Joshua Oppenheimer by Pamela Cohn

The Look of Silence, and the price of forgiveness.

New York Live Arts presents

Marjani Forte
Nov 15-19


The Look Of Silence Oppenheimer

Still from The Look of Silence, 2014, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. Adi tests the vision of a death squad leader who helped kill his brother. Photo by Lars Skree, © Final Cut for Real.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence had its Danish premiere last month at the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival—CPH:DOX. The Danish capital has been home to Oppenheimer for several years now. He is one of the principals of Copenhagen-based Final Cut for Real, an independent production company specializing in nonfiction and documentary projects for the international marketplace. Shortly after taking the main prize in the DOX:AWARD competition, the film was released in cinemas countrywide in Denmark. Oppenheimer is also a 2014 recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” award and his previous film, The Act of Killing, was nominated for an Academy Award in addition to winning numerous other prestigious awards.

I first met and interviewed Josh in Copenhagen in 2012 when The Act of Killing débuted. Unlike The Look of Silence, it had not been widely released yet. Even though the films are a cycle unto themselves, with their various narratives and productions overlapping and informing one another over the course of a decade, their entry and reception into the world has been quite different. However hinged together the works are, Oppenheimer has crafted two distinct films that stand on their own as extraordinarily brave and profound pieces. It would be a gross oversimplification to view these films as reflecting two sides of a coin, that is, a film from the point of view of the perpetrators followed by a film that represents the point of view of the victims. The schema they create together is not that simple. (Read our conversation about the making of The Act of Killing on BOMB Daily here.)

During this year’s edition, I met with Josh again for coffee on the upper floors of the Grand Teatret, one of the festival’s main venues. Even though I was probably interviewer number 899 that week, the ever-gracious and impassioned director was as articulate, fresh and engaged as ever. That afternoon, he was to give a master class, one of several appearances he was asked to make throughout the run of the festival, including a talk I attended where he and Nick Broomfield discussed “The Art of Intervention,” a staged talk with his stellar producer, Signe Byrge Sørensen, Q&As, radio and television interviews, as well as fielding questions from pretty much every member of the foreign press corps in Copenhagen for the week.

Touching at myriad points along their individual narratives, the two films reside side by side as a testament to time and memory and the ways in which they can unite a decade of work that has unraveled one hell of a terrible and long-buried story. Two nights previous, The Look of Silence had also had its Indonesian premiere in the capital of Jakarta. Unlike The Act of Killing, which had to play in clandestine screenings throughout the country, this occasion brought out seemingly all of Indonesian society and was sponsored by the government in partnership with the nation’s human rights community. At two sold-out screenings of 850 people each, Adi Rukun, the film’s protagonist, received prolonged standing ovations from the local crowds and was declared a new national hero, with many of the country’s stars in attendance wanting to take their photo alongside him. Oppenheimer told me he would have preferred to have been there instead of in Denmark. Luckily for us, we had him in Copenhagen.

Pamela Cohn There is a beautiful circularity to these two films, with both referencing one another at many points along the way. The weight and timbre of your own presence behind the camera is very different here than it is in The Act of Killing. What were the distinct sensitivities you were paying attention to in dealing with Adi versus Anwar, both of whom you grew very close to?

Joshua Oppenheimer Hopefully the films are mutually illuminating and mirror one another in strange ways. They stand side by side, as in a diptych, rather than one following the other. Some have thought of the second film as formally more conventional when in fact The Look of Silence was much more experimental with form. The Act of Killing had an obvious experimental method, but the actual creation of the film was very engaged in observational distance. You and I talked about this a couple of years ago, how it was an observational documentary of the imagination for me.

I did always plan on making two films, one of them about what happens when a whole society is built on terror and lies, genres of lies, escapism, fantasy, and ultimately, guilt. A kind of fever dream in which we get lost in those lies, only to fall out into the brutal hard reality of it that is literally indigestible at the end. All of this led to a rather flamboyant film. But I always knew there was this other film I’d make about what it’s like to have to survive for fifty years as an ordinary Indonesian in fear, surrounded by the people who killed your relatives.

In that sense, what would happen if you entered any of those haunted tableaux that punctuate The Act of Killing and had to build a life there? What does that do to you—to have to live in that kind of silence and fear for so long? When you say you feel like the films circle around one another and have these multiple points of contact, I feel, too, as if every silent tableau in The Act of Killing is a kind of of hidden door or portal into the narrative of The Look of Silence. The boasting of the perpetrators we see framed by Adi’s gaze is a kind of prequel to the first film.

