Closure elicited from justice is a wish survivors of the
Indonesian genocide may never be granted. Buried under fearful silence and
blatant impunity, the truth has remained a menacing secret for 50 years.
Murderers must be regarded as patriotic heroes for their barbaric acts, while
the victim’s families are perpetually tortured by the notion of a country ruled
by tyrants reveling on the heinous bloodbath they orchestrated.
In Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary “The Act of Killing” these makeshift
executioners are exposed not as monsters but as people who lost touch with
their humanity and who could only carry on with their lives by glorifying their
perverse deeds. Average villagers killing their neighbors with grotesque brutality is a more frightening image than any monstrous apparition. Guilt is transmuted into boasting that pretends to conceal their responsibility
with lies. They found solace in the forced silence surrounding the appalling events.
For “The Look of Silence,” the indispensable companion piece
to first film, Oppenheimer focused on the survivors, specifically on a brave
family that persevered through the immeasurable pain. Retribution is not what they seek, even after the atrocities
they have endured and the lurking possibility of more terror hanging over them.
The mere acknowledgement of fault by the perpetrators, the Indonesian government,
or the international community would open a path for healing a wound that’s
been opened for half a century. But it’s easier for the guilty to ban any
discussion and imposed their approved explanation painted with false courage, than
admit that over 1 million people were savagely murdered.
The subjects in “The Look of Silence” are often quiet and
contemplative, but their anguish transcends even when words fail to describe
their tumultuous sentiments. Adi, the daring protagonist whose older brother was murdered
during the massacres, faces the killers and questions their actions like no one
had done before. Watching him witness their shameless pride is a difficult
viewing experience that challenges one’s foundations to the core. Yet, to look
away would be to enable their fictitious account and would disrespect even
further the memory of those ravaged by denial.
Here are 12 essential points from our conversation with the
brilliant documentarian behind these groundbreaking works
Werner Herzog said recently in Berlin “This is the only legitimate version of the film. If you haven’t seen it you haven’t seen ‘The Act of
Killing'” I agree.
2.”The Look of Silence” and the “The Act of Killing” are intrinsically connected
I knew long before I started making “The Act of Killing” that I would make two films, and that they should hopefully be companion pieces
to one an another and form a single work whose whole, I hope, is greater than the sum of the parts. The scene that inspired the making of the two films was actually the scene in “The Look of Silence” where the two men take me down to the river taking
turns playing victim and perpetrator. I filmed that in January 2004. Eight months into my work filming the perpetrators, a year and a half before I met
Anwar Congo and started making “The Act of Killing.”
3. The perpetrators’ boasting is not an act but a symptom of impunity
For the first eight months in this two-year period of filming every perpetrator I could find – at the
insistence of Adi’s family – I always filmed them alone because I was afraid that if I brought two together they might warn one another, “You shouldn’t
talk about this,” in case they could get in trouble somehow. But eventually I had to know, “Are they only boasting for me and my camera? Is it something about me or would
they also talk this way to each other?” To know that I finally had to take the risk and bring them together. I saw that when they were together they were
even worse. They were reading from a shared script. The boasting is a symptom of impunity. I had to let go of whatever comforting hope there might be that
these men were just monsters or insane. I realized that this monstrosity and this insanity here is collective. It’s political.
4. What he witnessed in Indonesia is what could have happened in the West if the Nazis had won World War II
A thought came to me while I watched those two men coming down the slope helping each other down to the river and holding hands because
it’s slippery. They were being very tender with each other. In this interlock between these absurd and grotesque demonstrations of killing I thought to myself,
“It’s as though the Nazis had won World War II and you went to Germany and met the aging SS officers if the rest of the world had celebrated the Holocaust
while it took place.” I realized in that moment that this surreal scenario, “What if the Nazis had won?,” is actually not the exception to the rule but the norm
across the Global South. There’s been atrocities across the Global South committed throughout the Cold War and since. The perpetrators usually remain in power
and people usually remain in fear.
5. From their inception he had a clear idea of what he wanted to tackle in each film
After this I started to wonder, “Perhaps this impunity is the story of our times.” I decided I would stop everything I was doing,
address the situation and make right. That evening I noted in my diary, “Two films,” one of about the boasting of the perpetrators. I came to understand
that their boasting, like all boasting, is defensive and is compensating for insecurity and doubt. “The Act of Killing” became a film about the lies, fantasies, and stories
the perpetrators tell themselves so they can live with themselves, and the terrible effects of those lies when imposed on the whole society. Then, the
second film is about what it’s like for survivors to have to continue living in such a regime. What does it do to human beings to have to live afraid for
6. Both films are different but precisely complementary
I shot “The Look of Silence” after editing the uncut version “The Act of Killing.” The Director’s Cur of “The Act of Killing” is this kind of
flamboyant fever dream even beyond what you see in the short version of “The Act of Killing.” It’s not even a documentary, I don’t think really. It’s
non-fiction but a new kind of form. Cutting through the Director’s Cut are these long moments of absolute silence where time stops and you just feel the
hauntedness of the place where this is unfolding. I felt that “The Look of Silence” should be formally, not just different, but precisely complementary and in that sense form a single work with the Director’s Cur of “The Act of Killing.”One in which we enter any of those haunted places punctuating the “The Act of
Killing’s” Director’s Cut and feel what would it be like to have to live there and to rebuild a life there.
