We are Our Past: An Interview with Joshua Oppenheimer of ‘The Look of Silence’ and ‘The Act of Killing’

In 2003, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer first began investigating the unacknowledged and under-reported mass killing of over 500,000 purported “communists” by Indonesia’s military junta and its proxies in 1965-66. He quickly learned about Ramli, one victim of the genocide whose horrific death was widely discussed, if still not part of the official history. After his attempts to film with Ramli’s family and other survivors were met with threats of violence, Oppenheimer instead began to film the perpetrators of the killing, still very much in power and eager to brag about their crimes. The result was The Act of Killing, a surrealist masterpiece where the killers themselves stage cinematic recreations of their crimes and fantasies.

But another story still needed to be told. In the critical window following The Act of Killing’s production but before its release, Oppenheimer again began working with Ramli’s family, particularly his younger brother, the optometrist Adi Rukun. The resulting film, The Look of Silence, is a haunting poem on decades of silence enforced by terror and the breaking of that silence through unprecedented confrontations.

The Look of Silence is our 2015 True Life Fund film, our annual fundraiser for the subject of a documentary. Money raised will go to helping Adi with the relocation of his family and his important ongoing work with the film inside Indonesia. T/F will also be screening the director’s cut of The Act of Killing this year.

A few weeks back I got the chance to speak with Joshua Oppenheimer about both films and their impact while he was attending the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival where The Look of Silence was awarded the Peace Prize.

-Dan Steffen



True/False: It’s been a little tricky for me to describe the situation in Indonesia when you began. You’re uncovering a secret, but as one of the perpetrators in The Act of Killing says, the killing in 1965-66 is an “open secret”. The “open” part seems important. How do you approach this “open secret” idea?

Joshua Oppenheimer: I would simply say that it’s a reality that everybody knows at some level but is too afraid to talk about. And that kind of known but unspoken quality, that secret but not secret quality, is precisely what makes it frightening and has been used by the regime for decades to keep people afraid.

When I started working on the genocide in 2003 on the plantation where Ramli was killed, the survivors quickly introduced me to Ramli’s family, including his parents Rohani and Rukun, the old couple in the film. I was introduced to them so quickly because Ramli’s name was synonymous with the whole genocide across the region. That was because his murder had witnesses. People saw him escaping from the truck, he ran home, his family saw the death squad coming for him. There was the sense for everyone miles around that to speak about Ramli was to insist that these events really happened.

Imagine that a whole community is traumatized by something but has to pretend that the source of the trauma never occurred. In such a situation to speak about Ramli was an act of resistance. It’s almost like pinching yourself to remind yourself that you’re awake. I think that gives a pretty good sense of this open secret quality.

I think what these two films have done is hold a mirror up to Indonesia after which it is no longer possible to maintain the lie of the government propaganda. It’s like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes saying “look, the king is naked.” Well, everyone knew the king was naked, but couldn’t talk about it before. The whole game changes once people can talk about it. The propaganda no longer functions.

One other thought I had about this. After the army threatened Ramli’s family and the other survivors with whom I was working back in 2003 not to participate in the film any more, they all said “Josh, before you quit and go home, try to film the perpetrators.” When I first heard that I took it as a sign of desperation. But I came to understand that the boasting of the perpetrators, which both films interrogate, was something systemic and used as an instrument of fear.

As I came to hear more and more of it, and film dozens and dozens of perpetrators boasting like this, I had the feeling that I’d returned to Germany 40 years after the Holocaust only to find the Nazis still in power. I realized you could imagine the government of the Third Reich encouraging the aging SS officers to return home to their villages and boast. Not because the crimes should exactly be public — everyone would be terrorized into not talking about what really happened, so it would never really be on the public record — but because it becomes a veiled threat, the perpetrators become agents of terror, or terrorizing proxies of the state. So there’s a whole economy of terror around storytelling, a whole way that stories are used to keep people afraid. And it’s in that economy of terror that the film intervenes.

The Act of Killing does so by removing the fundamental motive the perpetrators have for boasting, to sugarcoat these grotesque details of mass killing that haunt them everyday. The perpetrators have a need to sugarcoat the details in the sweet rhetoric of heroic victory which leads them to boast about things a human being would normally never boast about. And as they come to see that what they’ve done is wrong and not something that you can boast about, it exposes the lie for what it is and it undermines the whole motive for boasting. And if you go to Indonesia now the perpetrators do not boast.



image from The Act of Killing


T/F: You’ve insisted you wanted to make films primarily about the present and not the past. Was that always clear?

JO: They are films about the past’s presence in the present. It was William Faulkner who said “the past is not dead, it’s not even past.” The past is our present. We know ourselves, we have a common language, we can speak to each other because we have a past. The present is this infinitely fleeting, mere horizon over which images and impressions appear, but the moment they appear they’re already in the past. We are our past, I think that’s the message of both films. It’s a kind of secular definition of karma.

There’s a scene in The Look of Silence that was really the inspiration for both films. Two men take me down to the river, taking turns playing victim and perpetrator. They pose for photographs in a spot where they helped kill 10,500 people. Shooting that I did something that I hadn’t done before, bring perpetrators together from neighboring villages. I wondered if they would boast in front of each other in the same way they would boast when they were alone with me. I suppose I suspected they would, but it was also a brutal confirmation to hear them trying to outdo each other in their boastfulness and enthusiasm for recounting the worst details of what they’ve done. It was this terrifying realization that the boasting is systemic.

That’s when I had this feeling that clearly these are not psychopaths. This is impunity. This is what impunity looks like. If you listen to right-wing American talk radio, you’ll hear boasting about torture. It’s a pretty acceptable thing across much of our political spectrum in the United States to actually boast about torture. Macho jockeying for who would be more willing to waterboard somebody has become an acceptable part of American discourse.

