Talking to Joshua Oppenheimer about his devastating follow-up to The Act of Killing

'The third chapter to this story will not be written by me.'


When Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing came out in the summer of 2013, few had seen anything like it. In 2002, Oppenheimer set out to chronicle the victims of Indonesia’s brutal regime change, which took place in 1965 and 1966. The coup threw a pro-Communist regime out of power and installed the US-backed President Suharto in its place. Suharto spearheaded a national campaign to purge itself of Communists that resulted in one of the grizzliest genocides of the 20th century: suspected sympathizers were gutted, beheaded, and sexually mutilated. Perpetrators drank their blood by the glassful in a superstitious attempt to ward off insanity, and victims’ bodies were left in the streets or dumped in mass graves. When it was all over, half a million people were dead; nearly 2 million were locked away in concentration camps.

What Oppenheimer discovered was that not only were many of the perpetrators still in power 50 years later — individuals who freely boast of slaughtering hundreds — but they were championed as national heroes. So Oppenheimer pivoted toward the killers, casting them to recreate their deeds in a Hollywood-style film. It was an unorthodox conceit, but for the first time in half a century the killers were forced to confront their own crimes in a perverse sort of play therapy. NPR’s Bob Mandello called The Act of Killing “a virtually unprecedented social document”; it garnered an Oscar nomination and won a BAFTA for best documentary.

With The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer turns his gaze back to his original subjects: the survivors living in a country where killers rule with impunity. The central character in The Look of Silence is Adi, an optometrist whose work naturally brings him to the homes of the elderly — perpetrators, victims, and relatives of both. There, he openly confronts the killers, asking them to take moral responsibility for their actions — his brother Ramli, we learn, was one of those killed, his body mutilated and dumped into North Sumatra’s Snake River along with 10,500 others. But no one will take take on the burden of Ramli’s death — instead the killers twist and bend like contortionists, deflecting accountability.

Because the perpetrators are still in power, Adi’s quest is a harrowing one. When he asks a former death squad commander one question too many, the room freezes. The commander turns on his interrogator. "These days subversives are everywhere," he says, looking at Adi. "Maybe what you’re doing now is a secret communist activity."

Forgetting the past is a luxury that nobody here has

Over and over, Adi is told to let the past be just that. "It’s covered up," a victim tells him, "why open it up again?" But as The Look of Silence makes evident, forgetting is a luxury neither the victims nor the perpetrators have — the past is never really the past, it has a nagging habit of enveloping the present. When I sat down with Oppenheimer two years ago to discuss The Act of Killing, he told me that "the aim of art is to give people a space to see what they already know so that they can talk about it, so that the narrative can start to change. So much of the way we talk, and cope with the world, is founded on silence, on not saying things that we know." Even more so than the The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence reflects that. Earlier this month I met up with Oppenheimer again to discuss his new film, Adi, and what drives masochistic violence.

Joshua Oppenheimer

Joshua Oppenheimer

Michael Zelenko: How did you first meet Adi and his family, and where did the inspiration for this film come from?

Joshua Oppenheimer: In 2003, I began working with survivors of the 1965 genocide to explore what it’s like for them to live constantly afraid that they could be attacked or killed. I began that work with Adi and his family — Adi would bring relatives and neighbors and cousins to tell me their stories.

Sometimes they would arrive in tears — not because they were afraid to talk — but because the only times they’ve been summoned by any outsider was to be called to do forced labor by the military. The idea of being invited to something they didn’t quite understand was traumatic. Terribly, three weeks into this process, the army came and threatened every single [person] not to participate in this film.

Afterwards, Adi invited me to a secret midnight meeting at his parents' house because we were then under surveillance by the army. They said, 'Please don’t give up, don’t go home; try to film the perpetrators.' I was afraid to approach the perpetrators, but when I overcame that fear I saw that each and every one of them was open.

For the first eight months or so of filming with the perpetrators, I would film them one on one. It was risky to bring them together — I didn’t know how they would talk with each other. [But] I took a risk in the January of 2004 by bringing together two perpetrators who didn’t know one another. I filmed [the two of them] going down to the river, taking turns playing victim and perpetrator, pretending — and I emphasize pretending — to be proud of what they’ve done and leading me to the spot where they killed 10,500 people. It was a horrible day for me because I was forced to relinquish the last vestige of hope that these men were crazy. Because if there was insanity here, I had to recognize it as collective insanity. The men were even worse when they were together; they were reading from a shared script.

I wrote in my diary that night: two films. One about the lies, the fantasies, and the stories that the perpetrators tell themselves so they can live with themselves; the second about the terrible consequences of those lies when imposed on the whole society and what is it like to live in that society. What does it do to human beings to have to live for 50 years in fear?

I had this sense that ideally [the two films] should be precisely complementary exploration of the present-day impunity. The two films are formally different, but I hope precisely complementary. It’s as though The Look of Silence is the inverse of The Act of Killing. The Act of Killing is the delirium of perpetrators’ lies; a tropical Hieronymous Bosch cut through by these silences, these haunted spaces. In The Look of Silence you’re in those haunted spaces, cut through occasionally by the footage that Adi is watching of the perpetrators boasting.

One of the things that struck me in your tone when speaking to the perpetrators in The Act of Killing was how you made every effort to judge the crime, but not the individual. Adi takes the same approach during his interviews, but the stakes are greater: these people are responsible for his brother’s death, and he doesn’t shy away from that. And there’s almost a much greater risk for him. Many of these individuals are a part of his extended community and are politically powerful.