This circularity was also present in the production of the films because I began the process with Adi and his family. They were threatened and discouraged from participating in 2003 when we started. But they were also the ones that told me to try and film the perpetrators—the whole family was eager that I do that, but so were many of the other survivors whom Adi had gathered in the human rights community and with whom we were in dialogue at the time, both in Jakarta and Medan.

Then in 2004, one of the most important activists from the human rights community in Jakarta, Munir Said Thalib, was murdered. He was killed by the guy who is now very close to the new President, Joko Widodo, who hopefully is as progressive as he appears to be. The murderer, Priyanto, was the head of intelligence at the time. I was outraged and horrified by this killing. It made me afraid to film the perpetrators. And then, when I did, I encountered their boasting. The survivors and the human rights community as a whole, Adi’s family among them, said to keep filming them because I was finding out what happened, since no one had ever explicitly heard from them about what they did.

Adi said something incredibly insightful, which was that, if anyone hears and sees the ways they’re talking, there would be recognition that there’s something very wrong here now, in the present day. The feeling was that these two films should distinctly be about the present. That was the foundational principle behind both films. I shot for seven years with the perpetrators. The first two years generated footage of the perpetrators only seen in old footage that Adi watches. Then I met Anwar and the following five years were spent filming with him. None of the people in The Act of Killing are in this film. But since the beginning of shooting, Adi would watch everything we had time to show him. I went back to shoot The Look of Silence in 2012, after finishing the edit of Killing, but before it was released. That strange situation of being well known across the whole region for filming with the vice president and governor and ministers and senators meant that we could get away with these confrontations Adi was proposing.

When I went back, Adi himself had been on a journey by watching this footage over the course of many years and had come to a very different place than where he had been at the beginning. He was then insisting on meeting them face-to-face. Initially, I said no. But then the fact that I was well known as being friends with them led to their superiors giving us this unique opportunity to do something unprecedented, to film survivors confronting perpetrators while those same perpetrators were still in power. By still being in power, they have no need to deny what they did. It’s dangerous and puts everyone involved at enormous risk, but because of this unique situation afforded by the success of The Act of Killing, we were able to do it.

PC Shuttered sight, myopia, or outright blindness are, both literally and metaphorically, very present in this film. Quite literally, in the case of Adi’s father, there is an absence of the senses: he can’t see or hear anything. I was especially moved by Adi’s mother, Rohani, a centenarian for whom the recitation of “the story”—the testimony of her son’s killing—is told with insistent repetition. She remembers everything so vividly. Her strength and fortitude serve Adi’s determination so well because her anger has not dissipated. It’s been contained because she wants to survive long enough to hear the truth confessed, and you give her that opportunity.

JO It’s dangerous not to be silent and she knows that. Culturally, they’re predisposed to be in that silence because they’ve been oppressed for so long. These films are formally complementary, hinged at many points. One of those points is about speech and flamboyance and storytelling, the other about what it’s like to live in the silent spaces within that.

PC There’s a profound dignity and strength in Adi because he is encountering things in a relentless and stubborn way, which he has learned from his mother, and is illustrated beautifully in the dialogues they have with one another in the film. One of my favorite moments is so small and brief, but it’s when Rohani has just woken up, and before leaving her bed, she exercises her body, stretching and pulling her small frame, keeping herself limber and agile and strong to live out another day. It somehow reminded me of a fighter waiting to be called into the ring as he gets his body and mind prepared to withstand and absorb the most brutal punch. This coiled power emanates from her even when she is very still.

JO My inspirations while shooting this film—or really in preparation for it—were Ozu and Bresson, two filmmakers whose work I especially love despite my gregarious temperament. They were masters at capturing these moments in which, apparently, nothing is happening. But there’s a swarm of activity that make up and contain that inscrutable surface. What appears to be inert has trillions of electron clouds and atoms roiling around, providing constant flux and motion. We don’t see it but it’s happening. I wanted to create this sense of intimacy and tenderness, but also all of this stuff that couldn’t be said. But like a palimpsest, it leaves the faintest traces in the knitting of Rohani’s brow, the habit she has of always wringing her hands, the arthritic kinks that she can’t quite work through.

In both the shooting and in the editing work with Niels Pagh Andersen, I was very aware of wanting to be very precise about what we tell. There’s so much information that is interesting to all of these characters and their lives but I wanted to keep a lot back so the viewer could step in in place of these characters. I wanted to leave space for the viewer to be able to do that and also I really wanted to trust viewers to feel the emotions that I felt were sacred, that almost felt like an aura and nothing more.

At the end of the movie, Rohani opens the door and, upon seeing the man responsible for her son’s death, she cries. I found out afterwards that that was the only time Adi had ever heard her cry. According to her, the last time she cried was in the days after Ramli died. But even though you don’t know that—since we never mention it—I’m quite sure it can be felt in that moment. It’s a dam bursting, a breaking open, not an irreparable break, but for that moment, it’s allowed to be released.

PC The recording of this momentous meeting is significant. In other words, it wasn’t a moment that went unrecorded so you would then have to reenact it in some way or even think about what might have happened if she hadn’t had that visceral reaction.

JO I want to talk about this more even though it might be tangential to the conversation we’re having because of what it brings up. There’s this crazy myth that when you film with someone or several people long enough—the underpinning of so much of the direct cinema work of the past—and the filmmakers pretend like they aren’t there or that they “just happened” to catch something while they were rolling … That idea is an insult to everyone’s intelligence. If you are sitting and having an intimate conversation with me, or with your own mother or sister or father, while there is a camera in the room, a recording device run by someone who has the power to create your image for your whole future—even if you had been filmed for a really long time—could you ever confuse that situation? You might get used to it. You might develop a modus operandi for how to behave in front of the person with the camera, even after you’ve received the artless direction to “act normal.” Fundamentally, any honest moment in a nonfiction film happens because it’s an occasion created by the filmmaker.

What makes nonfiction film fantastic and exciting is that friction between the occasion that’s conceived by the director, the crew, and the characters, and what actually happens. There are these moments when everything flies out of control, beyond the control of everyone involved. No one knows what to do. That happens more often when the director has consciously set up, with the cooperation of the characters, a framework in which things are meant to be controlled. The fly-on-the-wall method would never provide that since everyone would be pretending that there’s no orchestration, no camera recording, and so on, and you get fewer authentic moments. If you design a scene or a scenario even in some oblique way, and pay attention to the inherent tension that is there, then things will fly out of control all the time. That paradox serves everything in The Act of Killing. The simple request of asking Anwar to go up on the roof and tell us what happened up there one more time is when things went totally wrong—for him, but also for me, since I didn’t have a clue as to what to do. You and I also talked about this two years ago—I still remember that conversation, one of the first times I talked about that publicly.

PC Your decision about what to do was to stand there with your camera, witness it, and record it.

JO I did. But not because I was sure that’s what I should do. I remember asking myself what it was I should be doing. In The Look of Silence, it’s the scene with Rohani crying at the end, which was not expected. I expected her to greet him, invite him in, and listen to him. I don’t even remember what we were planning on doing if something else had happened. None of us knew what to do, not even Adi, who had never seen his mother cry. Every single one of those confrontations played out in that way.

That’s what I was saying earlier about “under-telling,” or that precision in choosing what it is I want to tell. There’s one scene in the film that Adi shot, the only one he filmed. He had shot it two years before I made the film. I’d given him a camera towards the end of making The Act of Killing and he knew that we were going to make this film when I had finished editing that one. I asked him to look for images that, for him, embodied the experience of his family to use as a starting point for our discussion about what this next film would be. He told me that, of all the images he shot, this one is the most important. He played it and immediately started to cry. It’s the scene of his father crawling on the floor, utterly lost. I watched it with a lot of discomfort.

It was the end of Ramadan and the whole family was around. His father had been confused all day and could not remember who anyone was, including Adi. He was just freaking out and Adi was devastated and knew he was crying because his father had forgotten all of them, including the son whose murder ruined his life. Yet he hadn’t forgotten the fear. He’s trapped in this prison of fear, with no way of working through that trauma because he can’t even recall the source of it. Not only can he not find the key to this prison, he doesn’t even know where the door is.

I knew that if I put that scene of Adi’s father crawling around, no matter how I used it, there would be some who would think it cruel. But I was hoping that the emotional truth of this moment would be felt. Niels and I, from the beginning to the end, wanted to imagine that we were creating a piece in which the penultimate statement would be this image. It forced a particular language on us that we needed to use for the structure of the film.

He also told me he wanted to meet the perpetrators specifically because of this episode with his father. It was his way of getting his family back and making sure that his children not grow up in that same trap. He was hoping that if the perpetrators could acknowledge what they did was wrong when they met him, he could then try to separate the crime they committed from the human beings that they are. In other words, he could forgive the human being and they could live side by side.

Joshua Oppenheimer 02

Still from The Look of Silence, 2014, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. Adi confronts Amir Siahaan, a high-ranking death squad commander and present-day paramilitary leader. Photo by Lars Skree, © Final Cut for Real.

PC Was that the result of these encounters?

JO No! When I heard this, I was very upset. But you have to understand the depth of isolation within which he’s living and has always lived. Here’s this guy who is the only one from his village to go to high school. The survivors never went to high school because there was such discrimination against them. There were no jobs, nothing for them—another thing we don’t say in the film. Because he was the only communist in school, his teacher—who taught the stupid, fake history that they teach every year in school in every grade—put him in front of the class and told the other students that there was a communist in the class. From then on, he’s bullied and stigmatized by his fellow students and by his teacher. On top of that, your parents can’t even tell you what it was that happened to the family to make them so afraid and traumatized. They were afraid he’d talk in school and get everyone in trouble again. Your only hope, therefore, is to put your life on the line to meet the perpetrators and hope they will feel guilty. There’s no human rights community to appeal to in that vision. The last time an effort was made to bring survivors together to talk, they were threatened by the army to keep quiet. That was over a decade ago. Initially, I didn’t think it would succeed. I did know it would be unprecedented because I knew there would never be an expectation on the part of the perpetrators to have the survivors come to them for answers.

PC Let’s talk a bit about the set pieces of the landscape that you also use as another juxtaposition, this silent landscape inhabited by ghosts.

JO I wasn’t quite sure what to do with these haunted, still frames I had shot, but after we finished most of the editing and I went back for a final shoot, I shot more of them. We adopted that method to describe the place because we were trying to build up to one image in particular: the airplane crash in the street near the end of the film. We wanted to find a way of describing this haunted place so that that shot works. We worked backwards from that, in other words, to find the form. That was how we searched for the language of this film. That’s what I think creates this interdependency between the two films. If we hadn’t seen the power of that shot, of that plane, then we would not have shot those other tableaux or used them the way we did, and consequently we would not have understood the language we wanted to use, this landscape where nothing is happening, the swarming that makes up this calm surface I referenced before. The sound design would not have developed in the way it did with these layers and layers of different kinds of insects. We used very precise reverb and cadence for this, pitched so that they were in harmony.

PC The natural world—which holds all of this blood and death—is most evocative in the scene with the two killers who go on a little holiday jaunt with you and your camera in tow to describe in detail what happened at that riverbank, photographing one another against the nothingness that is there now.

JO The material of the two men going down to the river stands in for the entirety of The Act of Killing if you’ve not seen it. Many people won’t have seen that before seeing this. If you’ve never heard how the perpetrators boast, you need a scene to describe it, to show it. I was quite sure that would be the way to do it because that passage of those two men going down to the river that afternoon is the genesis of both films. It was January 2004 and I had filmed quite a few of the perpetrators on their own, describing in boastful terms what they’d done, some even reenacting it. But I wanted to try something that afternoon that I hadn’t done before, which was to bring two perpetrators together from neighboring villages to see how they spoke to one another about it. They didn’t really know one another and so there was no planning involved in advance about what they were going to say or do. I wanted to find out if they boasted to one another the way they boasted to me. They were reading from a shared script and that horrified me. That meant the boasting was performative, in the sense that they were performing in the present, affecting something in the here and now, a shared language, a collective one. That afternoon, accompanied by just one other person collecting sound, I hid my horror behind the camera in silence for three hours. And it just got worse and worse and, of course, reached the point where they started telling me how they killed Ramli. I didn’t know at the time they were the ones that had killed him. That was how I found out.

That was the afternoon when it first occurred to me that this might be the way SS officers would talk if the Nazis had won and if the whole world had supported them in killing all the people they killed in the Holocaust. Within days of shooting that, I set aside everything else I was doing. I was funding this project, in part, on a shoestring budget I got from the Ph.D. program I was in at the time. I went back to England and submitted a paper explaining that I was completely changing what my whole dissertation was about, because now it’s about this. I stopped all the other work I was doing, including developing two fiction scripts, knowing I would spend as many years as it would take to address this.

What’s most important when I say they were reading from a shared script is that I was seeing the performative assertion, in the sense of J. L. Austin’s speech act theory. When you’re performing, you’re making something happen in the present. A wedding vow would be a good example of this. These men were performing impunity, asserting it—to one another at first, building up the courage to go back and say these things to their neighbors, to me, to the world. It’s profoundly about the present, about now, not what happened then. There’s very little sober testimony there. This led to the hard work of the construction of the second film and I knew that structure would have to be in place before we showed these two men posing for photos. Their walk to the river is intercut with Kemat showing Adi the scene of the crime where Ramli rebelled and got hacked up. The men cackle and boast and talk in this absurd and silly way, with all the humanity in it that we also see in The Act of Killing, when they stop to smell the flowers, helping one another down the slope. Then it cuts to a three-minute shot that is almost totally silent, in which Adi and Kemat walk down to the same spot eight years later.

PC Had Adi seen that footage?

JO Yes, of course. Everyone had seen it. The whole Indonesian human rights community had seen that footage by then. The National Human Rights Commission wrote an 850-page report about the entire genocide across the whole country. There’s something like seventy pages of that report that refers back to that footage. These men helped to kill 10,500 people at that little clearing. I don’t say that with any precision, and that’s part of the tragedy, that this number might come from one little piece of paper that I found at the National Security Archive near George Washington University, where the American Consulate cites this number. There was no date. Where there was a line for the date to be filled in, it was blank. I know that it was filed before 1966, because the archive is chronological, and it says, “10,500 people killed at Snake River.” They presumably got it from the military, with whom they were in constant contact and from whom they got all the other data recorded in that folio of notes. It’s not really a reliable figure; no one really bothered to check. And again, there’s no date noting when that information was received. There’s no plaque there at the river announcing this. This knowledge came from research, after having already filmed those men there.

That re-haunting of the landscape was very important to me because we recognize it for what it is when Kemat and Adi go down there. We have seen the two men describing Ramli’s death there. At the end, when they’re posing for photos, they say, “That’s life on Earth.” That was January 2004 and I left that shoot totally traumatized. I had a six-hour layover in Singapore and I remember going to the art museum. There was an exhibition of Indonesian painting, very violent paintings trying to express this vast epic of political violence which has wracked the country since 1965. I sat there on a bench in the empty gallery and cried because I felt less alone. There was a sense of kinship with these artists, even though they were too afraid to acknowledge what the violence was about.

At home in London, working through that material, trying to come to grips with it, I was contrasting my writing at the time with Rithy Panh’s S-21, which I saw as soon as I got back—the difference between performance and remembrance. In May of that year, the Abu Ghraib photos appeared of American soldiers giving the “V for Victory” and thumbs-up signs while apparently torturing people. The shocking thing for me about those photos wasn’t the American presence, since I knew that it was the Americans who sponsored this whole genocide and have supported regimes that torture and kill tens of thousands of people with impunity. We don’t really need our men and women to torture in order to torture, because we’ve never stopped being the torturers.

What shocked me at Snake River and with the Abu Ghraib photos was the moral vacuum in which the photographs were taken. In what moral vacuum can those photographs be considered souvenirs bearing happy memories? What is a happy day out for them is the end of the world for this family and so many others.

PC I asked you this when we talked in 2012 about The Act of Killing, a fairly personal question, even though you understand that it’s in the context of your work. What is your emotional state after completing this cycle of making these two films? It took a decade, ten years of working to alter records that would not have been altered otherwise. Now these truths are not only acknowledged but somewhat endorsed by the very Indonesian government-military that stands accused. That’s an enormously momentous result.

JO It’s healing to end this journey with the people in Indonesia whom I unconditionally love. It’s healing not just for me, but for Adi, particularly on the part of that local audience and their reaction, to stand up and give this man prolonged standing ovations. I’m not a big believer in heroes. It’s sentimental, disempowering, escapist nonsense. But there is something heroic about Adi. He doesn’t claim to be a hero nor does he want to be one. Even saying that is sentimental and clichéd, and I’d like to strike it from the record. (laughter) But it’s where my heart is right now.

In terms of my own filmmaking, this journey has taught me everything I know about it. Whatever I knew ten years ago is almost irrelevant now. The Look of Silence broke the ice about what’s next in terms of the expectation that followed The Act of Killing. I’m not the fastest director in the world and the first film took a really long time to edit. What I’ve learned is a set of methods, a set of truths about how you generate breathtaking moments in nonfiction film in collaboration with the subjects. I’m as peaceful as I’ve ever been despite how neurotic I am. And I’m very neurotic. I have some themes and questions that fascinate me and I will find the people who might take another journey with me.

I see myself as an explorer who is about to go on another long journey and come out as a totally different person, but with that same core of me. I’ve heard others talk about this exploring and going on journeys, but don’t really think they strip down in the way I’m talking about. That’s probably why I’m not such a social guy. I have a few very close friends, not a lot of acquaintances. I think the only way to know the surf is to throw yourself into the pounding waves and let it pummel you. At the same time, I’m afraid of death, so I’m contradicting myself.

For more on The Look of Silence, including a schedule of upcoming screenings, visit the film’s website.

Pamela Cohn is a producer, writer, programmer, and documentary consultant currently based in Berlin.

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