I recognized that two films need to be made about this impunity, both about the present. One about what happened when perpetrators win and are justifying what they’ve done. What lies do they tell themselves so they can live with themselves? What fantasies do they identify with? And what are the effects of these lies on themselves and on a whole society? I knew that would be a film about fantasy and storytelling and escapism and guilt.

But I also knew there was an equally contemporary film to be made about what silence and terror and unresolved trauma do to community and family, what is laid waste by trauma and fear as it’s allowed to fester for decades and decades.



image from The Look of Silence


T/F: The way The Look of Silence is structured around the two different layers of investigation, with Adi watching the older footage of you interrogating perpetrators and then confronting them himself, is very dramatically effective. Did you always imagine the film looking like that?

JO: No, I think we found that already in the shooting in that we knew Adi watching the footage would motivate the confrontations. I mean, he wants to meet people because of what he’s seeing. Midway through the shooting of The Act of Killing, I showed Adi everything I had time to show him and he watched with the same emotions you see in the film. I could see that it was transforming him, that he was now as an optometrist starting to deliberately approach older people so he could ask them what they remember about 1965-66. That was a response to him viewing my work. When we started shooting the film he said “Joshua, I need to meet the perpetrators.” It was his idea.

Adi’s confrontations are necessarily a response, not so much to the crimes that the perpetrators committed, because if they were languishing in prison or contrite there would be no need, but to the performance of impunity, to the boasting, which I see more as performance than as sober testimony. The confrontations are a response to performance which had served to terrify everyone in Adi’s community for so long.

T/F: I’m struck by the moment in all of the confrontations when Adi revealed that his brother was one of the people killed. You can really feel a shift whenever that happens and they start to squirm under his gaze. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on why this has such an impact.

JO: I think first of all we have to understand that when he says it’s his brother that’s killed, that he is revealing that he’s a survivor, right? And before that they don’t know who he is. He’s asking tough moral questions, but when he mentions that his brother was killed it reveals that he’s a survivor.

When Adi first told me that he wanted to do this, I said “absolutely not, it’s too dangerous.” It’s never happened in Indonesia. Millions of survivors all over the country and tens of thousands of perpetrators. Never has a survivor confronted a perpetrator to my knowledge. It’s completely unprecedented what he’s doing. I think it’s unimaginable for all of the perpetrators too. I think one of the reasons we were able to do this safely is because they simply can not believe that these conversations are taking place. They can’t believe it’s happening. How did this happen? What elaborate trap have I fallen into that allows this conversation to take place?

Because they know about the production of The Act of Killing, but haven’t seen it yet, they don’t know what to do. They would probably like to ask their thugs, who the more powerful of the perpetrators have standing by, to attack us. But they don’t want to offend their superiors with whom they think I might be close to from The Act of Killing. So they’re dumbfounded and a little bit paralyzed.

I had a feeling that if we could succeed in doing this, we would be doing something unprecedented in the history of nonfiction cinema. I don’t think there’s ever been a documentary where survivors confront perpetrators while the perpetrators still have an active monopoly on power. Because it’s too dangerous. Because why would you do that?

So even though I understood Adi would likely fail in his mission to get an apology from these men, I felt that by documenting something as unprecedented as the beginnings of a dialogue, however it turns out, we would be truly breaking silence on a national scale, and he’d be succeeding through the film where he fails in the scene.



Adi in The Look of Silence


It was always up to Adi whether to reveal that Ramli was his brother. It was always his choice, we knew he might, but he didn’t have to, and he would do it if he felt like it and if he felt safe doing it.

Also, in that moment Adi’s theory is that he’s a gentle and empathic man and that the moment he would confront them with who he is they would think “my gosh, this man is a human being, coming to me like a human being, perhaps his brother was a human being, perhaps all of this was wrong.” And like Anwar [Anwar Congo, the main character of The Act of Killing] when he watches himself play the victim, they would start to glimpse the cracks in the facade that all of this is justified and heroic. And we would see that in fear and doubt in their faces. I think that’s true too. I think that’s occurring right there.

T/F: That they actually believed the official propaganda that the communists were all wife-swapping, godless . . .

JO: I don’t know, I think we have to be very careful with the language we use there. They have clung to that lie knowing that it’s a lie. Cognitive dissonance is an essential element to all of this. Back to your first question, that it’s an open secret, you know, but you don’t know. Rohani finds out that her brother was a prison guard. I don’t know how she couldn’t have known that. But she didn’t want to know. It was too painful for her to contemplate.

Did the daughter of the perpetrator who apologizes to Adi really deeply believe her father was a hero? Or did she always know that at some level she was lying to herself and the details of the killing that come out in the conversation between Adi and her father simply prevent that lie from functioning anymore?

Both films document how people cling to lies. And I think that’s how much political discourse works, especially in the United States, where much of what our politicians say and much of the rhetoric that arouses the passion of the public we all know to be bullshit. Yet we still enjoy or allow ourselves to be inspired by it, for better or for worse. Usually for worse.

T/F: One aspect of The Look of Silence I wanted to ask about is the way you show Adi’s father Rukun, photographing his body and his physical frailty. Those images really work for me intuitively, but intellectually I’m still having trouble understanding exactly how they fit. Could you explain how you see those images functioning in the film?

JO: Well, first of all, cinema should always work on an intuitive level. It’s not a medium for words and it’s not a medium for theories, it’s supposed to work on an intuitive level.

But I think it’s that strand in the film that makes it a movie about memory. And it’s the fact that it’s a movie memory that makes it universal and not merely a political film about a particular country with a particular form of impunity around a particular history. It’s that strand in the film that makes it a poem about what happens, about what is destroyed, not by the genocide itself, but by 50 years of trauma and fear that becomes embedded in the body, almost like the constraints on a bonsai tree shape the tree over many many years.

