There are many films that are labeled "important," but Joshua Oppenheimer’s "The Act of Killing" is the extremely rare piece of art that actually made a real difference. By allowing the brutal murderers behind the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide to recreate their "heroism" on camera, "The Act of Killing" pierced the bubble of silence surrounding the death of 500,000 to 1 million Indonesians, which left the perpetrators in power and the survivors living in fear.
The film’s opening led to the first article (in a 70-page double issue) about the genocide to be written in a major Indonesian publication, its 2014 Oscar nomination forced the government to publicly acknowledge the genocide for the first time, and the film having been seen widely across the country created a ripple effect that direct influence on national elections. Stepping into that ripple is Oppenheimer’s follow-up, "The Look of Silence," a quieter film that looks at the damaged lives left in the wake of these killings.
It’s only the director’s second film and it solidifies what was fairly obvious in his first: Oppenheimer is one the most gifted and perceptive visual storytellers (a word we found out he rejects) working in nonfiction or fiction film today. Indiewire recently sat down with Oppenheimer as he completes his second Oscar campaign — "The Look of Silence" has been nominated for best documentary — which is the culmination of his 13-year journey that began when he first went to Indonesia.
"The Act of Killing" had such a dramatic impact in Indonesia, how has "The Look of Silence" been received there? Has it been able to reach as many people?
"The Act of Killing" made the journey from secret screenings to a mixture of open and secret screenings, whereas this film began with very large public screenings hosted by the Indonesian Government and The National Human Right Commission, which meant that a wider section of the country, at least initially [public screenings of the film were later banned by the military], found the courage to go to screenings. So right away, so many more people initially saw the film.
The National Human Rights Commission also sends out digital copies of the film ranging from DVDs for small village screenings to DCPs for closed cinema screenings. And they are free, the National Human Rights Commission has covered the costs of that. So anyone who goes the film's website and says they want to organize a screening gets a booklet about how to organize a screening safely and chose what format they want the film delivered.
At the same time, working with Drafthouse Films and VHX, we put the film online for free. So if you go the film’s website from Indonesia, the site knows you are in Indonesia and offers you the film to download the film for free at whatever resolution you want.
One other practical point is that "The Act of Killing" reached many, not all universities in Indonesia, while "The Look of Silence" went to all Indonesian universities and then thousands of high schools. It prompted the Indonesian history teachers association to say, look we need to create an alternative history curriculum, that's involved now in hundreds of high schools.
"The Act of Killing" had enough time to work its way through the world, so that the understanding of 1965 and the genocide had completely shifted by the time "The Look of Silence" came out. So in a way, this film could stand on the shoulders of that film and was no longer concerned with things like, "Look what happened, it's undeniable, how criminal the government still is," but instead could focus on what the film is really about, which is this kind of open wound that prevents people coming together and living without fear.
Your work has been championed by those in the documentary community who believe in the use of cinematic language and the voice of the filmmaker in nonfiction filmmaking, and you yourself have spoken out against this notion of the fly-on-the-wall approach to documentaries and some of the failures of traditional human rights films. How do you balance your art and directorial point-of-view and your desire to bring social change?
Often there's a discourse in the documentary film world where people talk about documentaries in terms of what is the important, unknown story they bring us. As if the shock of the new story a documentary brings us is its power. I would argue that it is never the source of a film's power. It's never the shock of the new, it's always the shock of the familiar.
You watch a film about an unknown political situation that seems very far away — maybe either of my films — and if they shake you to your core it's because you recognize something very personal in them. There's a moment of awful recognition, and also a wonderful recognition because I think it's liberating; where you think, "Is this us? Is this really what we are? Is this what we do to each other? Is this what I could do to someone? Is this how I would feel surrounded by people who killed my loved ones? Is this what fear would do to my family and my body if I lived in it for decade after decade?"
This moment of uncanny recognition is what makes films powerful. These moments are not windows onto something far away, they are mirrors in which we see ourselves.
I actually think what I try to do in my filmmaking is to struggle against any form of distance. I try to immerse people in a space which is constructed, where we make palpable the kind of poetic truth of that space. So you could immerse someone in an Indonesian village and it could feel bucolic and nice and friendly, or you could try to get to the invisible truth of the space, which is fear and silence and loss and guilt. I think of my filmmaking as immersing people in series of spaces that cumulatively form an experience.
People also talk about nonfiction filmmaking as storytelling and I think it's an imperfect metaphor at best. I try to work with my participants to create new realities. I try to create these realities that are beyond their comfort zone and make something visible about the space that was previously invisible. I want to immerse the viewer in that space, but with a moral point of view, and I think that can be achieved without distancing. Of course, you could say with "The Act of Killing," there's a certain way the camera watches things unfold from a certain distance without comment, but I would say that is providing the viewer with a moral point of view, more than distancing them.
