Next, we meet Rena Greenberg and Yermi Udkoff of Brooklyn, New York as they prepare to marry in the Hasidic faith, which believes every person is born with one half of a soul, and only through marriage can the two souls reunite with each other. On the other side of the world, former professional skateboarder Jordan Richter from northern California is embarking on the Hajj, a pilgrimage that is one of the five tenets of his adopted religion, Islam. By joining millions of pilgrims in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Jordan hopes to make peace with his past and cement a promising future. Finally, two leaders in Nigeria who were former enemies 20 years ago, Christian Pastor James Wuye and Muslim Imam Muhammad Ashafa, come together to reconcile and to honor one of the most sacred teachings at the heart of both their faiths: love your enemies.

Tuesday, October 20
“Belief: Acts of Faith”
Our beliefs can be a powerful guiding force to endure and overcome in some of the most difficult situations. In this episode, everyone faces a challenge to overcome, and they find their source of strength in a variety of different ways. In Topeka, Kansas, Judi Bergquist visits her son’s killer in prison with the hope that the act of forgiveness will help them both move forward with their lives. Next, under the blue Guanajuato, Mexico sky, Enedina Cuellar Pacheco is riding on horseback with Christ’s Cowboys in the hopes a miracle heals her son who suffered traumatic injuries in a tragic car accident. Together with thousands of riders, she makes the rigorous trek to the iconic 65-foot-tall statue of Cristo Rey. Finally, on the small Pentecost Island, Vanuatu, in the South Pacific, a young boy, Bebe, will act out a death-defying rite of passage into manhood. Bebe will bravely land dive off a giant wooden tower with just a tree vine tied around his ankles, participating in a sacred ritual that his tribe believes blesses the soil for a bountiful harvest.

Wednesday, October 21
“Belief: A Change Is Gonna Come”
Explore how our beliefs help us change. First, Anju, a young woman in central India, has committed to forgo all of life’s conveniences and permanently sever ties with her family in order to be initiated as a Jain nun. Anju must first pass three tests designed to challenge her commitment. Next, Howard Fallon and his daughter Shane arrive in the Nevada desert for Burning Man, an annual festival that provides an experiment in community art, self-expression and culminates in the ritual burning of a large wooden effigy. Howard and Shane are seeking to reconnect and heal after unimaginable personal loss. In another part of the American desert, Ashly Hines, a member of the Yavapai-Apache Nation, prepares to participate in the Sunrise Ceremony, a spiritual ritual into womanhood. Finally, scientist Marcelo Gleiser stands at the foot of one of the most powerful telescopes in the world. He has journeyed to the heart of the Atacama Desert in Chile to look deep into space for clues as to how the universe was born and how it is changing over time. He finds the more he searches the universe, the more he must embrace the mystery of the unknown.

Thursday, October 22
“Belief: God Help Us”
When tragedy, illness or loss feel overwhelming and relief seem beyond our reach, many believers appeal to their faith for strength. First, Karen Cavanagh, a Catholic from Slingerlands, New York is called to the Sufi path as a way of healing from a traumatic brain injury. Karen travels to Konya, Turkey to combine her Catholic faith with the practice of becoming a Whirling Dervish, a group who worships through meditative dance. Next, in Lima, Peru, a teenager, Beto, prays to the Lord of Miracles, a painting of Christ on the cross that is revered throughout the country. Beto is selected to march in an annual procession honoring the icon, bringing pride to his family. Then, in Lebanon, 13-year-old Walid, a Syrian refugee whose family fled their home in war torn Syria, still finds a way to participate in Ramadan, the Islamic faith’s month of personal and spiritual reflection observed with fasting and prayer. Finally, in Indonesia, 19-year-old Buddhist monk Bodhi Cahyno believes meditation can help him find a source of inner strength after enduring a challenging childhood. Guided by his mentor and teacher, Bodhi travels to the holy site of Borobudur in Indonesia – the world’s largest Buddhist temple – to celebrate Vesak, an annual ritual that commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha.

Friday, October 23
“Belief: The Practice”
For many people, committing to a spiritual life through study, practice and compassion reveals faith. First, Shi Yan Fei is a young Buddhist monk at the Shaolin Monastery in Dengfeng, China, who came to the monastery because of his passion for Kung Fu. While Shi Yan Fei has nearly mastered Kung Fu’s physical movements, he has encountered difficulty mastering the spiritual element. Next, 65-year-old John Davie is hoping to reconnect with his Catholic faith as he embarks on the “Way of Saint James,” a 500-mile trek through the countryside of France and Spain. For a thousand years, Christian pilgrims have walked the “Camino,” which culminates at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. Then, Mohamed El Haskouri, a teenage boy in Morocco studies diligently to perfect his recitation of the 80,000 words of the Qur’an in an ancient art called Tajweed. Finally, two teenage girls in Israel, 18-year-old Jewish cellist Hagit and 17-year-old Muslim flutist Mais find common ground and friendship in their shared love of performing classical music with the Polyphony Orchestra.

Saturday, October 24
“Belief: A Good Life”
Explore how beliefs help us face the fear of death and the mystery of what happens after we die. In this episode, we witness how death can also be a powerful call to action – to embrace life and those we love. In the shadows of Mt. Everest, Lekshey Choedhar, a young Buddhist monk at the Pema Tsal Sakka Monastery, learns a valuable lesson about the fleeting nature of life. There, Buddhist monks make devotional works of art called sand mandalas, which they then destroy in a ritual that symbolizes the impermanence of existence. Next, atheist Alex Honnold walks the edge between life and death as a world-renowned free-solo climber. He faces his mortality and finds meaning in his life as he climbs — with no ropes or harnesses — up a towering cliff in the Moab desert in eastern Utah. Then Donna Winzenreid, a military wife and mother of three in Colorado Springs, Colorado who has been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, fights for her life by holding on to her Methodist faith. Next, India is home to more than a billion people and one of the world’s largest religions, Hinduism. Once a year, on the first day of spring, Hindus from all walks of life unite to celebrate the festival of colors – Holi. Gopesh Goswami, a Hindu priest, celebrates Holi as an opportunity to set aside daily responsibilities and experience joy, togetherness and the essence of a good life. Finally, from a space shuttle orbiting Earth, astronaut Jeff Hoffman stares out at a pale blue dot suspended in the vast expanse of the universe. He describes it as a transcendent experience, an overwhelming feeling that human beings are all truly connected.

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Movie Addict Headquarters: Comic-Con and “Minions”

Posted on July 29, 2015 at 8:50 am

Many thanks to Betty Jo Tucker and her co-host A.J. Hakari for inviting me back to Movie Addict Headquarters to talk about Comic-Con and “Minions.”

Check Out Movies Podcasts at Blog Talk Radio with Betty Jo Tucker on BlogTalkRadio with Movie Addict Headquarters on BlogTalkRadio
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