Award-winning documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer brings his Academy Award–nominated film The Look of Silence to the Conrad Prebys Aztec Student Union Theatre for a one-night screening on February 23.
Oppenheimer was gracious enough to speak at length with me about Silence and its predecessor, The Act of Killing.
Scott Marks: I love asking directors this question, particularly one for whom memory plays such an important part. Do you remember the first film your parents took you to see?
Joshua Oppenheimer (Without missing a beat): Yeah. Modern Times.
SM: Jeez! While most of us were cutting our teeth on Disney, you were watching Chaplin!
JO (Laughing): We were vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard and it was playing in Old Bluff. I loved it, but was kind of terrified by the scene where he comes out of the machine and is hypnotically working the wrench, unable to stop the motion. That idea of someone becoming a slave to the motion was so incredible. And then he does the motion to buttons on a woman’s coat where her nipples would be and she becomes so angry. I couldn’t understand why she was offended. I felt just so alarmed for him.
SM: I’d be curious to know how well your films play in Indonesia, if at all.
JO: They’ve played very widely. Releasing these films has been the single most important part for us. The Act of Killing, you could say, helped catalyze a fundamental transformation about how the media and the public talk about the past. Before the film, there was an accepted silence in the mainstream media regarding the genocide. Now, the media talks about the genocide as a crime against humanity. More importantly, the criminal regime that’s been in power ever since...we didn’t release The Act of Killing in Indonesia in commercial theaters.
We didn’t want to promote a ban from the film censorship board, which is a very political censorship body that falls now under the auspices of the Defense Committee of Parliament. Imagine if the MPAA was under the Armed Services Committee of the Senate. That sounds crazy, but it’s not. It’s authoritarian. We didn’t want to promote a ban and therefore consequently criminalize screenings of the film. We started out by holding a closed screening of The Act of Killing for Indonesia’s top news anchors at the National Human Rights Commission. Journalists who saw the film started reporting on it the next day.
The Look of Silence
The editor of Indonesia’s leading news magazine saw the film and called me the next day. He said, “I’ve spent decades censoring stories about genocide and I’m not going to do it anymore. I saw your film yesterday and do not want to grow old as a perpetrator.” They broke from the silence and did it in a big way by showing that the film is essentially a repeatable experiment that could have been made anywhere in the country. He sent six journalists around the country, to regions where no one had ever documented the killings at all, but everyone of course remembered them.
They found perpetrators that were just as boastful as the men in my film, and gathered in two weeks over 1000 pages of boastful testimony. They published 75 pages of the material, plus 25 pages of The Act of Killing in a double-edition of their magazine. In one fell swoop, the media’s silence on Indonesian genocide had ended. The rest of the media followed suit and published their own articles about the killings. That provided the support and the cover needed for the screenings to become public. Soon there were screenings all over the country in film clubs, and art venues, and universities. After thousands of public screenings, we put the film online for free in Indonesia both on YouTube and as a download. It’s been seen that way tens of millions of times. The Oscar nomination prompted the Indonesian government to admit that what happened in 1965 was a crime against humanity and we know that we need a truth and reconciliation process. But they stopped short of embracing the film by saying, “We don’t need a film to push us to do this.” Still, it was a wonderful moment because they admitted it was wrong.
At the end of the screening Adi Rukun came as a surprise guest and received a 15 minute standing ovation. (It was National Hero’s Day, coincidentally.) And trending on Twitter around the world — Indonesia is the world’s largest Twitter-using country — was “Today we have a new national hero. His name is Adi Rukun.” A month later on International Human Rights Day, the National Human Rights Commission held 500 public screenings around the country. There were screenings in every province. Now we’ve had over 5000 screenings, and we’ve put the film online for free.
The second film pointed out how torn the fabric of society is and how urgently it need healing. That’s been the life of the two films in Indonesia. It’s been the very best and also most unexpected part or releasing this work.
SM: There’s a quote from Godard, the source of which I can’t recall, that suggests the future of well-balanced cinema is subject to a need for documentary filmmakers to borrow from narrative picture-making and vice versa. Could you take me through a little of your creative process? For example, how much time did you spend on location before you realized the only way to open The Act of Killing was with a string of exotic dancers writhing from out of the lips of a giant rusty fish?
