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Interview: Joshua Oppenheimer Talks ‘The Look Of Silence,’ The Influence Of Ozu And Bresson, And More

Interview: Joshua Oppenheimer Talks 'The Look Of Silence,' The Influence Of Ozu And Bresson, And More

A little while ago, we ran the first part of our interview with Joshua Oppenheimer, culled from several lengthy, generous, fascinating sessions at the Goteborg International Film Festival. That piece, which you can check out here, deals primarily with the devastating “The Act of Killing,” Werner Herzog, recurring nightmares and Oppenheimer’s plans for the future. With the release tomorrow of “The Look Of Silence” (review here) we bring you part two — a deep, deep dive into the new film, the filmmaking ethos behind it and a hint at the scale of its after-effects. 

“The Look of Silence” tells the story of Adi, whose brother Ramli was murdered, before Adi was born, as part of the “communist purges” (aka genocide) that took place in Indonesia in 1965-66 and that subsequently became the subject of national (and international) collective amnesia. The picture follows Adi, a village optometrist, as he goes to personally confront the men he and his family know killed Ramli. These are men who were/are his neighbors, schoolteachers, and local authority figures. It is an utterly remarkable film, the second such from Oppenheimer who has proven himself an utterly remarkable filmmaker. 

“The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence” are such different films, yet it’s now hard to think of one without the other. You’ve already mentioned how both were “born” in the same moment — how do you see them fitting together?
I felt that throughout “The Act of Killing” every painful sequence culminates in a kind of poetic, silent tableau — with a hard cut. These are the moments in the film where the perspective shifts from that of the perpetrators to that of the absent dead, who haunt the whole film. In “The Look of Silence” I very deliberately wanted to create the experience for the viewer of what it would be like to live inside that silence, with the perpetrators still all around you.

I had a sense that what I was trying to do was to create a poem about silence — where you’re looking, in silence, at the effects of fear and repression. The wrinkles in the knitted brow of Adi’s mother, the sagging flesh on Adi’s father’s torso as water flows down it while he’s being bathed. There’s an attempt to really focus with precision on moments that appear to be still but are almost heaving with unspoken emotion.

The unseen, the unspoken — it contributes to a sense I get from both films: just how unsafe they feel for the viewer. Like a cartoon character charging off a cliff, you look down and suddenly there’s nothing underneath you.
It’s a good point. All the cinematic handrails, the hand-holding and buttresses that hold the path up, for when you edge up to the precipice to get a glimpse down, all of that’s gone and it’s gone by design.

I think the conventions of how that’s usually achieved is by a feigned objective distance, a feigned ethical perfectionism on the part of the filmmaker. And I think all of that in context of real moral disaster is dishonest. You cannot walk into a situation like this and address it honestly and not be completely overwhelmed. You can’t come away unscathed, maintaining the illusion of an uncompromised, perfectly detached moral stance. That is false righteousness and it exists to make things that shouldn’t be easy, easy.

So you see it as your role to push us, as viewers, beyond that?
Well, did I talk about the third tear? I have this idea that there are three tears in sadness. The first two I stole from Milan Kundera — they’re not mine. The first tear you cry because something’s sad. The second tear you cry because you know the whole world is crying with you — that’s the beginning of sentimentality, and that’s an escape from the pain of the first tear. And the third tear, which is where I want to bring people, is where they cry because they are aware, finally, of the tragedy of escapism.

The tragedy of the second tear?
Yes, the tragic consequences of tear two. And in choosing the right metaphor, whether it’s death squad members making musicals or finally, after so many years a survivor confronting the perpetrators, you hopefully make palpable the impossibility and the wrongness of escape, and of everything that feels “normal.”

It’s a merciless experience at times.
I think what is merciless are the pauses, these impasses. There is this fundamental wound, a gash, a…

Yes — a chasm. It’s an abyss and we’re standing on opposite sides gazing at each other, worlds apart but right next to each other. And these confrontations [that Adi brings about] shift the focus from the room, onto the elephant in the room — that chasm.

In this regard, there’s one cut that matters to me very much in the film, with Inong, the man who’s wearing the red glasses in the poster. He says “Joshua, stop filming.” And there’s this long shot of him twitching with rage, and I don’t stop filming, because my loyalty in that moment is not to him. And there’s a sense that the pauses are held way beyond what’s comfortable and so the film becomes about discomfort.

Millions of people are living this trap of fear and that is the “unsayable.” Rohani, Adi’s mother has a moment in the film I love — I sort of love all the moments with her because I love her so much — but there’s a moment where she says she’ll pass the people who killed her son on the way to the market and she hates them, but she can’t say anything.

We can really feel the love you bear Rohani — she is a most beautiful person — and God, that is so unspeakably cruel.
Indeed, they have another son — Adi’s older brother — who was in elementary school when Ramli was killed. And Amir Hassan [one of the killers] had been the primary school art and drama teacher, and his wife had been the principal of the school. He was promoted to be the head of the Ministry for Culture for the whole region, as a reward for killing people.

