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Why ‘The Look of Silence’ Director Joshua Oppenheimer Embraces Subjectivity to Tell His True Stories

Why 'The Look of Silence' Director Joshua Oppenheimer Embraces Subjectivity to Tell His True Stories

READ MORE: Review: ‘The Look of Silence’ is Joshua Oppenheimer’s First-Rate Followup to ‘The Act of Killing’

Joshua Oppenheimer is a genius. That’s not hyperbole — the
MacArthur Foundation designated the documentary filmmaker for its 2014 class of
Fellows, awarding him the prestigious “genius grant” that
goes along with it. But even before it was official, the man’s
overwhelming intelligence and talent were readily apparent. Following a string
of experimental shorts (“A Brief History Of Paradise As Told By The
Cockroaches” is a serious contender for the designation of Best Film Title
Of All-Time), Oppenheimer earned his first Oscar nomination for his breakout
feature “The Act of Killing” in 2013. By inviting the perpetrators of a
decades-old Indonesian genocide to dramatically reenact their own heinous
crimes, Oppenheimer created visions of guilt, despair, and unfathomable evil.

His new film “The Look of Silence” acts as a sort of
companion film to “The Act of Killing,” turning the tables on the guilty
parties. Oppenheimer trains his camera on Adi Rukun, whose brother Ramli was
murdered by the paramilitary death squads during the mass killings. Adi
confronts the aging killers, many of whom have retained a viselike grip on
power in the Indonesian government, with the reality of his brothers’ slaying.
As rare, inconceivably moving displays of emotion unfold, Oppenheimer massages
uncommon beauty out of the jungles of Indonesia. Indiewire got the chance to
sit down with Oppenehimer and talk about “The Look of Silence,” the
shifting sociopolitical climate of Indonesia, and the state of documentary
filmmaking.

You first started spending time in Indonesia in 2001. Can you
describe the process by which you integrated yourself into what I imagine must
have been a pretty insular community?

I didn’t try to go there and make [“The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence”], initially. As an outsider,
knowing little about the country, not able to speak the language, I was asked
to make a film with plantation workers about their struggle to organize a union
in the aftermath of the Suharto dictatorship, under which unions were illegal.
It was a six-month job. But I didn’t know anything about this country,
and that the most I could do was to run a film workshop, where we’re
watching some of the most important documentaries ever made. 

What’d
you bring over there?
 

We brought “The Battle For Chile.” We brought “Hour of The
Furnaces,” because it was explicitly supposed to be an agitprop film. We
brought some of Jean Rouch’s work. I basically ran a workshop
where the plantation workers made their own films, too. And it was an amazing
experience, because here we were with all this equipment and all these movies
and the projector and watching films and making films, but this is all in a
very remote tract of oil pond. The workers were living in these rotting wooden
barracks that look like concentration camps, miles and miles from the nearest
sealed road. There was no phone, of course, and very patchy electricity, and
the Belgian company that owned this plantation made the women workers spray the
herbicides and pesticides without protective clothing. They didn’t
tell them what they were spraying. All the women were getting liver disease in
their forties, turning yellow and dying of liver failure. One of the first
things we did was try to figure out which of the chemicals they were spraying
was causing this. As one of their first actions as a union, they went to the
company and demanded protective clothing. The company hired the Pancasila
Youth, the paramilitary group at the center of my first film, “The Act of Killing,” to threaten and attack the workers, who then dropped their demands immediately.
I asked them, “How can you let this go so quickly? After all, isn’t
this a matter of life or death for you?” And they said, it is, but our
grandparents were members of the National Plantation Workers Union until 1965.
And just for being in the union, which all the workers were, they were
considered likely opponents to the new regime. And all of them were either put
in concentration camps and used as slave labor, or killed. And they were afraid
this would happen again, because the group that did the killings with the army
in this region was Pancasila Youth. At that point, I realized that what was
killing my friends was not just poison, but fear. I understood from the outset
that the issue is not the events of 1965. That’s important, but it’s
not the issue. The issue is impunity and fear today. The issue is the way the
past is present as this gaping wound that’s keeping the
perpetrators in power and able to terrify the survivors.

I can’t
imagine how intense the actual process of filming must have been. Did you find
that there was a residual emotional weight after you had finished the
production?

