Joshua Oppenheimer interview: The director of The Look of Silence and The Act of Killing on his extraordinary documentaries about the Indonesian genocide.

“It’s as Though … the Nazis Are Still in Power”: An Interview With Joshua Oppenheimer

“It’s as Though … the Nazis Are Still in Power”: An Interview With Joshua Oppenheimer

Interviews with a point.
July 17 2015 2:19 PM

“It’s as Though I’m in Germany 40 Years After the Holocaust, but the Nazis Are Still in Power”

A conversation with Joshua Oppenheimer about how to make an effective documentary about genocide.

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With profound sadness, Adi watches footage of interviews conducted by Joshua Oppenheimer with perpetrators of the 1965–66 Indonesian genocide in The Look of Silence.

Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media

In March, at a conference at the University of Missouri in connection with the True/False documentary film festival, I spoke with Joshua Oppenheimer, the director (with an anonymous Indonesian collaborator) of The Act of Killing and its just-released companion film, The Look of Silence. Our conversation lasted an hour and a half and included the projection of several film clips, so what appears below is a significantly condensed version. My thanks to Anna Diamond, Amy Wang, and Forrest Wickman for their help with transcription and editing, and to professor Amanda Hinnant, the Reynolds Journalism Institute, and Mizzou Advantage for making this interview—and the Based on a True Story conference where it was conducted—possible. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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My first question is about the chronology of the making of The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. You essentially made them in one fell swoop, but you wanted to make sure that all shooting was done on both films before you showed The Act of Killing to anyone, for fear of not being able to go back to Indonesia and finish the second movie. Were these movies being filmed simultaneously?

The two films are companion pieces and were conceived really at the same time. In The Look of Silence, a family of survivors of the 1965 Indonesian genocide finds out who killed their son, through my old footage. So in the film you see Adi Rukun, the main character of The Look of Silence, watching, responding to, studying old footage that I filmed with perpetrators before I met Anwar Congo and began work on The Act of Killing. So that old material you see him watching comes from 2003 to 2005. From 2005 to 2010, I was exclusively shooting The Act of Killing and then editing it. Before the film was released, I returned to Indonesia to make The Look of Silence, not knowing that Adi Rukun would be the main character, but knowing that he would be my main collaborator, that it would be a journey that we would take together. Really all of The Look of Silence, apart from the old footage that he’s watching, was shot in 2012 before The Act of Killing had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. ... And I edited the film while I was traveling with The Act of Killing, so when The Act of Killing was already out.

Somehow, the moment when I understood I would stop everything I was doing and spend as long as it took to address the situation is actually a scene that’s in The Look of Silence. It’s a scene where two men, two aging death-squad leaders from neighboring villages, take me down to a spot in Indonesia where they helped kill 10,500 people, at that very spot.

I’d probably been filming perpetrators for really almost a year at that point. But I never dared to bring two perpetrators who didn’t know each other together before because I was afraid they would censor each other. They would tell the other, “You shouldn’t be in this film,” and then report it to the police, and the whole process of investigating and excavating what happened, and the forms by which the perpetrators recount what happened—which I was already very interested in—that whole process would stop.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer
Director Joshua Oppenheimer at a screening of The Look of Silence in New York City on July 7, 2015.

Photo by Anna Webber/Getty Images for Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

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I did it—I took the risk—because I really wanted to see whether the boasting that I was getting from all of the perpetrators was something systemic. Was it shared? Would they boast, if they were brought together? Would they exert a chilling effect on each other, or would they try to outdo each other with even more boasting? And when I found that they would try to outdo each other, this afternoon of filming—them taking me down to this spot and taking turns playing victim and perpetrator, showing me how they killed—turned into one of the most chilling and horrific afternoons of my life.

That day was the first time it occurred to me, something I’ve said many times in relation to The Act of Killing. It was the first time I thought, It’s as though I’m in Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, but the Nazis are still in power. There’s this way in which I saw, OK, not only are they both boasting, but they’re reading from a shared script. The boasting is something systemic.  … And I knew that this was an atrocity that was similar in pattern to atrocities that our government, the U.S. government, had supported across the global south that I had heard about—in sub-Saharan Africa, of course in other parts of southeast Asia, in Vietnam, and also of course in Central America and South America.

So I had this dawning realization. Not only is it like the Nazis have won, but also this is not some nightmare science-fiction scenario. This is not the exception to the rule. This is the rule. This is the story, this impunity, this boasting. It’s unusual to see on film, but in fact it’s the story of our times.

And I realized at that moment that I would make two films. … I knew one of the films would be about the stories, the fantasies, the lies that the perpetrators, when they enjoy total impunity, tell themselves so that they can live with themselves. A film about escapism, fantasy, and guilt, and necessarily therefore a kind of flamboyant fever dream of a film. That’s The Act of Killing. But I knew I would also make a film about what it does to human beings to have to live for 50 years in silence and unresolved trauma. What happens when, in a sense, a genocide, at least in one fundamental important way, never ends, because the perpetrators remain in power and continue to keep everyone afraid. That’s The Look of Silence.

The Act of Killing.
Former death squad members Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry prepare for a re-enactment sequence in The Act of Killing.

Courtesy of Dogwoof

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I want to ask about this question of re-enactment, which is something that your films do that I haven’t seen in other documentaries. You’ve said before that nonfiction films should always involve some measure of performance—people playing themselves—and that the prevailing models of documentary, and particularly human rights documentary, are very dissatisfying to you, that they tend to be either a talking head giving you information or a cinéma vérité, fly-on-the-wall type of thing, and you wanted to do something entirely different from that.

I’ll back up and say something that’s maybe even more fundamental to understanding what I’m trying to do in both of these films. And it has to do with this word re-enactment. I think that it was very easy for me, seeing this, witnessing this, to think that I was observing re-enactments. But if you go back to what I said a few minutes ago, about what really struck me this day, it wasn’t that I was getting these illuminating re-enactments, and it wasn’t that I was getting information about what happened. … It was the fact that they were reading from the shared script.

And in a sense, I actually think re-enactment is the wrong word for what you see in either of my films. I think I’m as guilty as anyone of using that word, but I’ve tried to change it to dramatization, because I think very precisely what we’re seeing is the dramatization of the present-day fantasies, scripts, and stories that the perpetrators are telling themselves so that they can live with themselves. Sometimes the stories are outright attempts to glorify oneself, as with the waterfall scene in The Act of Killing, but other times, they’re kind of antiheroes. They sort of throw themselves into a model of being bad that is at least intelligible and inhabitable.

The reason that this is so particularly important is that re-enactment has this sense of trying to access a past, whereas dramatization of present-day fantasies gets to the core of what both of these films are about. I think neither film is about the events of 1965 per se. Both of them are about the present-day legacy and consequences of impunity in the form of the stories that the perpetrators tell themselves because they’re still in power.

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In terms of so-called fly-on-the-wall documentaries, there’s a claim that the camera is a transparent window into a pre-existing reality. What really is happening is that the film crew and the subjects are collaborating to simulate a reality in which they pretend the camera is not present.

The term fly-on-the-wall documentary is a kind of dishonest story about how the film was made that performs a useful function—mainly it helps us to suspend our disbelief and perceive that simulation of a pre-existing reality as reality, which is what you need. Just as in a fiction film, you need to suspend disbelief.

And the fact that fly on the wall is a kind of story about the film—that the camera crew is like a fly on the wall—is immediately obvious if you just pause to think about it for a second. Imagine you’re having a conversation with your mother or your child about something really important to you emotionally, something difficult. You’re alone with him or her, and you’re having that conversation, and it’s a big important moment for you. Now, imagine you’re having the same conversation, talking about the same subject, but there’s a film crew there.

People who would have us believe those [documentaries] are made through a film crew that becomes like a fly on the wall would like us to believe that if the camera crew is there long enough, the mother and the child will forget the camera crew is there and behave as though it’s not there. And that’s absurd. It’s just idiocy. Nobody—no matter how many years you’ve been filmed by somebody—nobody could possibly confuse the state of being alone with your mother with talking with your mother while a film crew records the conversation and you have the knowledge that that film crew has the power to shape your public image and your mother’s public image and the image of your relationship forever. It’s absurd. No one forgets the presence of the camera, no matter how long it’s there. And once you recognize that all documentaries are performance, it’s not a matter of if they should be performance. They are performance, and they are performance precisely where people are playing themselves.

The Look of Silence
Adi and his mother, Rohani, share a solemn moment in The Look of Silence.

Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media

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And most importantly, if we throw away the myth of fly on the wall … and ask, “What is a more helpful understanding of what’s happening in documentary film when it really soars, when it’s really explosive, when it’s really wonderful?”—what’s happening is scenes are set up that cut to the core of what the most important issues are in the film, and everybody—filmmaker, participant, crew—is pushed beyond their comfort zone, and things are allowed to somewhat spiral out of control. That’s when documentary film becomes genuinely cinematic, and until that happens, it’s mere simulation.

I think far too many documentaries dealing with atrocity approach the atrocity either through a campaigner or through a hero who you feel is fighting the good fight on our behalf. It’s a way of creating a less overwhelming position for the viewer, and I think it fundamentally doesn’t serve any understanding of the atrocity. It fundamentally serves to make the experience easier for the viewers so that when we leave the cinema, we can feel like, “Well, somebody out there is fighting the fight. The future is in good hands.” And maybe by watching the film, that person’s position in the struggle is strengthened by the publicity of the film, and then there’s a website where you can sign a petition or make a donation, and then you can go on with your life. And because I understood … that nothing can put right not only the lives that were taken, but also nothing can bring back or restore the decades lost to fear, I felt very strongly that The Look of Silence should be a backward-looking film, a kind of poem made in memoriam to all that’s destroyed. And we should pause and strain to listen to the silence that follows atrocity.

The title The Look of Silence, and what you just said about sitting in silence, makes me want to ask you about the sound design in this film, which, like The Act of Killing, doesn’t use any laid-on music. There’s some singing that happens. There’s dancing. There’s incidents of music that rise up out of people’s lives. But you don’t lay any music over it. The music is really the sound effects: crickets chirping and silence …

With The Look of Silence, I was fundamentally trying to immerse you physically, emotionally, spiritually, poetically, sensorially, and in every way in these haunted spaces. I wanted to make you feel what would it be like to have to live for a whole lifetime in this haunted space under the shadow of the still-powerful killers. From there, everything in the sound design follows. … The crickets are not just crickets. There are different levels of reverberation, depending on how intimate we are to the piece of action. So there are scenes where we’re watching Adi washing, helping his 103-year-old father have a bath from an old well, pouring water on him. And there we’re very intimate, the crickets have almost no reverb, and it’s one particular cricket that’s prominent. And when we’re in the wider spaces and looking at a haunted landscape, there’s a subtle shift to a kind of chorus of crickets.

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I’m glad I asked that question because I thought that the crickets, when you used them, must have been actual sound, but it sounds like you did use them as music. You would layer them in whatever way you needed.

This is very unusual, but there were 10 weeks of sound editing and five weeks of sound mixing on The Look of Silence. That’s like what you would have on a feature film, a fiction film. We shot the films on [handheld cameras], on Canon 5Ds, because no one had seen The Act of Killing so we didn’t have much money for a shoot. But then The Act of Killing came out, and by the time we were mixing we were able to get extra money on the basis of The Act of Killing and did this very intense treatment in the sound.

The Act of Killing.
Congo and Zulkadry with a member of the Pancasila Youth in The Act of Killing.

Courtesy of Dogwoof

After you’ve seen The Act of Killing, with all these very over-the-top, self-dramatizing characters like Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, Adi is a completely different person to center a film around. He’s extremely quiet, extremely thoughtful, and sort of just a closed-up person for much of the film but is obviously unbelievably courageous because he spends the whole film going to visit the various perpetrators of these crimes and doing something that’s unprecedented in his village—and in Indonesian culture in general—which is just asking about what they did, and if they regret it. So I wanted to know your history with Adi.

In 2001, I went to Indonesia for the first time, and I was working on this oil palm plantation to help plantation workers make their own documentary about their struggle to organize a union in the aftermath of the Suharto dictatorship, which came to power through the killings, and under which unions had been illegal. The conditions on this Belgian-owned plantation were really terrible. The Belgian company made the women workers spray a weedkiller with no protective clothing, and the mist would get into their lungs and then into their bloodstream and then into their livers and kill them in their 40s. And I was very horrified and struck by this as a man in my mid-20s. It was really the worst thing I’d ever seen. And when they complained to the company about it as part of their efforts to start organizing a union, the company hired Pancasila Youth, the paramilitary group in The Act of Killing, to attack them. They were, it turned out, easily intimidated, because their parents and grandparents had been killed for being in a big union in 1965. They’d been accused of being communist sympathizers and had been killed for it. So I suddenly understood that what was killing my friends was not just poison but also fear.

After we made the film they said, “Come back, and let’s make another film about why we’re afraid, about what it’s like for us to live with the perpetrators all around us, still in power and consequently with the fear that this could happen again at any time.” And there was one name on that plantation, and not just the plantation but for miles around, that was virtually synonymous with the whole genocide, and that was Ramli. And that’s because Ramli’s murder had witnesses. People saw him the night that he ran away from the truck that was taking him and a bunch of other people to be killed. … And so, because his murder had witnesses, unlike the tens of thousands of other people from the area who were just taken from political prisons never to be heard from again, Ramli was proof that the killings had taken place.

Imagine a whole community is traumatized by something and the government has threatened everybody into pretending that it had never occurred. That, over a long time, is something that makes it impossible to heal from trauma. ... So to speak about Ramli in that whole region was a type of resistance. It was like pinching yourself to remind yourself you’re still awake. And when I went back to make this film about the fear that endures in the aftermath of genocide and impunity, it was inevitable that I would be introduced to Ramli’s family. It happened very quickly, within a few days. And then I immediately fell in love with Ramli’s mother, an important character in The Look of Silence, and with his father (by the time we shot The Look of Silence, he was suffering from dementia, but back then was very clear and sharp). And then Ramli’s younger brother, Adi, who was born after the killings, came to visit his family in the village.

Adi immediately latched on to the filmmaking as a way, I think, to answer all these questions that he had been struggling with as a child. He grew up in a family that was so traumatized that they couldn’t really tell him what had happened. They were afraid he would go to school and tell the story and get the family in trouble by talking in front of the teacher. … He saw in my filmmaking the means to finally understand what happened to his family, to his community, to his country, and he started organizing groups of survivors to speak to me. But very quickly the army found out what we were doing and threatened all the survivors not to participate in the film.

Adi and the other survivors then said, “Don’t give up. Try to film the perpetrators because you might find out what happened.” And I was afraid to do that, but when I did, I found everybody was open. Not only open and willing to talk, but boastful. When I showed this early footage of re-enactment, everyone kept saying, “Keep going; you’re onto something so important. You’re finding out what happened.” But Adi in particular said, with real foresight, I think, that what we would make would be films not about the past but about the present. He said, “Keep going, because anyone who sees this, especially in Indonesia, will finally be forced to acknowledge that something terribly wrong is still going on today in the form of impunity.”

I spent seven years filming with perpetrators, five just making The Act of Killing. The first 40 perpetrators are the ones you see in The Look of Silence, and Anwar was the 41st. I met him two years into the process, but throughout that seven years, Adi would watch everything I had time to show him, and he’d watch it with the same emotion that you see on his face when he’s watching in The Look of Silence. The title has multiple layers of meaning, but maybe the most obvious layer is that look on Adi’s face when he’s watching. You said he’s a restrained man, and in fact he is. He’s a quiet, reserved man, and we see that, but in the editing we held him back even more. By holding back on his words, we create hopefully a kind of a mystery, so each of you will make your own Adi when you watch the film.

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Adi in The Look of Silence.

Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media

You got me tearing up just thinking about Adi. I also got a sense he was a true collaborator with you on this project. Before you would go on these ventures, how would you prepare? Did you script out how the conversation would go? Did you just trust him?

