Joshua Oppenheimer spoke at Busan’s Asian Network of Documentary (AND) about his Venice Grand Jury prizewinner,The Look Of Silence, and its preceding companion piece The Act Of Killing.
The Look Of Silence is screening in Busan’s Wide Angle Documentary Showcase.
Both films are about the army-supported mass killings of so-called ‘Communists’ in Indonesia (1965-66). The first is from the viewpoint of the perpetrators and the second from the point of view of the families of victims.
“I knew that in The Look, I wanted the viewer to see what it would be like to have to build a life with the perpetrators around you. I knew that The Look would illuminate The Act, and The Act would, if I succeeded, illuminate The Look, not by being opposites but by being like a mirror,” he said.
Oppenheimer talked about the dangers of interviewing perpetrators who were still very much in power. He said that at one point during a crucial interview, “I had crew at the airport waiting to buy tickets if they didn’t get a text message from me that everything was okay.”
He worked through a Ph.D grant and one from the Arts and Humanities Council in the UK, and once they had scenes, Danish producer Signe Byrge Sorensen of Final Cut For Real saw a presentation.
“At that point we had 1,000 hours of footage and no money, no producer,” he said. Sorensen raised funds and support from around Europe including from the Danish Film Institute and NGOs.
After The Act Of Killing was screened, he said, “the film affected Indonesians and how they talk about the genocide.”
A leading news publication in the country, Templemagazine did an expose “for which they sent 60 journalists around the country, gathered 1,000 pages of killers boasting, of which they published 75 pages, showing that the stories were the same anywhere in the country, not just to me. That opened up this space in mainstream media. In one fell swoop this ended the silence in the media.”
Oppenheimer says he never imagined the impact of his two documentaries while shooting them because “first of all we couldn’t get anyone in the film world interested, so it never occurred to me that this film would do that.”
The way he sees documentary filmmaking, he said is, “first of all you look for themes and you look for questions, and you look for people who embody those themes and questions or come as close as possible, and help me as deeply as possible to understand them. This is why I think of myself as an explorer not a storyteller. I don’t want to be the same person at the end as I was at the start. I look for someone with whom I could be very close. In The Act Of Killing, I took that journey with Anwar, and with The Look Of Silence, I took that journey with Adi,” he said.
“Anwar, he was vain like his other perpetrator friends, but I could sense his pain. He was participating not to boast but because someone was finally listening to his pain. If even the “heroes” knew that this heroism [for having killed “Communists”] was a lie, then I could do what the survivors and the international community had entrusted me to do, which was the expose the lie,” he said, adding he suffered an emotionally painful journey plagued with nightmares and at least one bout of panic while shooting the film.
Since the screenings of The Act Of Killing, Oppenheimer said, “I received death threats, through email, Facebook and sometimes through the production company. I made sure Anwar would be safe [from retaliation]. But I think Anwar again is okay as someone who has done what Anwar has done. He took part in the national process of acknowledging that what he sees at the end of the film, what he did was wrong.”
The director said he was changed in the process of working with Anwar and Adi, who watched footage from The Actand initiated the second documentary in a way by telling Oppenheimer he wanted to meet with the perpetrators of the killings that also took his brother’s life in a most brutal way.
“Adi said, ‘If they meet me, they can know I’m human, a brother, then they will feel sorry and I can separate them [from the crime]. We can live side by side no longer as perpetrator and victim but as human beings.’ While I knew he would fail, I felt it shined a light on what reconciliation could be,” he said, adding it was unprecedented as far as he knew that a survivor would meet with the perpetrators of genocide while the perpetrator is still in power.
“I knew there would be incredible tension in these visits and that Adi would have the composure to get us through those meetings,” he said.
“I’ve become more forgiving. If someone is willing to say this was wrong, I can forgive them. I’m not willing to say you’ve done something bad, therefore you are bad. It’s helped me to confront something I was afraid of. You are willing to enter a greater state of humanness,” he said.
Of The Act Of Killing the director said, “You should seek out the two-hour-40-minute version, which is what showed in most festivals, but not Berlin and Toronto where at two hours we were trying to get buyers interested.”
“I really look forward to the first festival that will play the two films back-to-back,” he added.