Director of ‘The Act of Killing’ and ‘The Look of Silence,’ Joshua Oppenheimer Talks About the Real Life Horror Behind His Films

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With two powerful documentaries, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer has shed light on a forgotten atrocity from different angles. Oppenheimer, whose film The Act of Killing was overlooked for the Academy Award, is getting ready for the United States release of The Look of Silence (my review of this startling and important film can be found here), the companion piece to The Act of Killing. Both films are explorations into the human condition in the aftermath of a horror that has been whitewashed from history. Both films are great. Both films are different. Both films are important. I recently got to join a couple other journalists and engage in a roundtable discussion with the Oscar-nominated filmmaker about The Look of Silence, the bizarre political landscape of Indonesia, and the reality of reconciliation and justice in an Orwellian nightmare.

Exploring the United States’ involvement of the ’65 genocide:

Some of the people slaughtered were communists. And being a communist is certainly not grounds for a legitimization of slaughter. We also know that the United States knows all too well that many of the people weren’t communists, because one of the things the US was concerned about when the military dictatorship came to power was that the military dictatorship having publicly said it had nothing to do with the Soviet Union – there was a concern that it would not also side with Beijing because the Sino-Soviet split had already taken place. The way they dealt with that was through the CIA station in Singapore, producing hate-radio, hate-propaganda, accusing every ethnic Chinese person in Indonesia of being a secret agent for the communists, despite the fact that everyone in Indonesia knew the Chinese had been there for generations, some of them for hundreds of years. This particular geopolitical strategy of the United States meant that 50,000 ethnic Chinese were killed simply for being Chinese. So, the people who were killed included – also, an American State Department official working at the US embassy in Jakarta was compiling a list with thousands of names of public figures, mainly journalists, also trade union leaders, leaders in Indonesia’s women’s movement, artists, writers, intellectuals and handing it over to the Indonesia government saying, ‘Kill these people and take off the names as you do and give us the list back when everyone’s dead.’ This was incitement. This was not intelligence because these were public figures. This was saying, ‘Kill every potential opponent of this new regime because we want the regime to stick.’

This was at the height of the Cold War. The United States was claiming this was done in the name of anti-communism, but there’s a clip in The Look of Silence that gives me pause and makes me doubt whether anti-communism was the real reason or whether it was actually a pretense that allowed the American perpetrators of the genocide, those perpetrators who were American, to live with themselves and to justify what they were doing. It was a piece of an NBC news broadcast that we see in the film where we learn that Goodyear, major American multi-national corporation, who produces the rubber in our tires and the soles of our shoes, was using slave labor drawn from death camps to harvest their rubber. This is 20 years after German corporations did the same thing on the periphery of Auschwitz, but here it’s being announced as good news, undertaken in the name of freedom and democracy on American television. For any viewer of The Look of Silence who cares about freedom and democracy, such a clip should give us pause and make us wonder whether the so-called free world struggle against communism was the real reason this was done or whether it was, in fact, or whether that was the pretense for murderous corporate plunder.

How Joshua Oppenheimer wound up making two striking documentaries on a forgotten atrocity:

I began this process in 2003, working with survivors of the genocide, particularly Adi and his family. Adi tried to gather survivors from his community to tell their stories to me. Three weeks into that process, the army threatened everybody not to participate in the film. At which point, they called me to a secret midnight meeting in Adi’s parents’ house because they knew the army was surveilling them and said, ‘Please don’t give up, try and film the perpetrators.’ I was afraid to approach the perpetrators at first. I overcame that fear and encountered their extraordinary boasting, that strange way they were talking about what they’ve done. I showed that material to Adi, because he was waiting for it after my first shoot. He said, and the other survivors, and the broader Indonesian human rights community all said. ‘You must continue to film the perpetrators because anybody who sees this, anybody who hears the terrible way they’re talking now about what they’ve done, will recognize that in some way the genocide has never ended because the perpetrators remain in power and people’s lives are still being destroyed by fear and unresolved trauma.’ I then felt trusted by the survivors and the human rights community to do a work that clearly they couldn’t do themselves, which was to film the perpetrators. Naturally, therefore, I made the film with the perpetrators first. And then after we finished editing The Act of Killing but before it had its world premiere, I went back and shot the film, thematically at least, that I had set out to make in the beginning, a film that explores what it does to human beings to live for half a century afraid. And that’s The Look of Silence.

