He may not feature physically, but without a doubt the most integral factor in both the breathtaking, Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing, and its companion feature The Look of Silence, is the audacious filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer. It’s his distinct mixture of bravery and empathy which makes for such compelling, emotionally exhausting cinema – and with the release of the latter upon us, we had the pleasure of sitting down with the American documentarian to discuss his remarkable journey.
The Indonesian genocide of the 1960s is Oppenheimer’s focus, as while in the preceding endeavour he met with the death squad killers, allowing them a platform to discuss and dramatise their actions – in The Look of Silence it delves into the same events from the perspective of the victims, and he explained where the initial inspiration came from for both projects.
“The first film exposes the mechanism of fear itself, and the second film is about the human consequences of this fear,” he begun with.
“I’ve always known there would be two films, but I see them as completing one another. The inspiration for both came to me back in 2004 when I filmed two death squad leaders, and they took turns playing victim and perpetrator, pretending to be proud of what they’ve done. I don’t think they’re really proud of it. They revealed that they murdered my friend’s son – and that was the first day I’d ever brought two perpetrators together who didn’t know each other. It was dangerous to do so, because one could tell the other they shouldn’t be talking like this and it could easily stop the whole process, or even get us arrested or deported. So we waited as long as possible before bringing perpetrators together.”
“Eventually I did understand they were boasting only for me, maybe because I had a camera, or because I’m foreign,” he continued. “When I brought them together they were even worse, they were reading from a shared script and I had to give up that final vestige of hope that these men were psychotic. I could see that if there was psychosis here it was collective – it was political. That was the day I realised that it was as if I’d wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust only to find the Nazis still in power. It was the first time I felt that way.”
“Realising that, I put aside every other project I had going and focused as long as necessary on this. That evening I wrote two films in my diary, one about the boasting of the perpetrators to try and understand it, which I later found out are lies and fantasies they tell themselves so they can live with themselves. And the terrible, corrupting effect of those lies on the whole society. In that sense, that’s The Act of Killing – a film about escapism and guilt; a flamboyant, fever dream. Then I knew I would make a second film that would be more of a poem, composed in memoriam to all that is destroyed by the decades of fear and silence, in which the survivors live. The genocide hadn’t ended in 1965, but it was still going on in some terrible and important way, because the perpetrators are still in power and people are afraid, and consequently, unable to work through trauma. So the second film explores what it does to human beings to live in fear their whole lives. That’s The Look of Silence.”
Within this indelible picture, Oppenheimer uses Adi as his entry point – a husband and father, who wishes to confront those who murdered his brother. The responses from the members of the death squad show little signs of remorse – and Oppenheimer explains why he believes this to be the case.
“I think they’ve lived their entire lives as a wilful, exhausting effort not to see that what they’ve done is wrong,” he said. “They will do anything they can to protect themselves from feeling genuine remorse. If perpetrators have not been forced to admit that what they did was wrong, because they’re still in power and still have available to them a victor’s history that celebrates what they’ve done, they will do what the men who boast in my films do, they will try and sugar coat the rotten memories of murder than come to them in their nightmares, with a sweet rhetoric of a victor’s history that would claim it’s heroic.”
“Perpetrators who have been removed from power, for example what you see in interviews with ageing Nazis, they’re unable to deny what they’ve done because there is proof that they’re guilty, then they will perform shame, but seem insincere. Not because they’re monsters who don’t feel shame, but to actually inhabit that shame and be present in that moment of shame, and really feel the shame they are expected to perform, would be devastating and they would be choking on it.”
Oppenheimer is alluding to a particular scene from The Act of Killing which provides the audience with a sense of closure, as one of the most incredible incidents caught on camera – when the barbaric Anwar Congo finally realises that what he did was wrong. But for the director, it was far from being a moment to celebrate.
“The audience feel a relief at that point, because much of the dramatic tension in The Act of Killing rests of the audience’s wonder – how can this man not see what we see? At the end finally he’s seeing it – and it’s horrifying. But for me, in the moment of shooting it, I felt worried. Anwar is a man for whom I feel love. There’s actually a wobble in the camera during that scene, which I had to digitally – and painstakingly – remove, because I started to move in to comfort him, because I was so upset and alarmed. I wanted to go and put my arm around him and say this idiotic thing that we Americans say in our eternal and misbegotten optimism, namely, ‘it’s going to be alright’. And I realised no, this is what it looks like when it’s really too late for it to be alright. This is the first time I’ve ever seen this kind of guilt in my life, let alone in a movie. I was horrified and upset.”
“I don’t think I’m likely to make more films in Indonesia,” he stated. “It’s very sad for me that I’m not able to return, and it’s a rare privilege and an honour to be involved in films that have had this sort of impact, and it’s sad I can’t be there to experience first hand the change these films have brought to Indonesia. It’s sad I can’t visit to see the children of my crew members growing up, and being a regular part of their lives. We meet outside of Indonesia sometimes and will do more of that, but I cannot return safely now. But certainly when I’m able to, and things have moved on and changed, I will.”
He speaks with a certain defiance – but when asked if he’s felt scared during this entire process, or has since been haunted by the things he’s seen, and heard – he admits that while fear does exist, but it’s been something of a healing experience for him.
“Making The Act of Killing I was rarely physically afraid, but I was emotionally afraid. To go into that darkness for that long, and to go in open, to try and empathise. It was painful. The Look of Silence, by contrast, was physically frightening to make, but emotionally very healing. I’ve left the journey feeling not haunted, but feeling quite the opposite. Fortified by overcoming the fear of looking, which is the most crippling fear of all.”
While sadly not divulging any information about his future projects – despite claiming there is one in the works – he has ruled out turning to a more conventional, narrative feature any time soon, even though somebody has evidently given a shot.
“Recently I was sent a film script to direct, and I looked at it, and it struck me as the most absurd thing in the world to know how my film was going to begin, and how it would end and what would happen in the middle before I begin,” he finished. “I don’t see myself as a storyteller, I see myself as an explorer.”
The Look of Silence is released on June 12th and you can read our review here.