Then I try to provide a series of spaces, tones, moods, environments that you smell and taste and feel as much as you see and hear them, that cumulatively form this big experience for a viewer and we can call that a story, but is it? Even in the word storytelling there's a distance, there's a gap between the storyteller and the listener. And then within this, how do you make such a journey intelligible for a viewer?
Well, they need information, but my general rule of thumb is to provide the information the viewer is longing for at each moment and no more, so that they are more likely to take it in. If you provide much more information than that you make it impossible to create this immersive experience.
The beautiful thing about film is that it's part of us. It approximates experience, so it becomes your experience. There's this magical moment when I screen a film. I imagine the theater filled with people of many different backgrounds, different biographies, and they sit there and this experience which is the film, which is different for every person, becomes part of them. It becomes part of their memories, part of who they are and in the moment we've all had this same experience, but from a different perspective. That's about closeness, not about distance and it's certainly not about providing a historical primer or journalistic analysis.
I'm not saying I have a manifesto about these things, that's just what I do.
Are you influenced by narrative fiction filmmaking?
I am, of course, but again what they do I don't think of as storytelling. People often ask about my relationship with Werner [Herzog] because he is involved [executive producer] with both films. In a way, I became involved in movies because of his films like "Even Dwarves Started Small" and "Stroszek." I'm now looking to make a musical. "The Act of Killing" is sort of a musical, so I'm not sure how great a departure it is. One of my favorite musicals of all time is Tsai Ming-Liang's "The Hole," it's fantastic.
Making this film I made a study of some of Robert Bresson's films, particularly I watched again and again, "Diary of a Country Priest," to try to understand how these very precise details in the rhythm of the film's breath create a world that's always there, but invisible, and that's what I was trying to do.
I know you shot both films before releasing "The Act of Killing." When you were filming the parts that became "The Look of Silence," did you approach how you shoot this material knowing it they would be part of different film, with a different visual world and tone?
When I was shooting I was very aware the uncut version of "The Act of Killing" — which I had just finished cutting when I went to film "The Look of Silence" — that every sequence cuts to these abrupt moments of silence. These haunted landscapes where we shift perspective from the perpetrators to the absent dead. I had this feeling that "The Act of Killing" had become this flamboyant fever dream, I'm not even sure it's a documentary, it's something wholly different.
But there's those abrupt cuts to silence where we feel the whole moral perspective of the film shift. I knew making the second film I wanted to take you into any one of those haunted quiet spaces and make you feel what would it feel like to live there as a survivor surrounded by the men who killed your loved ones. I knew such a film would be less flamboyant because it would be dealing with something subtle, something that's almost not visible.
For me, the little jumping beans are a kind of metaphor for that. It's something if you are walking down a path in Indonesia you would overlook, you wouldn't notice the beans, but they would be hopping along on the ground and you wouldn't see them. The possibility of change that is so subtle that it could be overlooked and the opportunity for change could be missed.
We have to stop and look closely and make visible previously invisible changes of fear, and really the chorus of ghosts that are everywhere because the dead haven't been buried and the dead haven't been mourned because the survivors were never able to acknowledge what happened to them, they hadn't even been told their loved ones had died. So I had this feeling that if "The Act of Killing" was a fever dream, this second film would be this poem to all that was lost. A backward-looking memorial, not just to the dead, but the lives broken by fear and silence.
You spent almost a decade in Indonesia and have spent close to four years finishing and releasing these films. Obviously, the impact and reach of these films has to be beyond your wildest dreams, but as a young artist are you ready move on? Has the success of these films stifled your creative—
—yes. Quite simply, yes. I will continue to make myself useful to the struggle for truth, justice and reconciliation in Indonesia, but I'm also aware I'm not making another film there, that I'm developing new projects that are not there.
Really, the first chapter was to open the space for people to finally talk about this, the second chapter allowed people to identify the fear that needed to be overcome and call for truth, justice and reconciliation and the third chapter will be the struggle to achieve that. It's the future and it won't be written by me, it will be written by the people of Indonesia.
I am full of ideas for my next project. Maybe six months ago there was one the I was monomaniacally pursuing and that had a setback with one of the characters. I'm still pursuing that, but suddenly in response to that I had five new ideas and I'm very much chomping at the bit. The release of "The Act of Killing" from 2012 Telluride to the 2014 Academy Awards, or "The Look of Silence" from 2014 in Venice to the 2016 Academy Awards, it's a long time to be traveling with a film. It's wonderful because it brings the film to a wide public all over the world, but it's tiring.
After "The Act of Killing" I said, "Am I really going to make 'The Look of Silence?'" I did and I'm so happy I did. I learned so much, as a filmmaker too and in my relationship with my collaborators, but now that this is done, it's time for me to move on.