An Interview With “The Look of Silence” Director Joshua Oppenheimer
by Jordan Canahai - posted 6:06 am, November 24, 2015
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Joshua Oppenheimer is one of the most important filmmakers in the world right now. The director’s Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing addressed the Indonesian Genocide of the 1960s from the point of view of the perpetrators, giving audiences one of the most acclaimed documentary films of the 21st century while starting a long-overdue dialogue in Indonesia about those awful events and their impact on the country’s present. With his follow-up film, The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer once again explores the Indonesian Genocide, this time from the point of view of a family of survivors, detailing their lives in the wake of those atrocities and his central subject’s confrontations with those who were responsible. I was fortunate enough to speak briefly with Oppenheimer about The Look of Silence. Although our conversation was shorter than planned, he proved extremely articulate, intelligent, and friendly, speaking at length about the experience of making The Look of Silence, its impact on Indonesia, and his thoughts on the country’s future. A special one-night-only screening of The Look of Silence is being presented by the Cultivate Cinema Circle at North Park Theater, tonight at 9:30 pm.
When you began production on The Look of Silence it was after you finished filming The Act of Killing, but before that film’s release, and you’d been friends with Adi and his family for years before then. How did filming affect your relationship?
Oppenheimer: We all became much closer. I’m in touch with Adi and his family every day. We showed them the film in 2014 before its release and asked them should we not release it until the perpetrators have passed away or if there is more political change in the country in order to protect their safety. Adi and his families response was that the film needed to be released. Together we planned a way of releasing the film that would protect their safety, proposing that they move to Denmark where I’m based and where they can live as long as necessary until it’s safe for them to return to Indonesia or they can settle permanently. Thankfully, there had been so much change as a result of The Act of Killing since its Indonesian release it had prompted the mainstream media and public to finally talk openly about the genocide on a national scale. It had led to the Indonesian President releasing a statement acknowledging for the first time that what happened in the 1960s was a crime against humanity. Even though the government insisted this was not a result of the film, it was a wonderful moment all the same. Adi’s family said there had been so much change, we shouldn’t lose this momentum and the second film should be released.
In fact, the team in charge of releasing The Act of Killing said there had been so much change, that if we can assemble a robust enough team to monitor the family’s safety and move them to another part of the country, then Adi should be able to play a major role in the movement towards truth, justice, and reconciliation, which is ultimately what’s happening. Making a film with anybody is to take a very intimate journey and you become very close to your subjects, I’m still very close to Anwar Congo of The Act of Killing. I’m not close, however, with many of the people who had smaller roles in both films. Many of them hate the films because they challenge their power and the wealth they plundered during the genocide and in the years after.
The Look of Silence is an extremely personal, intimate, and revealing film in regards to Adi and his family. What was his reaction to the final film?
Oppenheimer: Adi spends about a third of his time traveling inside Indonesia with The Look of Silence. He was present at the films first screening in Indonesia. The Look of Silence came out of being directly because of the space created by The Act of Killing, but where The Act of Killing was initially screened in secret, The Look of Silence has been released by two government agencies, the Human Rights Commission and the Chakrata Arts Council, something unimaginable with The Act of Killing. Its first screening was held in Indonesia’s largest cinema a year ago, there were billboard advertisements around Chakrata and 3,000 people were present, twice the theaters capacity so an additional screening was added. Adi received a 15 minute standing ovation after each one. It had also happened to be National Heroes Day on this date, and trending worldwide on Twitter was “Today we have a new National Hero and his name is Adi Rukun.” Since then, The Look of Silence has screened over 4,000 times around Indonesia for an estimated 350,000 people. When not working as an optometrist, Adi travels to many of the more high profile screenings and presents the film, both in Indonesia and internationally. It has become a very important part of his life; he actually apologized to to me in a recent Q & A in Paris before an audience saying “I’m sorry to have used you, Joshua, to have you make these two films.”
You see, back in 2003 when I became interested in making a film about the genocide, the Indonesian Army threatened Adi and his family and the other survivors not to participate in the film, and it was Adi who encouraged me to make a film about the perpetrators and to not give up. With The Look of Silence, he once again came forward and said he wanted to confront the perpetrators on film. I told him it would be too dangerous, but because I was well known among the Indonesian government and the perpetrators for filming The Act of Killing, and because that film had yet to be released, it would provide sufficient cover to allow us to confront the perpetrators on film safely. The people Adi wanted to confront were powerful regionally, but not nationally, and they wouldn’t dare detain us, let alone physically attack us. It was that realization that led Adi to suggest that we ought to make The Look of Silence, so the film has been an important part of his life for many years.
His mother is nearly 100-years old and is doing really well for her age, and Adi told me something very moving recently. Her whole life, she would repeat morning, day, and night, the story of Ramli’s [Adi’s older brother] murder. Since the film’s come out, however, she’s followed its release very closely around the world, and she no longer repeats the story as frequently, instead talking about other things regarding Ramli and not just his murder. While Adi wasn’t sure he’d go so far as to say she’s healing, she is comforted.
Now that both The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence have been released and this chapter on the subject of Indonesian Genocide, at least in terms of your work, is coming to a close, could you see yourself returning to the issue anytime in the future?
I wouldn’t rule it out for years in the future, but I’m starting new projects now and none of them deal with Indonesian Genocide. I feel it’s time for me to move on to other things, partly because I feel I’ve done what I can and said what I have to say about this. People often ask me why don’t I make a third film, but neither of the films are really about the genocide as such and neither of them are historical documentaries about what happened in 1965. Where the first film opened the space to talk about the genocide, the crime against humanity that took place and the criminal regime that’s been in power ever since, and the second film has allowed Indonesian’s to acknowledge the prison of fear that everyone knows they’ve been living in therefore helping Indonesian’s articulate why truth, justice, and reconciliation is needed so urgently, then the third chapter in this story is their future struggle for it. That chapter will not be written by me, it will be written by the people of Indonesia.