People often ask me if “The Act of Killing” was frightening.
By that, they usually mean physically frightening, because I was filming
powerful men who had done some terrible things. But it wasn’t
really physically frightening to make “The Act of Killing,” because the
government rolled out a red carpet for everything we were doing. It was
emotionally frightening. I don’t know if you’ve seen the uncut
version of “The Act of Killing,” the so-called “Director’s
Cut”? Outside the U.S., the film is forty minutes longer, and
that’s the original unabridged film. That’s now out in the
U.S. on Netflix as “the Director’s Cut,” but that’s not really what it is. Director’s cuts are made out
of regret, and this is the original uncut film. It’s forty minutes
longer, and there’s a scene in it in which [former death
squad soldier] Anwar [Congo] really plays the victim, which isn’t
clear in the shorter version, because it looks like a challenge from me. But
despairingly, he throws himself into embracing the worst that he’s
done, the guilt that he can’t run away from anymore. Out of anger
at that, he starts to become sadistic. It’s in the film noir
set where he plays the victim, and in the scene, he butchers a teddy bear. In
the middle of shooting that scene, Anwar stopped me and said, “Joshua,
you’re crying.” And I didn’t realize that, I
put my hand to my face, I had never cried before without realizing it. He asked
if I wanted to stop, and I said “No, let’s continue.” That
decision to keep going was, for me, the wrong decision, in the sense that it
might’ve been best for the film, but that was the straw that broke
the camel’s back. That was the moment I should’ve taken care of
myself and taken a break. I had nightmares that night, and they went on for
eight months. Almost a year of insomnia, because I was afraid of the nightmares
coming back. It’s not that the scene was so terrible,
though Anwar there is a terrible man. It was year after year of this, at that
point. And so it wasn’t physically frightening to make, but
was emotionally frightening. “The Look of Silence,” however, was
physically frightening to make, but emotionally healing. Shortly after I
started “The Look of Silence,” “The Act of Killing” came out and
catalyzed this fundamental transformation in how Indonesia sees its past. That
was healing, the whole country’s talking about this and recognizing.

The government did make a formal acknowledgement of it,
correct?

Yeah, it was a kind of defensive acknowledgement. When “The Act of Killing” was nominated for an Oscar, they said, “We don’t
need a film to make us say this, but what happened in 1965 was a crime against
humanity and we need reconciliation. We’ll do it in our own time.” It
was a great moment, because it was the first time they admitted to wrongdoing.
But what’s really been positive is the way the media and the public
are talking about the genocide as a genocide. They’re speaking
honestly about the moral rot that defines the regime that the perpetrators have
built, an oligarchy based on fear and thuggery. People are talking about that,
and that opens the way for activism to change this. You can’t
change a problem that you’re too afraid to even acknowledge.
With “The Look of Silence,” the film has entered the space opened by “The
Act of Killing.” It’s screened thousands of times, and it’s
come to Indonesia like the second child from “The Emperor’s
New Clothes,” pointing out things that all Indonesians already knew but
felt too afraid or disempowered to do anything about. Mainly, the prison of
fear in which all Indonesians are expected to raise their children. It’s
an abyss of fear and guilt that divides everybody, even members of a family, or
people within themselves. They can’t look at their own path with honesty.
That’s changing now, and that’s been healing. And
working with Adi’s family, a family that I feel very
close to and like they’re part of my family, that’s
been healing.

It’s
healing, but the experience as a whole sounds pretty draining. Do you feel like
you have another work of such brutal magnitude in you?

I feel privileged to have given my youth to this.

The best years of your life, as they say.

Well, my youth, in any case. I’m dubious of clichés.
But yeah, my youth, 26 to 40. I’m privileged, because not only have I
had the honor of exploring some of the most important aspects of what it means
to be human, but I’ve come out of it having overcome what
is the most crippling fear of all, which is the fear of looking. Of course,
that fear always returns. You don’t get over it once and for all. The
challenge of overcoming it in other areas of human experience is what will
motivate my next project, certainly. I don’t come to a project
with an important story to tell. I come with questions that keep me up at
night, that matter deeply to me. And I see my work as an exploration, guided by
a kind of vision.

Observing?

Exploring. I don’t think about it as observing— well,
I create occasions that allow me to observe, to find answers, but I think there’s
this myth with documentary that you’re observing a pre-existing reality,
that you’re going to a place and you’re interested in
observing some aspect of a place. In fact, what nonfiction filmmakers do, even
in what seem to be fly-on-the-wall documentaries, we create occasions in which
things can happen that will fundamentally reveal insights into the most
important problems that a film is trying to explore. We set up the
confrontations between Adi and the perpetrators. I’d bring Adi, I’d
say, “Look, I’m back after all these years. As you
know, I made a film with—” and I’d name all the most
powerful people in “The Act of Killing” so that in the eyes of the
perpetrator, Adi was untouchable and we wouldn’t be attacked or
detained. And I said, “This time, I no longer want you to
dramatize what you’ve done. Simply tell me about it. I
want you to talk to Adi, he has his own personal relationship to the history,
and he may have a different viewpoint than you, and I want to see how you
discuss this. You may disagree with one another, but I want you to listen.” I’d
tell them that as an optometrist, Adi would give them free eye exams and
glasses if they need glasses. That was creating a context where I could film
these confrontations safely, and film them in a very precise way. I had the
liberty to set up two cameras and have them trained intimately on their reactions,
so that I get all the human reactions that come when you enter someone’s
house and tell them that they killed your brother. The shame, the panic, the
guilt, the fear of that guilt, and then the defensiveness. It humanized the
perpetrators, but it also made visible how torn the social fabric of Indonesia
is, and how necessary some measure of reconciliation is. 

