‘The Look of Silence’ Director Joshua Oppenheimer on Filmmaking, Fear, and Following Up ‘The Act of Killing’

Joshua Oppenheimer is out of the room when I sit down to interview him, taking one of several seats at the big, round table in the center of the publicist’s office. One chair seems about as good as the other, but when he comes back in the room, he asks — utterly politely, almost apologetically — if I’d mind moving to that chair on the other side of the table, which he would prefer, and then he’ll sit next to me there. I oblige, of course. I am not one to question how Joshua Oppenheimer would like to do an interview — because, over the course of two films, he’s conducted some of the most extraordinary interviews ever put to film.

His new film, The Look of Silence (out Friday in limited release) is a companion to his 2012 Oscar nominee The Act of Killing. Both films concern the 1965 Indonesian genocide, in which over one million citizens were branded as “Communists” and executed (with the aid and support of Western governments) by a regime that remains in power to this day. He first became aware of that chapter of the country’s history while making his film The Globalization Tapes there, over a decade ago. It concerned a group of plantation workers, harmed by dangerous chemicals, who were attempting to unionize — an effort they quickly discarded when the factory in question hired the Pancasila Youth, the paramilitary organization featured prominently in the first film.

Still from "The Look of Silence"

“I said, ‘How could you let this go? This is a matter of life and death for you. Isn’t it?’” Oppenheimer recalls. “And they said, ‘It is, but there was a mass killing here in 1965. Our parents and grandparents were killed for simply being in a union and we’re afraid this could happen to us again. Pancasila Youth is the group that did it and is still the army in this region, and they’re still powerful.’ And that’s when I realized that these weren’t just plantation workers that were exploited, these were victims of a genocide and that’s why they’re being exploited. What’s killing them is not just poison but fear.”

When that shoot was over, he says, the workers came to him with a request: “Why don’t you come back and make another film about why we’re still afraid? The kind of film you would make because it’s too dangerous for us to make.” And thus he began work on The Act of Killing, in which he interviews the gangsters and paramilitary soldiers who perpetrated that genocide — and still boast of it, gleefully.

But he says he knew he’d make two films, from an early interview, all the way back in January of 2004. “The scene in The Look of Silence where the two men take me down to the river, taking turns playing victim and perpetrator, that was the day that I realized that I would make two films,” Oppenheimer says. “It was the first time that I brought two perpetrators together who did not know one another. I had delayed doing that for as long as possible because it could be dangerous; one could tell the other, ‘You couldn’t talk about this. Why are you talking in this way about this?’ And I didn’t want to fall under suspicion and have the whole process stop when I was still in this kind of research stage, trying to understand what happened, where it happened, how it happened, simply so I could figure out how to respond to it. But finally after eight months, it was already January 2004, eight months after filming the perpetrators one on one, I had to know, Are they only boasting for me?

Still from "The Look of Silence"

They were not. In fact, he discovered, “when they were together, they were even worse. They were reading from a shared script and it was terrible because I had to let go of the hope that these men were crazy. I had to accept that the boasting is systemic, consequently a symptom of impunity, and if there’s insanity here, it is collective and political insanity. It’s not individual psychosis. The realization came to me as I was filming the two men going down that little slope, holding each other’s hands — it’s in the The Look of Silence — this is like wandering into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust if the Nazis were still in power, and if the rest of the world had celebrated the Holocaust while it had taken place.”

So he decided to take as long as it would take — over a decade, as it turned out — to make two films: “One about the performance of the perpetrators, the boasting of the perpetrators, which gradually came to be about the stories, the lies, the fantasies that the perpetrators tell themselves and the persona they inhabit so they can live with themselves and what they’ve done… And the second film asks, what is it like to live there? What does it do to a human being? Especially for a survivor who has to live in such a regime; what does it mean to have to live in fear for half a century?”

To help tell that story, he turned to Adi, a local ophthalmologist whose brother Ramli was killed in the genocide, two years before Adi was born. “Unlike the tens and thousands of the other people who had been dispatched from political prisons to be killed at riverbanks, at rivers where they were left to drift out to sea,” Oppenheimer explains, “people had proof that he died because they had found his body in the plantation, because he had rebelled, had gone home, and there were witnesses and then they found his body in the plantation… gradually over the decades, Ramli had become a synonym for the genocide. Even to speak about him was an act of resilience, because it was insisting that these events, which had traumatized everybody, but which the government threated everybody to pretend never occurred, was its way to insist that these events had actually happened. It was like pinching yourself you’re awake.”

And it was Adi who came up with the idea of confronting the perpetrators of his brother’s murder. Oppenheimer was understandably resistant, telling Adi, “It’s impossible. It’s too dangerous. There’s never been a film made where survivors confront perpetrators that are still in power because it’s too dangerous.” But Adi pushed back, pleading, “I think if I go and visit the perpetrators gently, showing that if they can take responsibility for what they’ve done, then I can forgive them, and then they will realize this is a chance to make peace with their neighbors, to be forgiven by one of their victim’s families and to stop the running away from the guilt that we both felt – the manic boasting – that they could find some acceptance and peace.”

Oppeneheimer realized that he had a short window before The Act of Killing’s release, when he was still known as someone close to these powerful men, but when his ultimately critical film had not yet been seen. “And the men Adi wants to meet are regionally powerful but not nationally powerful,” he thought, “and they won’t dare offend their superiors by either detaining or attacking you. So maybe you could do this safely.”

And so they did, with the understanding that if Adi or his family were in danger, at any point in the process, they would drop the project entirely. “I would say, ‘As you know, I’ve been filming with – I would say the most powerful names of the perpetrators to protect us – and they were dramatizing for me from the memories of what they’ve done and now I’m back with my friend, Adi,’” Oppenheimer recalls. “’He has his own personal relationship to this history, different from yours, and this time instead of asking to dramatize what you’ve done in the way you wish, as I did before, now I want to just film the two of you discussing this and see how you talk about it together. Bear in mind you will have different perspectives.’”

The results are extraordinary, a troubling and often frightening glimpse at how these initially proud and boastful men (and those who love them) respond when confronted with their sins. Some shrink, some threaten, some obfuscate. And many people — both perpetrators and survivors, in fact — repeat the mantra, “The past is past.” But Oppenheimer sees through that statement.

“The perpetrators always say the past is past as a threat, and the survivors always say it out of fear, meaning that the past isn’t past, that it’s right there as the unspoken elephant in the room,” Oppenheimer says. “William Faulkner said this very beautifully when he said, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ What I hope, what we all hope will happen is that everywhere in the world, people will find the courage to stop in their tracks, to turn around 180 degrees, to look backwards, to take a deep breath, and to accept and acknowledge, and not make excuses. Only in that way can we know ourselves and move forward together as members of the single community that we’re actually a part of — in compassion, in empathy, and with sufficient regard for one another that we can actually take care of each other in democratic ways.

“I hope that anyone seeing my films, at least, will come away with a sense of a need for practicing the widest possible human empathy, where we empathize with all the people — the legions of people — with whom we’re intimately connected who make our clothes, who give us our food, who find the minerals that go in our mobile phones and electronics, people who we’re intimately connected about who we prefer not to think, but who enable our conditions for survival. We depend on these people and it’s a pity that we also depend on the thugs who keep them afraid.”

The Look of Silence is out Friday in limited release. The Act of Killing is streaming on Netflix (in both its domestic and worldwide versions).