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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.