7. Recognizing that the perpetrators are human beings is the only hopeful response
At first you hear people talking about monstrous things in monstrous ways, and you therefore hope that they are monsters because that has nothing to do
with you. It’s frightening to get over that thought and think, “Wait, they are not monsters, they are human.” Once you get over that thought, and once you
recognize that the perpetrators are human beings and that the perpetrators of every act of evil in our history have been human beings like us, you quickly realize that’s the only hopeful response because if the perpetrators are monsters what can you do? You can identify them,
capture them, somehow neutralize them, and then we become them. We are doing the same thing. You can capture then, lock them up, and kill them, but Primo Levi said very beautifully speaking of the Holocaust, “There may be monsters among us, but they are too few to worry about.”
8. Empathy and doubt are key in preventing unthinkable violence from occurring
Once you recognize that all
perpetrators are human beings, you also recognize that we ought to be able to find ways of living together where we practice the widest possible empathy
and where we encourage people to doubt what authority tells then so it’s harder to incite people to betray their individual morality and join groups that
are doing things we know are wrong. We ought, therefore, to be able to find ways of living together where this kind of unthinkable violence would one day be
9. Justifications in the form of fantasies, lies and stories normalize atrocity
We need to understand how human beings do this to each and how being human, knowing what they’ve done is wrong,
how do they live with themselves. What we quickly discover is that the way they live with themselves is they cling to lies, stories, fantasies to justify
what they’ve done. Those justifications normalize atrocity and prepare the soil for its recurrence because now atrocity is normal, is natural, is
appropriate instead of unfathomable. To understand these things we have to be willing to go close to the perpetrators and when we do that, yes, it’s
10. One horrifying reenactment pushed him to overcome the most crippling fear of all
The most surreal and amazing scene
is a complex one in the Director’s Cut of “The Act of Killing” of how Anwar comes to play the victim, which is missing from the shorter version. It’s a scene where he despairingly throws himself into the worst aspect of who he is but as a glamorous film noir character because he knows he can’t
escape the guilt. He is starting to realize it and he butchers this teddy bear. It starts as a game and he is pretending to be butchering a child. Herman is pretending to be a mother who is trying to save her own life by bribing Anwar with her child. Anwar butchers the
child, but it’s really a teddy bear. There is all this doubleness and it’s absurd, and grotesque, and strange, and silly, and horrible. Filming it I was crying and
I didn’t realize I was crying. Anwar caught me and said, “Joshua you are crying.”I felt my face and I thought, “I’m crying. It’s the first time in my life
I’ve cried without realizing it.” I had eight months of nightmares and insomnia after that. I don’t think that scene will give you nightmares or insomnia
when you watch the film, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. Coming out of that I felt stronger. I felt stronger because it was a trial by fire. Coming out I found I had overcome the most crippling fear of all, which is the fear of looking.
11. Survivors learn to live in with grace and love despite living in silent fear
The survivors have to find a way of surviving in that kind of fear. When survivors say, “Let the past be past,” they say it out of fear
and the perpetrators always say it as a threat, which means the past isn’t past. It’s always right there. It’s ungrieved and it’s unmourned because it’s
unrecognized. You cant even talk about it, but it’s felt. The survivors are in this kind of awful silence born of fear. It’s the silence of nitroglycerin,
it’s not the silence of still water. Within that, they have to find ways of living also with grace and with love. I think that’s what drew me in part to
Adi’s family, because they’ve done that.
12. U.S. involvement proves fear is an integral part of the global economy
The film is not about [U.S. involvement]. If you ask, “What is the movie about?” The movie is not about what happened in 1965 or who was responsible. The film
is about what it’s like for survivors and for this family to live in fear for half a century. It’s not about the history of that fear. That’s a film worth
making and a topic that I hope the film inspires people to explore. On the website for the film there is a whole section about
the history and the context of U.S involvement. It’s not gone into in depth because, for example, in the lived experience of Ramli’s family they didn’t know about that. Still, it felt important to me because I want the film to be a mirror in which we see ourselves, not a window into some far off place that’s not related to us. I want people to understand that this fear is an integral part of the global economy. We see that very clearly in the U.S. clip because the most important part of what we see is that Goodyear was using salve labor drawn from death camps. Twenty years after German corporations did the same thing at Auschwitz. This was being celebrated on American television as a victory for freedom and democracy. For every viewer of my films who cares about freedom and democracy, and hope that’s every single one, that should give them a reason to wonder whether the struggle of the so-called “free world” over the communist world was the real reason we did this. Or rather whether that was a pretext allowing everybody who participated, from the lowest ranking executioner to the highest ranking official in the Pentagon, the CIA and the Indonesian army, to be able to do what they were really doing, which was murderous corporate plunder.
“The Look of Silence” is now playing in Los Angeles at The Nuart and in NYC at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema