Joshua Oppenheimer’s appearance at the Based on a True Story
conference (BOATS) at the University of
Missouri’s journalism school wasn’t an official keynote address. But his
90-minute interview, conducted by Slate’s Dana Stevens, had the force of an
aesthetic manifesto, a true vision of what documentaries can do — and what they can’t.
Oppenheimer, who also screened his new film,
"The Look of Silence" and the director’s cut of his 2013 Oscar
nominee "The Act of Killing" in Columbia as part of the True/False
Film Festival, could be spotted all over town throughout the long weekend, nodding intently
as festivalgoers seized their chance to chat up a MacArthur fellow. But given
the floor, as he was at BOATS, Oppenheimer responded not with soft-spoken
sentences or even paragraphs but whole pages of thoughts, cogent and neatly
organized, and deeply fascinating.
Both "Act" and "Look" deal with the
Indonesian mass killings of 1965 and ’66, when 500,000 people or more were murdered in
supposed anti-Communist purges. In "Act," which was released in 2012,
the men who carried out the killings were invited to restage them, acting out
horrific tableaux in which they are both methodical executioners and screaming
victims; in "Look," Adi Rukun, whose brother was murdered during the
purges, confronts the killers himself, often while performing his duties as a
Oppenheimer’s methods were born of practical necessity:
Filming survivors old enough to remember the purges firsthand would have placed
them in grave danger, since the perpetrators and their political heirs have
held sway Indonesia ever since. So instead, Oppenheimer found a way to film
their absence, to make visible the country’s decades-long denial. The film have
served the function of conventional activist documentaries, opening a
long-overdue dialogue in Indonesia itself and directing attention to the
survivors. "Look’s" Adi was also selected as the recipient of
True/False’s True Life Fund, which provides money to documentary subjects.
Listening to Oppenheimer speak was, in its own way, nearly as
overwhelming an experience as watching his films. He’s light-years ahead ahead
of most of his fellow filmmakers, to say nothing of most people writing on the
subject, in his understanding of the nature and purpose of nonfiction film, the
inaccessibility of the historical past, and the effectiveness, or lack thereof,
of conventional human-rights documentaries. Oppenheimer’s talk is now available
in its entirety here, but
we’ve culled some of the aspects which focus on his philosophy of documentary filmmaking below. His answers have been
edited and condensed.
To protect the safety of his subjects, Oppenheimer shot both
"The Act of Killing" and "The Look of Silence" before
"Act" was released.
The two films, which Oppenheimer calls "companion
pieces," were conceived around the same time, although he worked on them
separately. The earliest footage in "Look," in which two perpetrators
of the Indonesian genocide reminisce about killing a man named Ramli, whose
death became almost synonymous with the genocide in the surrounding area. From
2005-2010, Oppenheimer worked exclusively what would become "Act,"
and edited it for the next two years. After that, in the spring of 2012, he
returned to "Look." As those who ordered and carried out the killings
are still in power, Adi put himself at risk, so part of the film’s budget went
to relocating him and his family before either "Act" or
"Look" was screened in public.
Oppenheimer doesn’t make films about history. He makes films
about the present.
Although both "The Act of Killing" and "The Look
of Silence" work to uncover the brutal legacy of the 1965 genocide,
Oppenheimer is careful to specify that they are not movies about the past.
Although he admits to using the word himself early on, he now avoids calling
the scenes in "Act" where the genocide’s perpetrators take on the
roles of killers and victims "reenactments," preferring to use
"It wasn’t that I was getting information about what
happened," he said. "What we’re seeing is dramatization of the
present-day fantasies, scripts, stories that the perpetrators are telling
themselves so that they can live with themselves."
Some of these fantasies are self-glorifying, but others channel
the guilt into readymade forms. "They throw themselves into a model of
being bad," Oppenheimer explained, following a kind of film noir scenario that is "at least intelligible and inhabitable."
He hates the term "fly-on-the-wall."
"In so-called ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary, there’s a claim
that the camera is a transparent window onto a pre-existing reality. But what
really is happening is that the director and the film crew and the subjects are
collaborating to simulate a reality in which they pretend the camera is not
present. It’s a kind of dishonest story about how the film was made that
performs a useful function — namely it helps us to suspend our
disbelief and perceive that simulation as reality," he said.
"People who would have us believe that the masterpieces of
direct cinema — and to be sure, there are masterpieces of direct cinema — would
ask us to believe that if the camera is there long enough, the mother and the
child will forget that the camera crew will behave as though it’s not there.
That’s absurd. That’s just idiocy. No one forgets the presence of the camera,
no matter how long it’s there. All documentaries are performance. They are
performance precisely where people are playing themselves," said Oppenheimer.
He continued, "If we throw away the myth of fly-on-the-wall and ask what
is a more helpful understanding of what’s happening in documentary film when it
really soars, when it’s really explosive, when it’s really wonderful, what’s
happening is a situation within the overall safe space of the filmmaking process,
and the efforts that are taken to protect the safety of people when a film is
released, within that overall framework, scenes are set up that cut to the core
of what the most important issues are in the film in which everybody — filmmaker,
participant, crew – is pushed beyond their comfort zone
and things are allowed to spiral somewhat out of control. That’s when
documentary film becomes genuinely cinematic. Until that happens, it’s mere
There are no heroes or happy endings.
He explained: "Far too many documentaries dealing with atrocity approach
the atrocity either through a campaigner or a hero who you feel is, even if
they’re not succeeding in the film, at least they’re fighting the good fight on
our behalf. It’s a way of creating a less overwhelming position for the viewer,
and I think it fundamentally doesn’t serve any understanding of the atrocity.
It fundamentally serves to make the experience easier for the viewer, so that
when we leave the cinema, we feel like, ‘We, somebody out there is fighting the
good fight. The future is in good hands. And maybe by my watching the film,
that person in their struggle is strengthened.’ Maybe there’s a website where
you can sign a petition of make a donation and go on with your life."
These films are about the present.
"I understood ‘The Act of Killing’ and ‘The Look of Silence’
as films about the present, that these are not films about a secret, unknown
past," said Oppenheimer. "Nothing can can bring back the dead who were killed in the genocide, but
at the same time, nothing can make whole the lives that have been destroyed by
fear and silence. Nothing can restore the decades lost to fear. I felt very
strongly that ‘The Look of Silence,’ should be a kind of poem made in memoriam
to all that’s destroyed, not just through killing but through the impunity that
continues to exist in the present. No matter what good might come of these two
films, nothing can restore all that’s been lost."
One of "The Look of Silence’s" most important scenes
was shot by someone else.
"The Look of Silence" climaxes with a troubling scene
in which Adi’s father, over 100 years old and in the grip of advanced
Alzheimer’s disease, crawls around his own house in terror, unable to remember
who or where he is. It’s the only scene in the movie that Adi shot himself, as
"When Adi said he wanted to [take part in the film,] I said,
‘No, it’s too dangerous.’ Then he pulled out a camera that I had given him two
years earlier to use as a kind of notebook, to look for images that would be
powerful metaphors for the film we would go on to make after I finished ‘The
Act of Killing.’ He took out a tape — he’d given me all the others — and
he said, ‘I didn’t give this to you because it’s so painful, but I want to show
you something.’ It’s a scene right at the end of the film where he father is
crawling around his own house, lost, demented, no longer able to remember where
he is. He calling for help, and Adi’s not really helping him. He’s behind the
camera. I said, ‘Why don’t you help him?’ and Adi said, ‘I tried to help him
all day.’ His wife and children had spent the whole day trying to help him, but
because he didn’t know them, it just made him more afraid.
Adi said, ‘At some
point, I felt that the most loving thing I could do was to bear witness to this
moment. It’s the kind of thing that could never be repeated. It could never be
staged. I said, ‘Yes, but what does it mean to you?’ He said, ‘For me, it’s
like my father’s trapped in a prison of fear, and he’ll never get out of it
because he can’t remember the events that caused it.’ He can’t even remember
the son whose murder led him to this trauma. It’s like he’s in a prison cell
and can’t even find the door anymore, let alone the key. ‘He’ll die in this
prison of fear, and I don’t want my children to inherit this prison.’"
Consent forms are a charade.
Later, Oppenheimer was asked about issues of consent, and whether
he considered leaving the scene out of the film entirely.
"I don’t think I ever debated about whether or not the scene
should be in the film, because the way it was presented to me was like my pole
star making the film. The whole film should be constructed so that scene, for
some significant portion of the audience, works and is moving at the end, and
that there’s enough love and safety around that family that even if viewers wonder,
‘Why aren’t they helping him?’ they figure, ‘Well, there must be an answer. I
just don’t know it,’ which is how many things in films or not. It wasn’t a
matter of should I include this or not. It was a matter of this whole film is
constructed for that moment. There are people who don’t like it, but I also
think that’s a sign that it’s good."
He went on to explain that he took his cues from Adi’s
father, who was an enthusiastic proponent of the film in its early stages, and
from Adi’s family, who never expressed any reservations about what he was
filming. "Of course," Oppenheimer admitted, "he never signed a
consent form, but then, I think consent forms are basically a fraud, for a lawyer. If the film is worth making, no one knows where it’s going. You can get
them to sign a form as soon as they’re in a scene, but they don’t know how the
footage is going to be used. It’s a charade that we go through for lawyers and