JO (Laughing): Pretty early in the assembly of the film, actually. It’s a very complicated story with a very complicated set-up. You have to understand a little bit what happened in 1965, you have to understand the power of the perpetrators, the paramilitary gangsters that emerged from the killings, the criminal nature of the paramilitary — that is to say there are kind of mafia elements. You had to understand [1965 executioner] Anwar [Congo’s] connection to the power structure, and you had to understand the filmmaking process in which Anwar is acting out what he did and then watching it. This is a lot to take in the first half-hour of a film, particularly when you know nothing about the country, let alone the genocide and certainly the people in it.
The most important thing was to put right up front what the film is really about, which is about the construction of a beautiful, exquisite, glowing, magnificent moral catastrophe. A lie. It just felt like the fish embodied all of that. There are these beautiful dancers, the location’s beautiful. But the fish, there is something terribly wrong about it. Almost monstrous. And it’s not a symbol that one can define in any way. It emerges out of...it’s the stuff of dreams. Or nightmares! And I felt the need very quickly at the beginning of the film to give a hint of the fever dream that this film is destined to slowly evolve into.
In the uncut version of the film it really is not a documentary at all. It’s a kind of an immersive fever dream where we fully experience and are horrified by the depths of Anwar’s self-deception and we get lost with him in the evolving nightmare that he lives every day. It was important to set that surrealism, the magic and the beauty, right up front. When we see (gangster and Paramilitary leader) Herman (Koto) in drag, by the way, you don’t know who he is yet. He also becomes a kind of metaphor for the whole, because he’s a kind of incandescent, glowing mistake. Whenever he’s in drag he’s sparkling or he’s catching the rays of the sun wearing hot pink or turquoise blue. It just felt like that was the key image, just like in The Look of Silence, the shot of Inong’s eyes was the key image. It’s a metaphor for blindness. There’s something frightening about it, too.
And there’s something very precise about the openings of the two films. The fish evolves into...we make a transition from the fish location to this waterfall where we see the same dancing girls in different costumes. And we hear a choreographer calling out instructions and hear them dancing without playback music. We see the construction is a lie. They say how beautiful and that they should smile and show their teeth, but you see that everyone is uncomfortable and struggling. It’s really the construction on an image that we see in its full-form at the end when the Born Free number that they are actually creating.
SM: I was looking through your filmography and was taken by the title, Muzak: A Tool of Management. What is it and where can I get a copy?
JO: That’s actually available on Fandor, and it’s a kind of meditation on the horrifying situation that in a way led me to do all of this work. There is Muzak playing over an early interview that I filmed with the perpetrator with a text about Muzak from the back of the Muzak album about how it’s a scientific medium designed to enhance employee productivity. It’s a long time since I’ve seen it, but if I remember, the text of the perpetrator’s interview is being scrolled across the bottom like a news ticker, and he’s describing how on behalf of the management of this plantation company that he was killing workers who tried to unionize. It was a kind of expression in a poetic, angry way of the outrage I felt back in 2001, 2002 when I began this journey.
I had gone to Indonesia for the first time and asked to teach a group of plantation workers the basics of documentary filmmaking so that they could make their own film documenting their struggle to organize a union in the aftermath of the Suharto dictatorship under which unions had been legal. I had no idea what I was walking into. It was not only on the same plantation where Adi Rukun’s family lived, but the Belgian oil company gave the women workers the supposedly easy job of spraying the pesticides and herbicides and provided them with no protective clothing.
The women were dying of liver failure in the forties. One of the first things they did was identify which herbicide was responsible for this and then went to the company and demanded protective clothing. The company responded by hiring the Pancasila Youth, the paramilitary group at the center of The Act of Killing which came and physically threatened and attacked some of the workers. The workers came to me with tears in their eyes. Some of the women were already jaundiced from liver damage. Although it was a matter of life and death for these women, there was a mass killing there in 1965, and they were afraid it could happen to them again. This paramilitary group was the main organization to carry out the killings with the army back in 1965, and they’re more powerful than ever.