You know, the whole strand with Adi’s father is really leading up to one critical scene which Adi shot. It’s the only scene in the film he shot and I think it is probably the most divisive scene in the whole movie for audiences. It’s the scene at the end where Adi’s father is crawling, lost. That scene was shot quite awhile before the rest of the film, apart from the old footage that Adi’s watching.

Towards the end of shooting The Act of Killing I gave Adi a camera for him to use as a kind of notebook to look for images. When I returned to Indonesia after editing The Act of Killing to make The Look of Silence Adi said, “you know Joshua, there’s one tape that I never showed you. And I want to give it to you, because I think it’s the most meaningful thing that I’ve filmed, and I didn’t give it to you because I wanted to keep it.” And trembling he took out his camera and took out the one tape that he hadn’t given to me. He put it in and showed me that scene and as soon as it started to play he started to cry. He said, “I shot this at the end of Ramadan, when the whole family comes together. And it was the first day that my dad couldn’t remember who anyone was. It was terrible, and we were all trying to comfort him and he was really scared, but because he was panicking he couldn’t calm down enough to remember any of us, so we just made it worse. He thought we were all trying to harm him. So we didn’t know what to do. And I thought at some point the most loving thing I could do was to film him. And I started to film him”– he’s crying as he’s telling me this — “and I was filming him crawling around the house lost, the house he’s lived since he was a child. That he was born in. And I felt then that I don’t want my children to inherit this prison of fear. I feel like my father’s stuck in a prison of fear, but because he’s forgotten the son whose murder destroyed his life and caused the fear, it’s like he’s locked in a room and can’t even find the door, let alone the key or the lock. He’ll never be able to work through that fear. It’s too late for healing.” That was when he proposed to me, “I need to meet the perpetrators. Because if I meet the perpetrators, confronted by my own humanity, they will acknowledge that what they did was wrong, and finally we can all, us and the perpetrators, get out of this prison of fear and live together as human beings.”

If you think about it, that’s such a symptom of desperation, to think that the only way out of fear is to go and risk your safety to confront the men who killed your brother, to say “please recognize that this is wrong, so we can live together.” I knew that that story would not make it into the film, that we didn’t have the material to tell the story I just told you. But I felt that if I constructed the film as a kind of poem, a very careful visual poem about memory and fear and what it does to a human body, what it does to the wrinkles in Rohani’s brow, what it does to the body as you see the water pour down Rukun’s 103-year-old torso, if I was very focused and precise, we could build up an intuitive, poetic core of the film, that would allow viewers to feel the meaning of that scene, even without that story.


the-look-of-silence rukun

Adi’s father Rukun in The Look of Silence


And I know some viewers will never feel it. Some will say this is wrong, you should help, this is exploitative and so on. But I think most viewers feel a degree of love behind the film and closeness with that family they can trust that there’s probably a story around the actual conditions for making that scene. Most people will know in their heart the story I’ve told you without knowing the story. Just as when you read a poem you might not know the events that inspired it, but you get the feelings from it.

T/F: Thank you, wow. Well, to finish up, is there anything you wanted to say about what’s going on with Adi and his family today and their relocation?

JO: The most important thing is that the film has now screened 1,500 times in Indonesia and Adi has been going to as many important screenings as he can go to. He’s been welcomed at every single one as a kind of hero who has inspired the breaking of silence in a way that hadn’t been imaginable before. The Act of Killing opened this space for a new kind of discussion around the film and created a fertile ground for Adi to bring his film, because it really is also his film.

Yes, it’s an operation for us to monitor and secure his safety and his family’s safety on an ongoing basis in Indonesia. That’s why we don’t complicate matters by bringing me to Indonesia, where I’m likely to face arrest or murder or whatever. And we don’t complicate matters by revealing the identity of all 50 of my anonymous crew members who also could face reprisals. And there’s a backup plan for the family to evacuate temporarily if needed.

But at the moment Adi is doing very important work in Indonesia. He’s really making a difference. And the kids are out from under the shadow of the perpetrators. The kids are in much better schools than the one in The Look of Silence, which you can see is pretty terrible. And Adi, when he’s not traveling with the film, is still an optometrist, going door to door and testing people’s eyes and building a new business.

Of course, it also means that there was a backlash. And the military and the police started with alarming consistency to organize paramilitary thugs to threaten to attack screenings, and use that as an excuse to demand that screenings would be cancelled. That was widely criticized in the news, “Why are the police organizing thugs?” Nevertheless, it was only 26 screenings that were cancelled this way out of something like 1,500. And no one was injured at any of those. The military also managed to get the film banned by the national film censorship board for commercial cinema screening, but the National Human Rights Commission, who is the official sponsor of the release in Indonesia, is still encouraging public screenings of the film, insisting that the ban is unlawful. So there’s a battle inside of the new Indonesian government, and we don’t know yet which way it will go. But I’m optimistic that now, 50 years on from the genocide, with the truth finally being out and undeniable and easily discussed by everyone in the society, the days of censorship, official history and brainwashing in school are really numbered.


Posted March 11, 2015

To Mourn Your Own Self: A Conversation with Laurent Becue-Renard About ‘Of Men and War’

In his first film War-Wearied filmmaker Laurent Becue-Renard discovered a role for the camera in therapy, observing group sessions with survivors of war in Bosnia suffering from post-traumatic stress. In his new film Of Men and War (T/F 2015) Laurent and his team developed a similar approach, filming with traumatized American soldiers over months and years, both during and after their stay at The Pathway Home halfway house.



I recently got the chance to speak with Laurent on the phone ahead of his film’s screening at True/False 2015. He’ll be in-person at the Fest to discuss the film further, as will David Wells, one of the men from the film who just happened to be from Columbia, MO.