Speaking more broadly about the documentary form, it seems
like it
’s less a
matter of trying to find this elusive objectivity, but mitigating your own
subjectivity. What would you say to that?
 

Mitigating your own subjectivity in what sense?

You say that there’s no such thing as a fly-on-the-wall, that you, Joshua
Oppenheimer, are part of the action. In one or two occasions in “The Look of
Silence,” someone will address you from off-camera. It
’s not about finding some
objective purity, but using that subjectivity to expose truth.

I think that when you’re working within the reality, a
reality that you’re part of, you’re not mitigating
subjectivity. A film must be subjective if it’s to be intimate,
and it must be intimate if it’s to be important. We must invite the
viewer to empathize and to identify, which is the key to how cinema must work.
Too many nonfiction films pass judgement from a distance, with journalistic
exposition and past judgement. Many fail to take advantage of this opportunity
to bring the viewer close to something they can empathize with, not sympathize,
but empathize. Finally, we can start to understand. Not in the sense of excuse,
but understand, and learn, and feel what that aspect of human experience is
about. My presence is essential to creating those occasions, whether it’s
the grotesque, glorious, absurd, dreamlike dramatization in “The Act of
Killing,” or the very intimate conversation between Adi and his mother in “The
Look of Silence.” The intimacy I have with everyone involved is what makes
this possible. I’m actively trying to translate the
insight, the mystery, the pain, the wisdom, into an immersive experience. It’s
not about mitigating my subjectivity, but working with it. That translation
will itself be subjective and give the viewer a feeling of intimacy not only
with the participants, but with the filmmaker. 

Formally, both “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of
Silence” are pretty experimental. They don
’t draw on archival footage or talking-head interviews. Do
you feel like the current state of the documentary is becoming hide-bound, or
that your past two films are trying to diverge from this dominant mode?

No, I just try to do what feels most honest. I have no training
in documentary. My mentors, my models, the filmmakers whose work inspired me to
become a filmmaker, all work in a space between fiction and non-fiction. I don’t
think I’d be a filmmaker without films like Werner Herzog’s “Even Dwarfs Started Small,” which is not a documentary but so deliriously
truthful that I think of it as nonfiction. My mentor was Dusan Makavejev, who
would combine fiction and non-fiction in films like “W.R.: Mysteries of The
Organism,” and find a space between them. I’m offered chances
to direct fiction with some regularity now, but I have some resistance, because
I don’t want to know how a story begins and ends when I start. I’ve
become a filmmaker because it’s my way to explore some of the most
mysterious aspects of what it means to be human, and to translate what I find
in those explorations into poetic experiences for viewers. The form and the
method has to be determined by the exploration itself. I’m not reacting to
what we see in other documentaries, I’m learning from some. I think there
are a lot of films coming out in Europe that don’t have a release
here that are very interesting, formally. There’s a film called “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” a Dutch film about two alcoholics that’s half-acted, but completely
nonfiction. There’s “Of Men and War,” which is
probably the most important movie about the Iraq War. These films are taking us
to totally new places, and so I don’t see the state of nonfiction films as
played-out at all. Maybe I’m watching the wrong films?

Sounds like I’m watching the wrong films. 

What I find exciting about nonfiction is how, moreso than
fiction, we can reinvent the form to suit the journey. Some of my favorite
filmmakers — Abbas Kiraostami’s film “Close-Up,” Mohsen
Makhmalbaf’s “Salaam Cinema,” both Iranian films, Errol
Morris’ first film “Gates of Heaven,” which radically
reinvented what nonfiction could be, even some of Ulrich Seidl’s
documentaries — they all made it their own. That’s what I’ve
tried to do.

READ MORE: Watch: Devastating Trailer for ‘The Look of Silence,’ the Follow-Up to ‘The Act of Killing’

“The Look of Silence” opens in limited release today.

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