How he became invested in the forgotten ’65 Indonesian genocide:

I first went to Indonesia in 2001. I was asked to help a group of plantation workers make a film about their struggle to organize a union in the aftermath of the military dictatorship under which unions had been illegal. I was asked by the International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers. I could’ve been sent anywhere in the world to do this. I was sent to Indonesia knowing almost nothing about the place. I found myself on a remote oil palm plantation in an area where foreigners never go, in a plantation workers’ community where the workers were living in rotting, clattered barracks. It looked like concentration camp barracks, actually. The Belgian company that owned this plantation would make the women workers spray the herbicide and the pesticides with no protective clothing. And one of the herbicides was so toxic that the mist would get into their lungs and their bloodstream, reach the liver and dissolve the fabric of their liver. They were dying of liver failure in their 40s. And while I was there in those first six months, three people I became close to died. A couple more died after I left.

One of the first things they did as a union was to approach the company and ask for protective clothing, and the company responded by hiring Pancasila Youth, the paramilitary group at the center of The Act of Killing to threaten and attack the women – the workers in general. And the workers just dropped their demands right away. And I asked, ‘How can you let this go? Is this not a matter of life and death for you?’ And they said, ‘It is. But you see, there was a mass killing here in 1965. Our parents and grandparents were part of the union then, and they were seen as potential opponents of the military dictatorship simply because they were in the union. And they were killed, and we’re afraid that this could happen again, not least because Pancasila Youth is still powerful and is the main organization – civilian organization that do the killings with the army in this region.’ So I realized in that moment what was killing my friends was not just poison, but also fear.

The plantation workers made this film, it wasn’t me. I was just facilitating it. It’s called The Globalization Tapes. It’s, I think, on YouTube. It was used as a labor education too around the world. It helped workers, the agricultural sector of plantations all over the world, understand their relationship to some of the violent aspects of globalization.

Explaining the Orwellian nature of Indonesia’s political landscape:

I had no idea what I was walking into. There’s a moment on the DVD and Blu-Ray of The Act of Killing, the extras, the deleted scenes, where I ask the newspaper boss – there’s a newspaper boss in the first film that says, ‘One wink from me, and people would be killed.’ He was ordering the killing. And then I asked him, ‘Could you ever kill with your own hands?’ Because he boasts hundreds of Anwar Congos, hundreds of executioners working for him. And he said, ‘No, of course I couldn’t kill with my own hands. I could never do that. I’m an artist, a poet, a screenwriter. I could never.’ He was indeed writing some of the scripts for the fiction scenes that Anwar was acting out. He said, ‘I could never do that. My sense of universal humanism is too great.’ At which point I asked, ‘What do you mean by universal humanism?’ He was hard of hearing so I had to repeat the question three or four times. It became more absurd, of course, with each successive attempt. ‘What do you mean by universal humanism?’ Finally, he gets it and he said, ‘Oh, universal humanism? I mean human rights. And if I’m not mistaken, I’m the head of the human rights organization – I can’t remember what it’s called, but I’m the head.’ Such a moment, such an encounter would be impossible because it would be too absurd to be believable in 1984, in Orwell, in fiction. But there it was.

Fascism is Orwellian. It’s tempting to think that the end of World War II that the allies defeated fascism, but fascism continued to flourish across the global south.

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On boastful and gleeful nature of the perpetrators behind the ’65 genocide:

I think it’s a mistake to see the pleasure and the glee that we see in the accounts of killing, the demonstrations of killing as a reliable marker of the glee people might have felt while killing. I think that, indeed, when you are taking a human life you are wielding an illegitimate but exorbitant power, the power of God almost to decide who lives and dies. A power that certainly no human being should wield. That may be for some people a kind of rush, but I think that’s rare or itself a coping mechanism.

My sense is that every perpetrator I filmed knows that what they did was wrong at some level. And they were incited to do it. I think they weren’t forced to. They weren’t threatened to. None of the perpetrators I met killed because they were either in an army and it was required of them under military discipline or because they were threatened – ‘If you don’t do it, we’ll kill you.’ My understanding is that they were paid. They were incited. They were encouraged. They were offered promotions and power, and a chance to eliminate their rivals. Basically, I think we’ve all experienced participating, or being asked, or incited, or pressured to participate in a group that is doing something that we would feel uncomfortable with personally. We all have a private morality that on some level comes from the ethical relationship we have with other human beings that we learn in the first 20 years of our life when we’re children and living families and being nurtured. That’s true of every perpetrator, too. There are no monsters – there are very few monsters out there. As Primo Levi said beautifully, ‘There may be monsters among us, but they’re too few to worry about.’