-Dan Steffen


True/False: Can we start by talking about access? How you became involved with this particular program?

Laurent Becue-Renard: Prior to filming I made extensive research, meeting a lot of veterans, their families and sometimes their therapists. During the course of my first trip ten years ago I met Fred Gusman, who at the time was working for The National Center for PTSD. When he started this new program, The Pathway Home, I had known him for three years already. He had seen my previous film shot in Bosnia, also in therapy.

I asked him first for access to the facility when his first patients came in. He granted me access without a camera. I was allowed to be here the first two months like a fly-on-the-wall. That’s what I did; the two months became three, four, five months. After five months I asked him if I could use a small camera, just to see how the camera could take part in the therapy. I did that for several weeks, after which I was granted permission to film with professional equipment, first for three months, then for six, then for nine. All this is to say that when I started filming and when the guys who are in the film arrived I had already been there for several months. They never knew the Pathway Home without the camera.

That being said, it was not compulsory whatsoever for them to be filmed in therapy. At any time they could say that they wanted us to turn off the camera and leave the room, which never happened. In my first film it was the same, I was never asked to leave the room or stop filming.

With most of them I talked about my grandfathers who fought in World War One, and I showed them the picture that’s on the end credits of the film. The two guys who were my grandfathers came back from the war at the same age that they did and built up their families. They never spoke, not to their wives or kids or grandkids. I grew up with the silence over what was experienced in the war. That was something the men could understand very quickly. Those with kids could see very much how the kids were affected by the traumas of the father.

T/F: Could you explain the camera’s place in therapy?

LBR: The camera took a role in a therapeutic process on a daily basis, both in the first film in Bosnia and in this film. It’s mostly two aspects. The first one is acknowledgement. For the patient’s perspective there is in the room a guy coming from very, very far away — not only geographically but also culturally, socially — who seems to have plenty of time. His time is extensive. And he will be there in the room until they are done talking, from the very beginning to the very end. A guy with no agenda or even questions. There are no interviews whatsoever. The only questions the filmmaker is interested in are the questions they are asking themselves. All this put together is an acknowledgement and a validation that something really has happened to them, something that has made them who they have become.

Of course, this is what a therapist is doing on a daily basis. When you go to see a therapist, the very fact that he is allocating 45 minutes of his time and is only there to listen to what you have to tell him is an acknowledgement and validation of what has happened to you and the way you feel about it. The presence of the camera is kind of amplifying that.

The second point would be the mediation, in the fact that each and every one of them lives the trauma in a huge loneliness. And it is very difficult to share with their kids, their wife, their parents, in any circle. The film is a promise that some kind of ties with the outside world will be rebuilt through the story, first of all with the family, then the community, then the community of mankind. I think that’s very helpful in the therapeutic process.



image from Of Men and War


T/F: Is there any sort of explicit promise?

LBR: No, anything I’m saying right now is purely assumed, but it’s based on extensive experience, first with the Bosnian war and then with these guys. Something that we did for Of Men and War that we didn’t for the first film is see them with their families after therapy. We first shot nine months of therapy, then over the next four years we went back and forth to see several of the men with their families. Sometimes we would come three months after the last day in therapy, sometimes nine months, sometimes eighteen months. What was fascinating is that at the moment we would come and turn on the camera they would pick it up where they had left it in the therapy room months before, as if they very fact that the camera is back and that we were all together, even in the absence of the therapist, meant the setting of the therapy was back and they could continue with what they were on when they finished their stay at The Pathway Home.

And then also a kind of a therapy triangle appeared, the guy, the family member — be it the kid, the wife or the parent — and us. Each of them would use the camera to tell the other things that they wouldn’t tell in their daily life. It was unconscious in the way they were using the camera again in a therapeutic role. That was very, very interesting.

And again, I spent fourteen months on a daily basis in this facility and I shot for nine months. This is very long, you know. And any of them could ask us to leave the room at anytime. So every day, every hour even, it was a re-acknowledgment of their agreement.

T/F: Are you literally not saying anything to them? “Good morning? How’s it going?”

LBR: In the corridors or in the daily room or in the kitchen, of course we are talking, definitely. I’ve done sports with them, I’ve gone on a bike ride to get an espresso at the French bakery downtown. We have daily activities.

T/F: But none of them involve the camera?

LBR: They don’t involve the camera and they never mention what we have taped in the therapy room. There’s a lot of bonding. There were some other volunteers in the half-way home. Some were doing drama work, stage work. Some were doing photography. And I was kind of just another one, you know, belonging and not belonging to the place.

T/F: When I was watching the film, even though it is a very naturalistic film, I felt a certain abruptness in the pacing, and the way scenes ended. Was that something that a feeling you were trying to achieve?

LBR: As a filmmaker I’m trying to address the unconscious of the viewer. I don’t want to address their consciousness, I want them to work while they’re watching the film, without knowing that they are doing so. So when we were editing each of the sessions, we were really focusing on what is at stake in the session for the guy and for the group. Where does he come from at the beginning of the session and where does he go? Of course that means that you don’t have to respect the chronology of the session, neither inside the particular session nor among the sessions. You’re really focused on the meaning and where there’s meaning in the session.

Fred’s sessions, on average, were lasting around two hours, approximately the length of the film. The sessions in the film are on average is forty five seconds to three or four minutes in duration. Our aim while editing was that the viewer would never feel like something was missing in the session. But still they could work on it on their own and still get the feeling that they got it. That’s perhaps what you mean by abruptness.

Abrupt also comes from the fact that that’s how they interact in the sessions with Fred and the others. A session is rather chaotic, you know? Fred’s sessions with trauma related to war, or any session for anyone.