But at the time of the killings he was a teacher and Ramli’s younger brother was in school at recess and heard the teachers talking. They were saying, “tonight we’re going to kill Ramli.” And he went home and said “Mom, Dad, the teacher said they were going to kill Ramli tonight.” And what did they have to do the next day, after Ramli was killed? They had to send their other son back to that school, knowing his teachers had just turned up and taken Ramli’s dying body [to be finally killed] and the brother had seen all that. And what did they have to do forever after that and to Adi too when he was growing up? They had to send them to that school. To be taught by the same people who murdered their brother.

That prison is quiet, it’s silent, but it’s no less devastating and uncompromising. For me it’s summed up so beautifully at the end when the two men, Amir Hassan and Inong, are posing for photographs and in the moment of pause while he gets his camera to take a snapshot to commemorate this “lovely afternoon,”  Enong sighs and says, “Well that’s how it is. Life on earth.”

And that is so true. It is life on earth and it will always be unless we force ourselves to look at it.

With so much repressed and unspoken, how do you go about making us look? Do you have filmic influences in this regard?
I tried to observe the traces, the palimpsest left behind by this invisible horror that structures everything. So, twice we see the mother’s hands rubbing in anxiety; the furrows in the brow; traces of fear and unspoken terror in a facade that on the surface looks calm, even beautiful and peaceful. My biggest influence in the dialogue scenes was Ozu because he’s sort of the master of scenes where nothing is being said, but everything is being said.

And of course there’s a strong generational aspect to Ozu that is very present here.
Yes, and also you’ll notice that more than most films it’s focused on reactions and not on the words being spoken. People have questioned the authenticity of the scenes because they say we often see the person start to say [a line] but then we cut to the reaction — is it really the reaction? But wherever possible I was shooting with two cameras, and I always do because I feel cinema is not a good medium for words, it’s a good medium for doubt and silence and pause and fear and those are things you see in the reaction, not in the line.

So Ozu was an inspiration. And Bresson — one film I watched over and over, and it’s not even my favorite Bresson, is “Diary of a Country Priest.” It’s full of these moments where nothing is happening (and here I come to physics again), but what appears to be an inert surface isn’t just hiding something swarming and pulsing underneath, it is something swarming and pulsing.

Like how all matter, no matter how solid, is made of busy electrons. 
Precisely. It’s so right to compare it to electrons!  It is exactly that. And it’s in the soundtrack too. There’s nothing in either film that is recognisable as music but there is a score of natural sounds that heighten certain rhythms in the image. There’s a line of crickets over the scenes with the family. And it’s not crickets that we recorded in the field, it’s four different crickets, one of whom we created in post-production, and they’re working with different levels of reverberations and volume to give you a sense of distance or closeness, and whether it’s a specific tiny moment or a huge space.

So we’re highlighting that unspeakable swarming of emotion that might otherwise be invisible. And even those jumping beans are some sort of metaphor for that — not in a way that I fully understand — but like the twitching of lnong’s face, they are metaphors for something under the surface wanting to come out… Moments that appear to be peaceful are constituted through his very precarious equilibrium of hyper-charged forces that are potentially explosive. And my intervention as a filmmaker is to make that visible.

And here that comes out especially in these moments of impasse, between Adi and the murderers he confronts.
Yes, because in that impasse there would always be two things: the fear of the perpetrators — fear of their own guilt and fear of losing power, but also fear of admitting something to this unexpectedly, uniquely empowered survivor, who dares to turn up on their doorstep and confront them — unimaginable!

And there would be Adi’s disappointment. Because there would be the indigestible fact of what they did hanging between them. It is not justifiable. There can be no moral explanation, and there’s always disappointment for Adi because he’s always hoping. When he first said he wanted to confront these men, he showed me the one scene in the film that he shot. And it’s the scene where his father is crawling at the end in the room.

Really, Adi shot that? That somehow changes the inflection on a scene I confess I’d been unsure about — it felt different from the rest.
Well, this entire film is using the camera to intervene in an intolerable situation, coming from a moral and hopefully loving place. I know some people come to that scene and think “why has Joshua allowed this man to suffer, shooting and not helping?” but I hope people understand where we’re coming from enough to believe there must be some story behind it…

So tell me the story behind it.
Adi just took out a camera that I had given him a few years before and tremblingly put in a tape that he hadn’t given me, and said, “there’s one thing I haven’t shown you.” And he started to cry within seconds of hitting play and it’s his father crawling.

It took a while for him to calm down after showing it. And he said, “This was the first day that my father didn’t remember any of us. We were all home for the holiday at the end of Ramadan and we couldn’t console him because [he] didn’t know us and he felt more and more afraid. And I felt the only loving thing I could do after spending all day trying to console him, was to bear witness to it and to film it.”  