I think it was from Adi that I first heard this sense that one ought to be able to separate the human being from the crime and forgive the human being, at least as an ideal. That probably influenced how I approached the whole making of Act Of Killing. I’d also say that if you understand what Adi is trying to do — to find peace with his neighbors — you have to recognize that these are not interviews. It’s not Adi interviewing them — it’s Adi confronting them, trying to break a silence borne of mutual fear that’s been dividing them and imprisoning everybody for half a century.

"This is a portrait of the human body at degree zero, human politics at degree zero, human guilt at degree zero."

I’m not filming Adi interviewing on my behalf — I’m filming a scene where Adi is desperately trying to find reconciliation with his neighbor, having been warned by me that I don’t think they’ll be able to apologize; that none of the perpetrators will have the courage to apologize. During The Act of Killing, I worked for five years with [the primary subject,] Anwar Congo. At the end of that process, while he’s choking and retching on that rooftop at the end of [the movie] — in the director’s cut, he still says, "I killed because my conscience told me they had to be killed." Implying that he’s still clinging to the lies while he’s retching; implying that this is not a redemptive ending. This is a portrait of the human body at degree zero, human politics at degree zero, human guilt at degree zero.

So I felt like we weren’t going to get that apology. But if I can, with precision and intimacy and care, film the rich array of human reactions that are inevitable when someone goes into someone else’s home and says, 'You’ve killed my brother, can you take responsibility for it?' — if I can document the panic, the shame, the guilt, the fear of guilt, the fear of one’s own guilt, and of course the anger and the threats — then I can make visible through the reactions of the perpetrators and through Adi, this abyss of fear and guilt that divides everybody.

The Look of Silence

Adi speaks to one of the genocide perpetrators. (Courtesy of Drafthouse Films)

More so than in The Act of Killing, we also see that these perpetrators are aging out, they’re becoming feeble. Is there a suggestion here that they’re losing their grip on the politics of the country?

Well, we see different things. In The Act of Killing we’re focusing not only on the perps, but on a whole, present-day paramilitary movement that is at least two generations of protégés below Anwar. In The Look of Silence, Adi is only visiting the [original] perpetrators. Some of them are very old; some of them are not. The politician who threatens Adi is not feeble, nor is the paramilitary leader who threatens Adi.

What The Look of Silence shows is that even as the perpetrators themselves are retiring, or dying, or leaving politics, there’s a whole generation who committed their own human rights abuses and massacres. In the mid-'70s, Indonesia invaded East Timor... one-third of the population was killed [there]. There are ongoing human rights abuses in the Indonesian part of Papua.

But at the same time in The Look of Silence, there’s something hopeful in the sense that we see in Adi and in the daughter of a perpetrator who finds the courage and the humanity to apologize on her father’s behalf. We see that if change will come, it will come in this younger generation, who are neither traumatized by the experience of the genocide nor are directly implicated in the genocide or even the military dictatorship and its crimes — its moral corruption.

The violence that we hear about in this film isn’t just brutal, it’s masochistic. There’s a performative element here that reminded me of the ISIS videos that have appeared within the last couple of years; militants straining to devise ever more cruel means of killing. What do you think drives that behavior?

One of the interesting things with ISIS is that the violence and its staging — its mediation — are happening at one and the same moment. That serves two purposes that you [also saw] in the mediation of the violence in Indonesia. In Indonesia, Anwar talked about how at the time of the killings, he would distance himself from the act by imagining himself — mediating himself — in his own head, as being a beloved Hollywood actor from a movie that he’d just walked out of — acting was already part of the act of killing for him. I have no doubt that for people in ISIS who are committing crimes for the camera, that makes it easier to do. Instead of being more morally and emotionally present in the thing you’re doing, you’re performing for the camera. And also, the boasting about atrocities [creates a] mechanism of fear. If all of the death squad members have gone home to their communities and spent half a century boasting about the terrible things they’ve done, [it] implies that they could do it again. The perpetrators become a living threat in the community.

Are you still in touch with Adi?

I’m still working with Adi on the release of The Look of Silence both in Indonesia and abroad. There was always a back-up plan should his family be threatened to move to Europe. They haven’t been threatened, in part because the reaction to the film has been so supportive and so overwhelming. It’s meant that Adi has been able to stay in Indonesia with his family, and it meant that he’s playing a very central role in the release of the film and more broadly in the movement for truth, reconciliation, and justice in Indonesia.

So in a sense, the film, through its popularity, is now protecting the survivors.

Yes, certainly. The men Adi confronts were regionally powerful and enjoyed total impunity in their regions. If Adi stayed in that region, they may well have attacked him with impunity. But because Adi is now on a national and international stage, they would face real repercussions if they would leave those regions.

I still receive very regular death threats that make it impossible for me to return to Indonesia. I think I could get in, but I don’t think I could get out again. That makes it impossible for me to contemplate making another film there. I make [my films] from a place of real intimacy, and I can’t do that in a country that I can’t even visit.

If the first part of this story — [The Act of Killing] — was like the child in the emperor’s new clothes, making it impossible not to talk about this regime of fear in which they’re living in, the second — The Look of Silence — makes it impossible not to talk about how torn the society is. The third part of this story is the future, the struggle for truth, reconciliation, and justice. It may be a very long struggle and a very difficult struggle, and as far as it’s the third chapter to this story, it will not be written by me. It will be written by the people of Indonesia.

The Look of Silence comes to select theaters this Friday, July 17th.

Loading comments...