I also sometimes wanted sessions that were very far apart in time in the real chronology to bump into one another. Some of the meaning comes out of the segments bumping heads together. The work of editing is to have the sessions kind of speaking to each other and then also including scenes of the future and family life shot over the next four years.



image from Of Men and War


T/F: A take-away from the film for me was the variety in the things that these men experienced in war and I think a variety of what they needed from therapy. That the specifics of their stories of trauma in each case were really important, know what I mean?

LBR: Right. As I said, I spent months working at the Pathway Home and I have known more than one hundred guys and filmed in therapy. And of course before filming doing my research I had met hundreds of veterans. So, I had in my mind a broad spectrum of what was war trauma for a young warrior, all the kinds of experiences they could go through and how they would react to those experiences. They won’t say everything, but everything would be said in the room at some time.

A lot of time your trauma will be expressed by your peers sitting next to you and speaking before or after. That’s one of the dynamics of group therapy. For a young man in this culture it’s very difficult to say how they’ve been deeply, deeply wounded in their soul. It’s not part of your culture. They say these things because they are all saying things together. They accept looking at their weakness because the others are also looking at their own weakness.

When they themselves or other veterans watch this they always say you have my story, it’s there in the film. It’s amazing, no matter the culture, the distance, the different types of war, it’s the same story.

T/F: One of the other things I wanted to ask you about are scenes in the film showing how our culture formally recognizes veterans, for example in a parade or at a ceremony of a football game. They aren’t presented ironically, but seeing those scenes alongside the therapy gives them a new context.

LBR: Yeah, I’ve seen how much veterans are around us. But as much as we acknowledge them in the public sphere, it’s not sure that we do really get it. Of course, veterans are touched when people come towards them at the airport and say “thank you for your service”. And of course it is honest for people who do that. But most veterans I’ve met, they say “yes, they come and say that, but they expect us to go back on track the next day. And we will never recover our lives from prior.’The rear’, those who haven’t been to war, don’t really get it.”

I guess they would rather have their PTSD acknowledged. Yes, life is going to be tough, they don’t react to things how they used to. Sometimes it goes from zero to ten just like this. It’s like missing a limb, but you don’t see it. It’s inside; the wound is within. They know that they can’t go back to the person they were before. They’d like that acknowledged. It’s very difficult to mourn your own self. It’s frightening, it’s painful and it’s an ongoing process that will last all their lives.

So I guess the scene of daily life are more talking about the misunderstanding, the profound misunderstanding between those who went to war and those who didn’t.

T/F: Is there anything else you want to include?

LBR: I want to say I have a great respect and admiration for these young men. I think it’s very, very courageous for each and everyone of them to go into therapy. By going into therapy, they kind of chose life. It’s choosing life when death is all around in their psyche. It’s courageous. It’s courageous to keep being alive, to have a family, to be a part of a community. I think it takes as much courage as being on the front line. I admire their dignity also.

I want to say too that my quest was to go after the words and the sentences my grandfathers could have told me, or could have told my grandmothers or my parents. I think that thanks to these guys I have a kind of access to the trauma that built up in my family and in all of our families in the western world that have this experience of war.




Read and Listen to Interviews with True/False 2015 Filmmakers

True/False 2015 may be past, but you can still read and hear more from the many brilliant filmmakers we were able to bring to town. To begin with, we’ve conducted three interviews here on our blog:

Joshua Oppenheimer discusses The Look of Silence and The Act of Killing

Morgan Knibbe discusses Those Who Feel the Fire Burning

Laurent Becue-Renard discusses Of Men and War

We’ll have more of these interviews throughout the year ahead.


Meanwhile, KBIA has completed the 2015 edition of their series True/False Conversations which features short chats with filmmakers available as text and audio. They include:

Qi Zhao talks The Chinese Mayor

Ed Cunningham talks Finders Keepers

Michael Madsen talks The Visit

Jimmy Chin talks Meru

Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden talk Almost There

Liz Garbus talks What Happened, Miss Simone?

Eri Daniel Erlich talks Life According to Ohad

Laurent Becue-Renard talks Of Men and War


And from the first night of the Based on a True Story conference at the University of Missouri, you can now watch video of critic Dana Stevens in-depth conversation with Joshua Oppenheimer.


True/False 2015 Fest Digest

The True/False 2015 Fest Digest provides a day-by-day look back at some of the events that made up this year’s Fest with stories, pics and videos. Explore each entry below:


Opening Night



An End


Watch True/False 2015 Videos from Our Video Team

Throughout the festival, the T/F Video Team put in long hours and late nights creating daily recap videos for each day of the Fest. A big thank you to videographers Paul Mossine, Chelsea Myers, Samuel Ott, Matthew Suppes, Ben Hendricks, Matt Schacht, Thomas Brinegar and Jonathan Sessions for capturing the feel of True/False 2015. Check out their work below:



Music by: Miss Jubilee & The Humdingers – “I Found A New Baby”
Edited by Thomas Brinegar



Music by: David Wax Museum – “Will You Be Sleeping”
Edited by Paul Mossine



Music by Messy Sparkles – Untitled, Pat Sajak Assassins – “Cave Bacon”
Edited by Samuel Ott


Thank You Volunteers!

Music: Yes Ma’am
Edited: Chelsea Myers


True/False 2015 Fest Digest: An End

We have all once more parted ways. It’s always a little sad to realize that the festival is now part of the past. But hopefully True/False 2015 is now part of a past we can carry with us and live together inside of for years to come.

Jarred Alterman’s final prefeature micro film “The Bottle Hunter” considers messages sent through time, arriving in the present through a window of time. Hopefully a few of the thousands of ideas, impressions, feelings and experiences that we shared this weekend will arrive suddenly in your present at a time you least expect it.