On that day I realized that was going to kill these women was not only poison, but also fear. And I couldn’t look away. They asked that I come back and make a film about why after all these decades there were still afraid. Unlike the films that they were making this film would be too sensitive and they needed an outsider to make it. I said yes, and that’s what led me on the journey to making both films.
SM: I’ve read that members of your crew insist on remaining anonymous to ensure their safety. If I’m going too far afield with this next question, please stop me. I’m sure your are familiar with the recent events involving Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo’s meeting with El Chapo that led to his eventual arrest. Do you see any similarities, most notably in terms of the personal risks taken and, for lack of a better term, humanizing the enemy?
JO: I can say that we all took risks to make these two films. My crew...after the survivors...Adi Rakun encouraged me to start filming the perpetrators after their family was threatened...I don’t know if I see many connections. We worked very hard to protect everyone. There is a team of five people that work full-time to monitor Adi and his family’s safety. We use all encrypted communication about his whereabouts and travels. Adi has not been threatened since the film has come out. Adi’s been seen as a kind of hero by the media and public. It’s created a kind of protection so that over the last year he hasn’t faced the same kind of threats that I still face from the most powerful men in The Act of Killing.
I was careful to recruit my crew from other parts of Indonesia. Indonesia is a huge country, the size of the United States both in population and east-west expanse. People in Indonesia typically — and helpfully for us in terms of safety — have only one name. If your name was Joe, in your passport it would just say “Joe.” No one knew my crew members by what we would think of as a full name. They didn’t know where they came from, so it would be hard for the paramilitary to track them down. The military and intelligence services well have the means to find out who they are, but I think the international reputation and regard for the films again protects the crew’s safety. Over the past three years we’ve had no sense and signs of danger for the crew.
As for the other part of your question, I think we always should always humanize our enemies. It’s essential if we want to understand how human beings hurt one another. Most documentary films unfortunately follow a very simple formula. They make the audience feel good about itself for pitying the subject. If we’re looking at something evil, we do so through the eyes of subjects whom we can pity. We condemn the perpetrators and evil-doers as villains reassuring ourselves that we have nothing to do with them.
I think there’s value in building sympathy for victims and I think that you can see that in The Look of Silence. By telling ourselves that evil is perpetrated by villains and bad guys, we actually make it impossible to understand how human beings can mistreat each other and then how as human beings they live with what they’ve done. And that sometimes compels them to commit further evil. If you simply dismiss your enemies as villains, you make comprehension impossible. That is to say you confuse condemnation for comprehension. We shouldn’t do that. It makes us feel good about ourselves but makes it impossible to solve our most important problems. Every act of evil in our history has been committed by a human being like you or like me.
SM: There have been rumors circulating that there’s enough footage to make it a trilogy.
JO: Not by me. [Laughing.] A trilogy might seem more common, but a diptych is more open. This other chapter is what will happen next, and I am not the one to write that. It will be written by the people of Indonesia. What we are doing is talking to foundations about supporting hundreds of Indonesian artists, writers, filmmakers, oral historians who’ve been inspired by the two films to set up their own projects to create a comprehensive archive of what happened. Part of that includes making our archives accessible, all of the footage that we shot all of the documents we gathered accessible to Indonesian students and teachers. The Indonesian History Teachers Association is creating an alternative history curriculum around the two films. This is in a sense a third installment of the material, but it’s really a tool in the country’s reckoning with its own past.
SM: I generally try and stir interest in upcoming interviews by asking Facebook friends if they have any questions to contribute. I mention your name, and one of my wiseguy friends writes, “Who’s his favorite Stooge?” This smugly implies that a Harvard educated filmmaker can’t embrace slapstick and/or has no sense of humor at all. Based on the surreal manner in which you choose to tell your stories, there’s clearly a comic mind at work.
JO: Herman would be a fantastic fourth Stooge. But you can’t really have the Four Stooges. It would be a bad concept. Which of the Stooges could you replace with Herman Koto in The Act of Killing?
SM: I can’t believe you’re actually entertaining this question.
JO: He’s kind of bullied and long-suffering, so I’d have to go with Larry.