Before we get into it, Joshua Oppenheimer apologizes for the length of his press notes. He shouldn’t have to. His new film, “The Look of Silence,” like its preceding companion film, 2012’s “The Act of Killing,” is a film that details much that is alien to most Westerners: namely the 1965 Indonesian genocide, in which the new military government hired paramilitary and gangsters to wipe out any and all communists. They wound up with a death toll of a million, if not higher. The perpetrators were never punished, and as such didn’t feel too odd about letting an American filmmaker film them as they bragged about their often unspeakably grisly war crimes.
Oppenheimer spent a decade in Indonesia, quietly filming dozens of perpetrators. He made “The Look of Silence” in between finishing “Killing” and its release, when it sent shockwaves across Indonesia — and effectively ensured he could not return. This new film is effectively the inverse of its sister: it looks at survivors, namely Adi Rukun, the brother of a victim, as he brazenly — but respectfully and patiently — confronts a series of perpetrators, and sometimes their families. Despite the gravity of what we're talking about, Oppenheimer is a warm and even funny presence. As he launched into epic, articulate responses he would move restlessly around in his rolling chair, as though in a dance — and eager to not simply repeat the press notes in different words.
Like “The Act of Killing,” “The Look of Silence” immerses the viewer in a specific part of a larger story. And it’s not a typical documentary look at an issue.
It’s not a documentary where what happened is being explained, and equally it’s not a survey of the experiences of survivors, where the filmmaker may feel the responsibility of showing the experiences of two, three, four families, so you can understand what constitute typical experiences. Those would be moments of abstraction, where the viewer would distance themselves from the film because they’re constructing a typical narrative in their head. Instead I try to immerse you, singularly, in one family and make the film bigger, ironically, by being more microscopic — by making Adi feel like he could be your brother, or Adi’s children your children, or Adi’s parents your parents or grandparents, so you can feel this family as your family. I want you to focus very precisely on different kinds of silences haunting the spaces — the silences in which shame and guilt and fear of guilt and defensiveness reside. These are very human reactions that are being articulated in the dialogues scenes between the perpetrators and Adi. Then you see the traces of what a life of silence and fear has left in Adi’s family, such as the wrinkles on his mother’s forehead. I wanted to find precise ways of filming that and using this invisible thing: silence, and particularly the silence that is borne of fear, which is based on terror but also with which survivors, particularly this family, have found a grace and love. I wanted to make that visible but to make it something you don’t see and understand but feel.
In addition to exploring this subject from the other side, “The Look of Silence” adopts an entirely different stylistic approach and tone than “The Act of Killing.” This is surely by necessity, but I was hoping you could discuss how these two films contrast and connect with each other.
I think the form of the film has to reflect what the film is about. These two films are exploring precisely complimentary aspects of present day impunity. … “The Act of Killing,” in the director’s cut, which is the uncut version, being a film about escapism and guilt, it becomes a kind of fever dream. Yet throughout it’s cut through by these moments of absolute silence, when time stops or shifts. In these haunted spaces are these abrupt cuts to these silent landscape shots, usually inhabited by one figure, two figures, surrounded by rubble, sometimes in shopping malls. These are abrupt shifts in the perspective of the film from the perpetrators to the absent dead who haunt the whole film. And in “The Look of Silence,” I wanted to draw the viewer into any of these haunted silences that cut through and make the viewer feel what it would be like to live surrounded by the perpetrators.
There’s an incredible bravery Adi and you and your crew had to confront men to their faces for crimes they committed, and men who still have ties to the reigning powers. How did you will yourself into doing something that could potentially be dangerous?
People see the film and think that we did all this with singular determination and bravery. But actually, of course, nonfiction films are not like that. It’s an exploration. You don’t know what you’re going to get. In this case, Adi was able to convince me we should confront the perpetrators, and since I was believed to be close to the highest ranking perpetrators in the country, because of “The Act of Killing,” I thought we could safely do this. Because the men Adi wanted to meet were regionally but not nationally powerful, and they wouldn’t dare detain or attack us. Once I understood that we did it, but with the understanding that we’d take it step by step, that we may stop at any point, or we may stop after the first confrontation if Adi’s family doesn’t agree to continue. We might not even release the film, whatever film we made. We might have to wait until the perpetrators die or if there’s real change in Indonesia. We were always ready to stop.