We sprung forward into the final day of T/F 2015, meaning the 9:30 screening of The Visit came extra early at the Missouri Theatre. Michael Madsen’s hypnotic simulation of humanity’s first encounter with alien intelligence features interviews with international officials who actually develop protocol for such an occurrence.


photo by Rebecca Allen

photo by Rebecca Allen


Meanwhile, at the Oddfellows Lodge everyone chowed down at the Weird Wake-Up before entering the theater for a double bill mid-length films about art curation and time: Abandoned Goods and Jeff, Embrace Your Past.


photo by Megan Stilley

photo by Megan Stilley


On Sunday, long time friend Gabe Williams guided the ever-popular Art Ramble through downtown Columbia, highlighting the art installations during True/False. He spoke about the ephemeral nature of True/False’s art and the temporary nature of all of our human achievements. One of the pieces considered was Duncan Bindbeutel The Frozen Man located outside of Ragtag Cinema.


photo by Megan Stilley

photo by Megan Stilley


Sunday afternoon at The Missouri Theatre hosted director Nick Broomfield’s Tales from the Grim Sleeper, which investigates the community and police response (or lack thereof) to a serial killer’s 20-plus year killing spree of young women in South Central L.A. Broomfield was joined on stage by Pam Brooks, a woman from the area who becomes an ad hoc investigator in the film.


photo by Billie Stock

photo by Billie Stock


At our rookie venue Cornell on the MU campus, T/F 2015 concluded with a screening of Finders Keepers, a hilarious and poignant film about the custody battle over a severed foot.


photo by Ryan Henriksen

photo by Ryan Henriksen


Later at the Vimeo Theater at the Blue Note, T/F concluded with a screening of Episode Five of The Jinx: the Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, the HBO nonfiction series. Before hand, David explained his excitement about the potential for long form nonfiction on television that the series represents. Afterwards, filmmaker Marc Smerling discussed episode’s startling developments, while carefully avoiding spoilers for next week’s finale.


photo by  Jarred Gastreich

photo by Jarred Gastreich


And at the Missouri Theatre, a huge crowd gathered for the always bittersweet Busker’s Last Stand, where a huge array of T/F 2015 musicians performed in unison.


photo by Sarah Hoffman

photo by Sarah Hoffman


True/False is only possible because each and every year hundreds upon hundreds of volunteers joyfully contribute their time and labor. We can not let the fact that they show up each and every year make us complacent in recognizing how remarkable this is. Thank you to our volunteers. You are incredible.

The hardworking T/F Video team put together this short piece as one expression of our gratitude.



Another way we try to say thank you is our Sunday night volunteer party. Our party team spent countless hours transforming an undisclosed location into an indescribable party space. Once again, it was the best party of the year. Each room offered specific delights as we all spent a feel hours drinking, talking and dancing inside of some sort of strange utopia.


photo by Billie Stock

photo by Billie Stock

photo by Billie Stock

photo by Billie Stock


Thank you again to everyone who made this possible. True/False 2015 may be past, but we will try to keep the conversation about the art of nonfiction cinema going, both here on our website and out in the world, through the weeks and months ahead until we all come together again March 3, 2016.

-Dan Steffen
Minister of Propaganda
True/False Film Fest

Posted March 9, 2015

True/False 2015 Fest Digest: Saturday

True/False 2015 barreled ahead through a glorious, jam-packed Saturday. With so much to see and hear and think and feel, you find yourself forgetting to eat and sleep. Inside the Fest, time seems to move differently.

In Jarred Alterman’s third microfilm, “The Beekeeper”, Jim Thaxter explains something similar, how organisms like bees experience the flow of time not as individuals, but as a collective.



Saturday began bright and early with our the True Life Run, a surprise-filled journey through the heart of Columbia to benefit our True Life Fund. The weather was great, and a run felt like just the thing after two days of cinema.


True Life Run start

photo by Stephen Bybee


At the Forrest Theater, Saturday began with a screening of Heaven Knows What, one of the few films at T/F this year which could clearly, if not cleanly, be described as “fiction”. Afterwards, brother filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie described meeting their star Arielle Holmes while she was living on the street, and persuading her to right a memoir about her life, which eventually became the basis for the screenplay. They also talked about shooting from blocks away, so that their actors could authentically inhabit New York.


Copy of Benny-&-Joshua-Safdie-Q&A-at-Forrest

photo by Frank Finley


That afternoon at the Missouri Theatre, it was time for the biggest screening of our 2015 True Life Fund film, The Look of Silence. David Wilson and Crossing Church Pastor Dave Cover introduced the film and the fund benefiting Adi Rukun, who in the film confronts perpetrators of the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide. After the screening, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer translated while Adi joined us from Indonesia via Skype. When asked about revenge Adi said, “I never wanted to take revenge. What good would it do?  It would just perpetuate violence forever.”


photo by Parker-Michels Boyce

photo by Parker-Michels Boyce


At Reynolds Journalism Institute, our second day of panels featured a discussion about working with subjects on the margins. Filmmakers Hanna Polack (Something Better to Come), Morgan Knibble (Those Who Feel the Fire Burning) and Khalik Allah (Field Niggas) considered numerous pitfalls in conversation with moderator by Omar Mullick (These Birds Walk).


photo by Megan Stilley

photo by Megan Stilley


A little later, back at the Missouri Theatre, former True Vision Award winner Alex Gibney took the stage following a screening of Going Clear, his comprehensive expose on the history and methods of the Church of Scientology. Gibney talked about preparing for the ongoing legal battle that followed the film’s premiere at Sundance and capturing the right tone for this stranger-than-fiction story.


photo by Parker Michels-Boyce

photo by Parker Michels-Boyce


Later at The Globe, an audience gathered to watch the hilarious Rules of the Game, a French film following three teens as they progress (or regress) through a program designed to prepare them for the workforce. Even the film’s chapter introductions drew huge laughs from the crowd, who watched the film beneath the glow of Camellia Cosgray’s lighted megamap.


photo by Corey Ransberg

photo by Corey Ransberg


At 9th and Broadway, The Great Wall featured short films and news reports from our late friend Malik Bendjelloul, who won over T/F audiences with his earnest charm when appearing with his film Searching for Sugar Man (T/F 2012). Beneath The Wall, David Wilson led a toast for Malik “who will always have a place at True/False.”