It’s really well put that he was a true collaborator. I thought of him for a long time as more a collaborator than a main character.

I found out midway through shooting The Act of Killing that Adi would approach people who were over 60 through his optometry work and deliberately offer free eye tests as an excuse for asking them about their memories of what happened during the genocide. He would sometimes be rebuffed. People would say, “You shouldn’t ask these questions.” Other times he’d meet survivors, sometimes perpetrators. I understood it was changing him and he said, “I now need to confront them.” And I said right away, “Absolutely not. It’s too dangerous.” It’s unprecedented in Indonesia—never has a survivor gone to a perpetrator and confronted them like this, because it’s dangerous. In fact I think it’s unprecedented in the history of documentary film as well. There have been many documentaries where survivors meet perpetrators in context, where the perpetrators have at least been partially removed from power—

Yeah, like footage from that, like Rithy Panh’s masterpiece The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. The Khmer Rouge is no longer in power and some of the perpetrators that the survivors meet there are going on to face an international tribunal. In fact, the most important one from that film has been convicted by an international tribunal.

But then Adi pulled out a camera I’d given him two years earlier, to look for images he thought were powerful, visual metaphors for the film. Trembling, he took out a tape and said, “I didn’t give you this tape. I’ve given you all the others but not this, because it was so painful. I want to show you something.” He proceeded to press play—the one clip in The Look of Silence that Adi shot himself. He started to cry immediately. It’s a scene right at the end of the film where his father is crawling around his own house, lost, demented, no longer able to remember where he is—

He’s over 100, right?

He’s over 100, and he’s crawling and thinking he’s wandering into someone else’s house and he’s going to be beaten up. And Adi’s crying showing me this, and his father is calling for help, and Adi’s not really helping him from behind the camera. It was hard to see what was going on. But I said, “Why don’t you help him?” And Adi said, “I tried to help him all day. This was the first day,” he told me, “that my father couldn’t remember who we were anymore.” It was the Eid holiday at the end of Ramadan, the equivalent of Thanksgiving in the U.S. The whole family is together, and he couldn’t remember his own children and wife, and he was terrified, and they spent the whole day trying to comfort him, but because he didn’t know them, it just made him more afraid. Adi said, “I felt at some point the most loving thing I could do is bear witness to this moment. It’s the kind of thing that could never be staged, never repeated.” And I said, “What does it mean to you?” And he said, “Well, for me it’s like my father’s trapped in a prison of fear, and he’ll never get out of it, because he’s forgotten the traumatic events that caused it. He can’t even remember the son whose murder led him to this trauma. And it’s like he’s in a prison cell and can’t even find the door anymore, let alone the key. And he’ll die in this prison of fear, and I don’t want my children to inherit this prison.”

I said, “How will meeting the perpetrators help?” He said, “Well, I think when they meet me, they will see I’m not coming to attack them. They will realize I’m coming with empathy and an attempt to understand, and they will realize my brother was probably as humane as I am, and they will realize they’ve done something wrong and will apologize. Once they apologize, I’ll be able to forgive them, because I’ll be able to separate their crime from their humanity. Then we’ll be able to live together as human beings and as neighbors instead of as perpetrator and victim, afraid of each other.”

So here was this eloquent statement to me about what reconciliation should be, how fear divides communities, and I felt, OK, he will fail in getting that apology. [I know that] because of my work with Anwar and his friends in The Act of Killing. Anwar never comes to find the courage to say consistently and truly that this was wrong, and I didn’t think these perpetrators would either. But I felt that what would be visible was the fear for everybody—the survivors’ fear of the perpetrators, but also the perpetrators’ fear of the survivors. And I thought, if we fail in these individual scenes, by doing this unprecedented thing we would succeed … in opening this dialogue, in breaking this silence.