And I said, “What does it mean to you, how is it related to our project?” And he said, “I feel like my father is trapped in this prison of fear. He’s forgotten the son whose murder destroyed his life, but he hasn’t forgotten the fear… And I don’t want my children to inherit that prison. And the only way I can think to get out of this is to meet to the perpetrators because they’ll see my humanity, they’ll understand that my brother must have been human, they’ll realize it was wrong and they’ll apologize. And when they do we’ll be able to separate them from their crimes. And I’ll be able to forgive them and then we’ll be able to live side by side as human beings instead of as victim and perpetrator, afraid of each other.”

And I was deeply moved, I thought this was a very noble proposition. I also thought he would fail. I thought, there’s no way these men in one meeting would acknowledge what they did was wrong — no way they would have the courage to do that.

And first I said no, it’s too dangerous. Its never been done in non-fiction film, that the survivor confronts the perpetrator while the perpetrator still has a monopoly on power.

What changed your mind about that?
I realized that because I’d shot “The Act of Killing,” but it hadn’t come out yet, the perpetrators across the region thought that I was close with their superiors — the governor, the Vice President the head of the paramilitaries, the police. So these relatively low-level perpetrators who were involved with killing Ramli, they would have to think two or three times before attacking us physically.

So you had basically a narrow window in which you could count on their suppositions about your connections, before “The Act of Killing” came out and they realized your actual agenda?
A narrow window to do something unprecedented. We still took every precaution, including an extra getaway car, carrying no ID, having the whole crew and the family constantly packed and ready to evacuate.

And now the film has come out in Indonesia, in fact in a much bigger way than even “The Act of Killing” did, the silence is being broken through the film even if it fails to break it within the scenes in the film. Adi’s overall effort in making this film is succeeding where he fails during the shoot.

So there were times during the shoot that you felt like you were failing?
Oh yes. We had spent months [some years prior] … with the widow and her two sons, those people who are in the final big confrontation of the film. And they just sit there and deny all knowledge of the crimes! We went there for Adi to say, “Look, we’re neighbors.” I mean, he went to that school! He was [her husband’s] student! He was at school with those brothers! And he wanted to say, “You know who I am I now, and who you are. It’s not your fault that your husband did this, your father. We need to live together, and my daughter may one day marry your grandson — how shall we live together?” That was why we went there.

But we couldn’t have that conversation if they were going to simply deny all knowledge of what their father did. So when I’m confronting them — mercilessly again! — with this old footage [proving they did know what their father, Amir Hassan, had done] it’s not to trap them in a lie. I was simply trying to get past the denial, so we could start to shoot the scene that we’d come to shoot.

And we utterly fail — they never acknowledge, they’re too afraid. Leaving that scene, they’re calling the police… and I left that scene feeling really frustrated because the scene we’d gone to shoot we hadn’t got. And only later I realized no, it’s exactly what is needed for the film.

Another director would have ended with the scene where the daughter apologizes on her father’s behalf so that you’d have a sense of hope. And there is that hope, and the film shows that. But to end with that would be a lie that doesn’t serve the survivors, it serves only the viewer, by making it easier.

By suggesting that everything’s going to be okay.
And it won’t. So I thought, no, let’s end with a total mess. So the film ends with this disaster [of a confrontation], and then there’s a kind of coda where we have the father crawling and the mother cries at the memory of that last night when she was forced to become complicit in her son’s murder.

It’s the night Amir Hassan came to her and said, “Give me your son, we’re taking him to the hospital.” She had to do it, because if she didn’t they would kill the whole family. But the only way she can make herself do it is momentarily to make herself believe the lie. But she feels residual guilt. And that’s the most awful thing Amir Hassan did, it’s this manipulative thing, that’s very practical in the moment, to make her complicit and feel guilty forever — that “hospital” story echoes in her head for fifty years.

And she keeps saying [to herself as though to her dead son] “I wanted to go with you. I’ll take you to the hospital. I knew they weren’t taking you to the hospital. I said take me with you, let me come…” It was the only time I ever saw her cry and the only time Adi ever saw her cry. She said she hadn’t cried since the year Ramli died.

But then there’s this little coda where she’s talking to the beans in her hand. And so I had the film end where every good life should end. I hope your life will end that way, and my life will end that way. And that’s with two things: with death, to be sure, but also with love. And that’s not to diminish the calamity that that final confrontation embodies, but it is to leave the viewer with an intimacy that at once makes the story universal and brings it into your own life.

You’ve said since that you know that you can probably never return to Indonesia. So as well as everything else, this film feels like a farewell. A cathartic one, I hope.
Yes, and thank you. “The Act of Killing” was emotionally frightening; “The Look of Silence” was frightening physically, but very healing emotionally. In collaboration with this family that I have such love for, through the making of the film, I was saying goodbye to Indonesia.

“The Look Of Silence” opens on Friday July 17th. See it.

Bonus: Listen to this 1 hour talk from The Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s Close-Up podcast.

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