Copy of TF15-MalikToast-RA-01


Then it was time for one of True/False’s signature events, Gimme Truth! In our always raucous game show, a panel of filmmakers must try to discern if short films are 100% True or 100% False.


photo by Morgan Lieberman

photo by Morgan Lieberman


In this short clip captured by our friends at CAT TV, panelists Ioanis Nugent (Spartacus & Cassandra), Lyric R. Cabral ((T)ERROR) and Nick Broomfield (Tales of the Grim Sleeper) appraise Snip Snip: A Story of Childhood Loss by Mike Sleadd & Matt Schacht.



Meanwhile at the Missouri United Methodist Church, Anonymous Choir performed in a first-of-its-kind Sanctuary Showcase, sending beautiful melodies echoing off of the walls.


photo by Rebecca Allen

photo by Rebecca Allen


While over at Rose Music Hall, Shilpa Ray tore through the place with her harmonium and voice as part of our Saturday Showcase.


photo by Whitney Buckne

photo by Whitney Buckner


Only one days remains, but there is no slowing down. It is time to spring forward into the final day of T/F 2015. But before we do, lets take one last look back at Saturday with the latest offering from the T/F Video Team, who pulled yet another all-nighter to bring you the sights and sounds of T/F.


Posted March 8, 2015

Program for Tonight’s Gimme Truth!

Here’s the program for tonight’s Gimme Truth! tonight at the Vimeo Theater at The Blue Note.


Johnny St. John

This disgraced former game show host continues on what appears to be an interminable comeback trail. Paroled once again to host his eighth consecutive Gimme Truth!, Johnny St. John is here to relive his glory years before scandal brought him to his knees. Marrying the sardonic wit of ‘60s-era quiz show hosts with the razzmatazz of a pool shark, St. John has collected restraining orders from at least eight T/F filmmakers. Please don’t report him, and join in when he starts singing his self-penned Gimme Truth! theme song. Though we don’t condone his methods, after seven years it’s hard to argue with results.


Ioanis Nugent- director of Spartacus & Cassandra

Ioanis (ee-wah-nees, we think) plays the part of our befuddled foreigner. He’s used to running amok with two Roma children and a no-nonsense trapeze artist. Here’s to hoping he finds something transferrable between that and this stage. We make no promises.

Lyric R. Cabral- director of (T)ERROR

Lyric is hell-bent on interrogating each of the contestants. She lived next to an FBI informant for years and unlike the rest of us, she not only knew but made a movie about it. By the end of the show she may very well discover all the secrets of our very own Johnny St. John.

Nick Broomfield- director of Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Don’t let his British accent throw you off–with his morbid curiosity he’s influenced American pop-culture about as much as anyone. We think forbidding him from taking the stage with his boom pole AKA bullshit detector should level out the playing field.


1. Snip Snip: A Story of Childhood Loss

dir. Mike Sleadd & Matt Schacht

2. Kinda Famous

dir. Diggy Splash & Justin Gregory

3. Sparky’s

dir. Tucker Morrison & Aaron Persky

4. On the Fence

dir. Kate and Jimmy Moore

5. John B. Thompkins and the Special Shaving Equipment

dir. Pat Holt

6. My Name is Billie

dir. Livvy Runyon

7. Living History

dir. Jilly Dos Santos, Jess Christensen, Alex Isgriggs & Maddy Mueller

8. Gyno Might

dir. Benjamin J Hedrick

9. Flossy Flossy

dir. Autumn Brown & Heather Beger

10. Family Heirloom

dir. Paul Mossine & Chandra Heartland


Call of Duty

dir. Matt Lenski, 2015, 6 min.

Posted March 7, 2015

True/False 2015 Fest Digest: Friday

On Friday True/False expanded into more and more venues, events, screenings, concerts, panels and parties. This makes our job in the Fest Digest even more of a fool’s errand, but we’ll try to provide a little bit of cohesion to the day that was. Below you’ll find descriptions, images and video of just a few of the things that happened yesterday.

Before each program on Friday, fest-goers saw Jarred Alterman’s second microfilm “The Clockmaker”, in which “Pendulum” Bob King considers time as something we think we grasp, but is ultimately mysterious.



In the august setting of the Missouri Theatre, Friday began with an extraordinary event in T/F history. For the first time, T/F partnered with Columbia high schools to bring each and every 10th grader from Columbia public high schools to a special showing of What Happened, Miss Simone at Missouri theater.


Copy of TF15-DIYDAY-SH-13

photo by Sarah Hoffman


The film charts the life of the combustible, brilliant jazz singer Nina Simone. After the film, students asked questions to director Liz Garbus, who discussed Simone’s psychological afflictions and their complicated relationship with her ability to produce incredible art.


photo by Ryan Henriksen

photo by Ryan Henriksen


Afterward, students migrated to the greater Orr St. area for our DIY (Do It Yourself!) Day! Orr St. Studios housed a large parade preparation workshop, with glitter galore, and mask and banner creation for the March March. Smaller individual breakout sessions focused on filmmaking, music, screen-printing and advice from those with success in creating a life of artistic expression.


photo by Ryan Henriksen

photo by Ryan Henriksen


photo by Ryan Henriksen

photo by Ryan Henriksen


In an attempt to dig deeper into the minds of the many brilliant guests we bring to town, we put on a series of conversations at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. In our first, panelists Kevin B. Lee (Transformers: The Premake), Zhao Qi (producer of The Chinese Mayor) and Dean Ming Yang and Dr. Zhenzheng Wang discussed the state of documentary filmmaking in the People’s Republic of China and different models that filmmakers there have attempted to try to reach audiences.


photo by Corey Ransberg

photo by Corey Ransberg


True/False presents but a single award each year. Our True Vision Award honors the career of a working filmmaker who has made significant contributions to nonfiction cinema. This year that honor went to Adam Curtis, who for over twenty years at the BBC has reevaluated history through brilliant archival montages.