The production [of The Act of Killing] was famous across the region, but no one had seen it yet. So all of these perpetrators that Adi wanted to meet were relatively low ranking compared to the governor in The Act of Killing, the vice president of Indonesia. All of them would think I was close to their highest-ranking commanders because they knew about The Act of Killing, but no one had seen it yet, so I wasn’t yet getting death threats. Which meant all the men Adi wanted to meet would have to think two or three times before physically attacking us, because they think they would anger their commander. I realize this was a totally bizarre situation we found ourselves in. It allowed us to do something totally unprecedented.

And—to finally answer your question about the preparation for this—Adi would watch the old footage I’d shot seven or eight years earlier to understand what the perpetrators had done. It was very important that the perpetrators in the confrontation volunteer the information again about what they’d done. Otherwise, if Adi comes and says, “I know what you did…” they of course would feel trapped, and there’s no dialogue. Adi had come to have a dialogue. It was very important we create a context where they’d feel safe enough to tell the story. … That was when the eye tests became very important. I knew it would be a powerful metaphor, but I also reasoned, “When you’re in a doctor’s office, you chat with the people who are looking after you—especially dentists and barbers. And you’re kind of disempowered, kind of disarmed in that moment.” And also the eye tests could go on for as long as Adi said they were continuing.

There were some very tense situations where we’d get these complicated denials from perpetrators, and we would reach an impasse, or it’d seem like it’d be about to explode into rage, and we hadn’t yet gotten the core of the scene. So in those moments I would pause the filming. … Sometimes I’d stop shooting and go up to Adi and say, “If you ask this question, you can get past this denial.” Or I’d say, “I have no idea what to do next. Do you think we should stop? Do you have anything else?” I would need to talk to him to direct the scene in collaboration with him. But of course that would make the perpetrator paranoid. So to look evenhanded, I’d always go to the perpetrator and whisper with him, too, thinking on my feet what kind of red herring I could give the perpetrator to discuss. Sometimes I’d say, “Look, maybe Adi’s playing the devil’s advocate so you can be less defensive!” Of course we did inevitably come to some impasse where there was no pretending.

The Look of Silence.
Adi questions Cmdr. Amir Siahaan, one of the death squad leaders responsible for Adi’s brother’s death, in The Look of Silence.

Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media

But it was a way of directing in a place where a “fly on the wall” would never work. We’d never get access to these people if I hadn’t filmed them before—we’d never be able to do this safely. And of course the whole way Adi was able to confront them was through study of this archive of footage. The whole drama in the film is the filmmaking process leading Adi to face greater and greater levels of risk. Just like The Act of Killing, this is a film about cinema.

Those confrontations turn out so radically different, right? Some moments approach reconciliation or apology, but other times Adi is almost explicitly threatened.

Right, saying, “Do you want the killings to happen again?”

And saying, “Be careful what you say.” So I just wanted to ask: Is it true, when you say you were ready to evacuate, that you had a car ready and passports and everything?

Yeah, we had a getaway—two cars. We could hopefully lose them if we were followed. We’d come with new mobile phones so there’d be no risk of data in the phones that would have links. Adi would come with no ID. It’s a misdemeanor in Indonesia not to have your ID on you, but he came with none so that if we got detained, they wouldn’t be able to figure out who he was without help from an embassy. We never were detained, I think in part because it was so unfathomable what we were doing—people had no idea how to respond. Also because Adi’s very gentle, and they would worry about offending their superiors.

And Adi and I talked about the family from the very first confrontation. There’s scenes where he tells the family they’re meeting the killers and they say, “Don’t do that. It’s dangerous.” After we filmed those scenes, the family sees the footage with that perpetrator, and everybody said, “OK, this is really important. Let’s try to continue.” Then we agreed we wouldn’t release the film until there’s political change in Indonesia, unless we can find a way to secure the safety of the family. We spent a year before the film came out securing the family’s safety, involving moving to another part of Indonesia, getting them set up in a much more stable economic situation, getting them out of the shadow of the killers who pose a danger. It’s tragic, though, that people who go trying to create the conditions for reconciliation should be treated like fugitives and have to run away. At the same time, they haven’t needed to leave Indonesia, and Adi’s played a very powerful role in the release of The Look of Silence in Indonesia, traveling with the film and receiving long standing ovations from Indonesians who are just moved by his courage.