Nordisk Film and TV Fund Talks to Joshua Oppenheimer

The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to his Academy-Award nominated The Act of Killing is hotly tipped to win a prize in Venice where the film had its world premiere last week. The documentary is now screening in Toronto. We spoke to the director a few days before his trip to the Lido.
Joshua Oppenheimer

Are you pleased that The Look of Silence is receiving a similar interest to The Act of Killing so that you can continue to build on this momentum and steer the debate on Indonesia’s past and present?
Joshua Oppenheimer: It’s very important for Indonesia that the momentum is continuing. The Act of Killing has helped transform the way the media and the public speak about the country’s past and future in the sense that today people dare to speak openly about the genocide and say it’s a crime against humanity. The media and the public also finally say you can’t have a genuine democracy as long as the perpetrators remain so powerful. There is a sea of change in Indonesia and although a film cannot change a country, it can open a space where people can talk about the genocide without fear. The Act of Killing has helped open that space and in that space comes The Look of Silence.

Was it your intention from the very outset to make those two separate films or companion pieces on the Indonesian genocide of 1965-1966?
 We knew from the very beginning that the survivors could not be included in The Act of Killing for two reasons. It would be too dangerous for them to be alongside the head of that para-military movement. Secondly, artistically, they had to be different films. If there were survivors in The Act of Killing, the audience would totally withdraw from any identification they might have with Anwar [Indonesian death squad leader]. That would have undermined the fundamental premise of The Act of Killing which is that through my closeness of someone like Anwar, the audience as well is forced to be close to him; it forces people to see that we are closer to perpetrators than we’d like to think.

Also, when I first began working on the 1965 Indonesian genocide, I thought I was making The Look of Silence, a film about what it’s like for survivors to live with perpetrators still in power. Shortly afterwards, the army threatened the survivors not to participate in the film. So the survivors suggested to me: before you quit, please film the perpetrators because anyone who sees what they do will be forced to acknowledge the truth about the genocide.

When The Act of Killing started to come together, every kind of dramatic, disturbing sequence ends in a kind of haunted tableau, a landscape shot, and there is sharp cut from noise, dialogue to silence. In those moments, we go from the prospective of Anwar to the haunted prospective of the absent victim. I always knew there should be another film that would bring the audience to experience what it would be like to live in those haunted spaces.

What is fascinating is the way the main protagonist Adi Rukun (brother to one of the victims) confronts the perpetrators. He asks very direct and challenging questions, but in a very calm and dignified way. Did you rehearse together the way he would confront them and how did he deal with fear?
 We did a number of things. First of all, meeting these men was not going to make Adi more afraid as he lives in constant fear.. Secondly, he had seen the ‘filmed confessions’ from these men and knew what they had done. So when he meets them, he is prepared to the awful things they are going to say. We structured the confrontations usually in two chapters. We had a signal between us so that we knew when it was time to move from chapter 1 to chapter 2. Basically we let the perpetrators talk. Some were reluctant to speak to an Indonesian they didn’t know, so I had to intervene.

As an optometrist Adi was often testing the perpetrators’ eyes while they were telling what had happened, he would confront them afterwards. By the way he behaved, with so much dignity, it was clear there was no purpose for them to explode in anger. They also knew how close I was to the higher hierarchy perpetrators and had second thoughts about causing trouble.

In some confrontation scenes, the perpetrators or members of their families do become angry at Adi and ask you to stop filming. Were you afraid then?
In a way, we were much more afraid shooting this film than The Act of Killing. We would always take precautions, like travelling to the shoot with only my Danish crew, not my normal Indonesian crew. I would be with Lars Skree my cinematographer and Adi. He would not have any ID on him and we would all have a mobile phone with the number of our embassies.

There is another side of the film, allegorical scenes full of poetry where Adi’s aging mother cares for her 103 year-old husband with dementia. How did you build this counterpoint?
First of all, I felt it was essential to create around Adi’s family life a feeling of magical realism in a non-fiction way. I re-read Gabriel Marquez’ 100 Years of Solitudeand the passage about the Macondo massacres. I had the feeling that magical realism is the best genre for unacknowledged atrocities, when you can’t talk about the facts, the reality of a murder, when the dead are never acknowledged and continue to haunt the living.

The care that you’ve put in filming moments of Adi’s family life and their mutual love brings hope to an otherwise very dark film…
 I felt that the mother’s dignified way of looking after her husband, although she herself is very old, that physical caring was a key counterpoint to the confrontations with the perpetrators. Also, the tender physicality was an important contrast to the violence described by the perpetrators.
I felt it was important to be precise in describing the strong contrast between these people I really love and the atrocities of the genocide.

When I first saw the rough cut of the film, I broke down and cried, not because the film is sad, but because somehow, it embodies the humanity and love that I’ve witnessed with survivors, my own crew, which kept growing over the 11-12 years of work that it’s been to make those two films.

While you used a rigorous method of filmmaking for The Act of Killing, here there is a subtle, almost understated narrative style. Could you explain how you worked on this specific element?
 It’s an interesting question although I’m not sure I experience a difference in my method so strongly. Of course the method of re-enactment was not appropriate here. You see the flamboyance of the re-enactment of The Act of Killing in the beginning ofThe Look of Silence. Here, I was perhaps looking for silence, vibrations and the quiet sounds that populate silence. This means taking care of not using too many words.

Another great Scandinavian filmmaker, Roy Andersson (whose film is also running for a Golden Lion in Venice) is very much preoccupied with the frailty of humanity, men’s cruelty towards other men. Do you agree with him when he says that a director’s task is precisely to show men’s flaws to create debates, especially in today’s context of war raging in so many parts of the world….
 I think it is the task of cinema and art in general to force us to confront the most painful truths about who we are. That’s why it’s important not to show heroes in films that you’d like to emulate and put on a pedestal because imitation is stupid. What we need now is reflection, thought.

I was watching the clip of the Islamic State who performed a speech before beheading the US journalist James Foley, and looking at Israel’s recent Gaza offensive, you then think how tragically vain, how repeatedly cruel we are, how inevitable our tragic flaws are.

You can’t make films that are as dark as The Act of Killing and The Look of Silencewithout being deeply pessimistic, but you would not either make those films if you didn’t have some hope that somehow, it’s worth encouraging people to open their eyes. I like the quote from Walter Benjamin, the philosopher who pictured history as a pile of wreckage, extending beyond the horizon. He said every artefact of civilisation is also an artefact of barbarism.

You’re American but have chosen to work in Denmark. What do you think of the Scandinavian support system and working conditions?
We have a very good system of supporting cultural challenging filmmaking and we have to fight to defend and celebrate this system. With producer Signe Byrge Sørensen, we’ve built Final Cut for Real as a home for this work and our company is growing into an exciting film company.

When I moved to Denmark after 15 years spent in the UK, I wasn’t planning to stay because of the support system but because of the community and the generous welcome of friends and colleagues. I started to really enjoy the interesting filmmaking space where people are not afraid to look into each other’s films when they are still bad, where people are really open.
Directors here have the final cut. This is extremely important if you want cinema to be an art, not only commercial entertainment.

What’s your next project?
I have many ideas, but I will most likely turn my lens to the myth of the American Dream.


via the Nordisk Film and TV Fund

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.