At noon Friday Curtis presented a unique program at our second home, Ragtag Cinema, titled Unstoryfiable: Where Journalism Fails and Modern Power Begins. Talking in-between short films, segments and clips, Curtis’ wide-ranging, audacious and frequently humorous presentation argued that new systems of power, grounded in predictive systems for risk management, hide in plain sight because they are impossible to capture with either narrative or imagery.


Copy of TF15-Unstoryfiable-JG-1457

photo by Jarred Gastreich


Immediately following Unstoryfiable, Adam was whisked away to the Missouri Theatre, where Paul presented him with the True Vision Award ahead of a screening of his new film Bitter Lake, which examines the tortured history of Afghanistan in light of a fateful agreement between the United States and the House of Saud.


photo by Billie Stock

photo by Billie Stock


When the bright and sunny afternoon Friday afternoon rolled around it was time for the March March, in which we usher in a new season with a joyous parade down the center of downtown Columbia, featuring music, costumes, puppets and more.


photo by Sarah Hoffman

photo by Sarah Hoffman


photos by Ryan Henriksen

photos by Ryan Henriksen


Meanwhile at the Picturehouse, it was the first screening of Spartacus & Cassandra, an artful blend of verite intimacy and lyrical interludes about the lives of two Roma children at a crossroads. Director Loanis Nuguent and subject Camille Brisson were on hand afterwards for a spirited Q and A.

photo by Corey Ransberg

photo by Corey Ransberg


And at Rhynsburger Theatre, Sam Green presented The Measure of All Things, a constantly evolving live-documentary featuring live musical accompaniment. As still images and video clips appeared on screen, Green narrated a interwoven series of tales inspired by entries in The Guinness Book of World Records, including the time the world’s second tallest man saved the life of a dolphin.


photo by Whitney Buckner

photo by Whitney Buckner


A little later filmmakers and festgoers come into close contact at the Oddfellows Lodge during Campfire Stories, an intimate event where filmmakers tell stories of “the scene that got away.” In one of this year’s entries, Khalik Allah of Field Niggas described gaining and then losing a subject, and a friend. Our friends at CAT TV captured his tale on video.



The night ended at Tonic with the @CTION Party. By the time midnight rolled around, the dance floor was crammed with bodies in motion to the sounds provided by DJs Gold E Mouf and Cousin Cole.


photo by Jarred Gastreich

photo by Jarred Gastreich


Friday’s gone, but there’s so much more T/F to come. Time to head out back into the festival. But before we do, let’s take one last look at Friday through a video recap, amazingly created overnight by the diligent T/F Video Team.



Onwards to Saturday!


True/False 2015 Fest Digest: Opening Night!

T/F Opening night brings with it adrenaline and jitters, followed by the sudden ecstasy of being once more in a crowd of fest-goers and a feeling of that excitement echoed back. No matter your preparation, True/False only truly exists in the present, right now.

Before all of the opening night films, the first of Jarred Alterman’s T/F 2015 microfilms examining our concept of time screened. “The Astrophysicist” introduces us to Angela Speck, who explains how, in her extra-intuitive domain of inquiry, time becomes a measurement of distance.



The promise of a new True/False weekend manifests in our annual fancy pants gala, The Jubilee. Costumed T/F fans packed the august Missouri Theatre, enjoying drinks, hors d’oeuvres, the joyful noise created by a menagerie of performing buskers.


Copy of TF15-Jubilee-JG-1010

photo by Jarred Gastreich


Copy of TF15-Jubilee-JG-1154

photo by Jarred Gastreich


Eventually, we all found our seats for a screening of Best of Enemies a film which offers fascinating context to the vital archival footage of William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal’s seminal televised debates of the late 60s. Afterwards co-director Morgan Neville tried to explain the feeling of finally sharing a film with an audience after being alone with it for so long. He also said he wants to provoke discussion about “civil and uncivil discourse.”


Copy of TF15-BestofEnemiesQA-MS-06

photo by Megan Stilley


Later at the Vimeo Theater at The Blue Note, Morgan Knibbe’s impressive feature debut Those Who Feel the Fire Burning screened for the very first time in the United States. By forcing us into the perspective of a hovering ghost, the film aims to “throw the audience into the deep” of the difficult and often hopeless lives of recent immigrants to Europe. Afterwards, Knibbe talked with the crowd and T/F programmer Chris Boeckmann about wanting to find a poetic approach to this problem that went “further than the numbers and factual information.”


Copy of TF15-ThoseWhoFeelTheFireBurning-TB-151

photo by Taylor Blatchford


Opening night came to an end at Cafe Berlin with the Toast/False busker showcase, featuring the bittersweet music of Cindy Woolf & Mark Bilyeu, Jack Grelle & Ryan Koenig and The Strangled Darlings, seen below.



photo by Corey Ransberg


Thursday night was but a warm-up for what is in store for us today. But before we plunge ahead, let’s take one more look at the excitement of opening night via the T/F Video Team, whose work features Miss Jubilee & The Humdingers’ song “I Found A New Baby”.


Posted March 6, 2015
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