Here we’re talking about human beings, I think, that were incited to participate in something that contradicts their private morality. We know when a group is doing something, particularly if it has the blessing of authority, if it’s sanctioned by power – we think, ‘If they’re doing it, it must be okay.’ We’ve all participated in that even though we’ll never be proud of that. So people participate. And then they have to somehow live with themselves afterwards. I think that the glee you refer to is much more a coping mechanism afterwards in the sense that every perpetrator I’ve filmed, I think, lives their life in a manic flight from appall, a cloud of shame and guilt that follows them everywhere they go. That insinuates itself into their sleep, giving them horrific nightmares. And yet because they’ve never been removed from power, they still have available to them a victor’s history celebrating what they’ve done. That is to say that they still have the rationale of the group. So they cling to that for dear life. And they do that very human thing, that we all do, when we’re part of a group that does something we’re uncomfortable with – they justify; they try to, in this case, try to take these rotten, bitter memories and sugarcoat them in the sweet language of this victor’s history. That accounts for why they have to boast about things that absolutely unseemly to boast about.

How can one boast about the things they’re boasting about? Well, the only way you can explain it is that those are – it’s either they’re demons, which I know from my experience with them that they’re not, or that those are the precisely the bitterest memories, that are so hard to swallow that they need to sugarcoat by talking about it in heroic ways. So when you meet the executions, and it’s the actual executioners not the commander who have one or two or three or four degrees of separation from themselves and the killings, it’s the actual executioners who are haunted by these memories. While everybody is telling themselves excuses, only the executioners are talking about these grotesque things that give the lie to the excuse. You see, talking about garroting or cutting off heads in celebratory terms gives the lie to whatever narrative might celebrate it. I honed in on that early in my process, because I realized this is a crack in the façade. Follow that so the whole façade can crumble.

How one heartbreaking scene ended inspiring The Look of Silence:

I am certainly trying to say through the film that I hope people will see the film as, not as a window into a far off world or a far off political disaster that they’ve never heard about and don’t care about, but rather as a mirror in which we see ourselves and feel implicated. Where we ask ourselves questions not just about Indonesia but impunity in our own society, about our failures to deal with our own past, which this year in the United States has been particularly painful, particularly around race.

The reason I never thought that about the scene where Adi’s father is crawling because when I returned in 2012 – when I finished shooting The Act of Killing in 2010, I gave Adi a camera to use to search for images for the second film. He would send me tapes while I was editing The Act of Killing. When I returned in 2012, I sat down with him and said, ‘What do you think we should do for the new film?’ And he said, ‘I spent seven years watching your footage with the perpetrators. It changed me. I need to meet the men who killed my brother.’ And I said, ‘Absolutely not. It’s too dangerous. There’s never been a film ever made where survivors confront perpetrators who are still in power. We can’t do it.’ And Adi said, ‘Let me explain why it matters.’ And he got out that camera and one tape, and said, ‘I never sent you this tape because it is so important and very personal to me.’ He put the tape in the camera, pressed play, and showed me that scene. Crying, trembling while we put in the tape, and crying when the image appeared on the screen.

It’s the only scene in the film that Adi shot. He said to me, ‘This is first day my father couldn’t remember anyone in the family, including my mother. He was lost and confused in this way all day. We were trying to comfort him but we couldn’t comfort him because we were strangers to him.’ In fact, in the scene that Adi shot, you can see the camera sort of being half put down, and him trying to comfort his dad, and his dad panicking and screaming. It was truly unbearable to watch that, the fright Adi was giving his father when he tried to help. And he said, ‘All day we sat there not knowing what to do. Wanting to help him but unable to. Eventually, I picked up the camera because, if nothing else, I wanted to get close to him and film. Then I knew the moment I was filming why I was filming.’ And he said, ‘Because this is the day it became too late for my father. Too late for my father to heal, because he’s forgotten the son whose murder destroyed his life, my family’s life, but he hasn’t forgotten the fear. And now he will never be able to work through this fear, never be able to heal because he can’t even remember what happened.’ He’s like a man locked in a room that can’t find the door let alone the key. ‘I don’t want my children,’ he said, ‘to inherit this prison of fear from my father, my mother, and from me.’ That’s when he proposed that he could meet the perpetrators with gentleness, showing a willingness to forgive if they could accept responsibility for what they’ve done. If we could meet the perpetrators, they would welcome this as an opportunity to acknowledge or to stop their manic boasting, to stop this flight from their own guilt, and to be forgiven by one of their victim’s families. And he would be able to leave his children a future where they weren’t afraid of their neighbors.

I recognized that was likely to fail, and actually all we would be able to do is document why it fails and show the abyss of guilt and fear that divides everybody in this society, and inspire people to struggle for truth and reconciliation, and some form of justice, which is the only way that kind of torn social fabric can be mended.

