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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