The impact of The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence on the political landscape of Indonesia:

The Act of Killing, of course, had made it impossible to ignore the genocide, and impossible to ignore the regime of thuggery, fear, corruption, the shadow state that operates with impunity of paramilitaries and military intelligence that is always there. And into this space has come this second film, making it impossible for Indonesians to not talk about the prison fear that almost condemns them to raise children in. It forces, somehow, everyone who sees the film and really engages with it to support truth, reconciliation, and some form of justice. Out of this discussion, the government has introduced a truth and reconciliation bill. It’s woefully inadequate at this point, and they say they don’t want to name the names of the commanders. There’ll be no process of justice even for the highest ranking commanders. But that gives something for the human rights community, and the public, and the media to demand ought to be approved and to struggle for.

We gave the president a copy of the film in his mother’s living room. Four days ago, a letter that I wrote to the president explaining what I though the significance of the film was and my own experience making it, was delivered by hand to the president. Two days later, the president announced that in his State of the Union, I’m sure I’m just wishful thinking any kind of causal relationship here – there is a casual relationship with the broader discussion the film has catalyzed. But two days after the letter got to him, he made this announcement that he would be apologizing to the survivors and the victims’ families in the next State of the Union address, which is on August 17th. There’s a backlash, predictably, from the shadow state that I refer to, from the army, the paramilitary groups, oligarchs who stand to have their wealth exposed as the spoils of plunder rather than legitimately acquired wealth. With this backlash, people have said that president is now exposing himself to be a communist and so on. Let’s see what happens.

Will there be a director’s cut of The Look of Silence:

Unlike The Act of Killing, not too many people have seen it in the US, but the full Act of Killing is two hours and forty minutes long. We cut it down to two hours because the pressures on American cinemas to are such – it’s not that American audiences can’t handle that, it’s the economy of cinemas. So the shorter cut was released here. The uncut version is available, it’s the director’s cut here, it’s on Netflix and such.

This film, we had to shoot very quickly because once we came to this idea of Adi confronting the perpetrators, we realized we’d have to do that very quickly so the word wouldn’t have time to spread. So unlike The Act of Killing, there wasn’t an enormous amount of material. I don’t have like a whole backlog of scenes. The Act of Killing was cut from 1,200 hours of material, and ended up being two hours and forty minutes long. I never counted how much we had because moved from tapes to hard drives for The Look of Silence, but it wasn’t too much. There was a beautiful scene, though, that tells a lot about Adi. He climbed into an open sewer, outside the bird market – I don’t remember what we were doing there, but there was this pet bird market and some of the birds escaped and were flying around deranged because they were so cramped into these cages, and landing and falling and getting wet in an open sewer. And Adi took off his shoes, rolled up his trousers, and did this acrobatic move where he stuck his leg down into the ditch, and with his toes rescued these birds, and cleaned them and wrapped them in paper. That was the one scene that we actually – it was very, very beautiful but it didn’t, there were only so many pauses between confrontations and we chose a scene with the daughter, Adi’s daughter.

About the possibility that the perpetrators of the ’65 genocide might be held accountable in international courts:

It’s very difficult because the International Criminal Court is constitutionally unable to address crimes that occurred before it was constituted as a court. Therefore, to convene a tribunal for this would require probably an act of the Security Council of the United Nations. That’s happened for the crimes within the former Yugoslavia. It happened for the crimes in Cambodia. Those are also crimes that took place before the ICC was formed.

The difficulty there is that two permanent members of the Security Council are perpetrators of this crime – the United States and the United Kingdom. It’ll be difficult when the United States, when both countries, still keep all of the records detailing their own role in these crimes classified, it’s a struggle to get that information public. Senator Tom Udall introduced a resolution, a Senate resolution, on December 10th, 2014, International Human Rights Day, the day The Look of Silence was released all across Indonesia, he introduced a resolution saying, ’50 years is too long not to call a crime against humanity a crime against humanity. We need to acknowledge our role in this and take responsibility for it. We need to declassify our documents. Asking Indonesia to have its own truth and reconciliation process when we’re unwilling to acknowledge our role in this is mere hypocrisy.’ If it passes, it’s still only a sense of what the Senate thinks the Executive Branch should do, it doesn’t compel them.

On the film’s website, and through Participant Media’s social action program, there’ll be a petition pushing for, initially, the declassification of all the records.

The Look of Silence opens in New York on July 17th and expands to more cities in the following weeks. For more information go here.

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