Joshua Oppenheimer on Revisiting the Indonesian Genocide With His Harrowing New Film ‘The Look of Silence’

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Exactly two years ago I found myself simultaneously blown away and devastated by Joshua Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking documentary The Act of Killing. The now-Oscar-nominated film explored the perpetrators behind the Indonesian genocide that occurred in the mid-1960s, a mass murdering of communists and Chinese by the death squad leaders who ushered in a regime of fear over the nation. Oppenheimer’s film captured what happened when he asked the aged and psychologically troubled leaders to recreate their crimes in a highly theatrical and shocking way—resulting in their pleasure and our horrified astonishment. But after having spent nearly a decade in Indonesia, there was more than one story Oppenheimer wanted to tell, and with his companion piece The Look of Silence, we’re again given a raw and extremely personal look into the terrifying psyche of the men behind the genocide.

As we’ve previously noted, both films exist “in the dichotomy of pure evil without remorse and the denial of that villainy in order to survive, and the result is a brilliantly executed exploration into a horrifying truth never before uncovered.” The Look of Silence follows an optometrist named Adi, whose family was destroyed by the violent murder of his brother Ramli during the genocide. Here, Oppenheimer explores what happens when Adi confronts those who committed the heinous acts, the lies hidden under their veil of silence, and how it has destroyed his family and the community where these perpetrators are still in power. The effect is as profoundly disturbing as it is stunning—perhaps even more so than The Act of Killing, as the perpetrators are simply speaking as themselves and not acting. With this new work, Oppenheimer has created hugely important work and continues to prove himself to be one of best documentary filmmakers we have.

Last September, during the New York Film Festival, I had the chance to sit down with Oppenheimer for an in-depth discussion about his “poem of silence born from fear” and the life-changing experience of bringing The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence to life.

Since we last spoke about The Act of Killing you’ve been nominated for an Academy Award and the film has had a tremendous effect on the way the Indonesian government acknowledges what happened in 1965. Can you tell me about how things have changed for you in the last year?

I’m someone who’s surprised whenever anybody turns up to anything I made, so it’s been such an honor and beyond my wildest expectations. After we last spoke, The Act of Killing came out online for free in Indonesia, and then it was downloaded and seen millions of times. When the film was nominated for an Academy Award, then that actually led the government in Indonesia to acknowledge that what happened in 1965 was wrong. They stopped short of an apology, but simply said that they knew what they did was wrong. That was huge because it was the first time the government had ever acknowledged that. Meanwhile, I’ve spent all the time I wasn’t tending to The Act of Killing making The Look of Silence. I recently turned 40 so it’s very nice to conclude the first 40 years of my life with these two films. I should also acknowledge the hard work of all the many, many Indonesian intellectuals and writers and survivors who struggled to talk about what happened in 1965, and of course my anonymous Indonesian crew and Adi, without whom there would be no film. 

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When the credits rolled it was amazing to just see “Anonymous, anonymous, anonymous, anonymous…” 

In The Act of Killing, you have to imagine the threats we were hearing from the perpetrators while making this expose and how it might be dangerous for the crew. But with this film we actually hear the perpetrators threatening us and Adi again and again. So we understand exactly why everyone has to remain anonymous. 

As a filmmaker, how do you dissociate your fear and emotion behind the camera to tell this story subjectively?

You see the situation through two eyes. You’re very aware that, as the director, you have responsibility to manage risk, so you have to watch danger as it grows and ebbs, and then manage it. Sometimes I would stop the shooting for something technical just to let the pressure go. Sometimes I would interrupt and remind the perpetrator that maybe some of the questions we were asking were just devil’s advocate questions. I would do that if we still had a long way to go and I didn’t want to get cut off prematurely.

When Adi first told me, back in 2012, that he wanted to confront the perpetrators, I told him absolutely not because I couldn’t think of a way of doing it safely. He explained that he wanted to do this because he wanted the perpetrators to acknowledge what they did and acknowledge it was wrong in hopes that if they could admit what they did then they would no longer identify with the crime—he would be able to separate the human being who committed the atrocity from the atrocity itself and forgive the human being. He wanted to do that because he wanted to lift his family out of the trap of fear that comes with living surrounded by perpetrators; he would rather live surrounded by human beings. 

So when I understood that this was his intention—even if I thought from my experience with making The Act of Killing that it was unlikely the men would acknowledge what they did was wrong—I thought that if there was any way I could do this safely we should at least discuss it. I knew that because I made The Act of Killing but it had not yet been released, that these men thought I was close to the Vice President of the country who was in The Act of Killing and the head of their paramilitary, who was in the The Act of Killing. I knew they’d have second thoughts before they would make the decision to attack us physically.

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What precautions did you have to take when filmmaking?

I also knew that we would need to take some precautions, like Adi could go to the scene without an ID so that if he was detained maybe they wouldn’t figure out who he was by the time we could get help from the embassy. We could have his family at the airport ready to evacuate if anything went wrong. I could also shoot with only a Danish crew so that Adi, and no other Indonesians, would be exposed to potential violence that would come. We brought a getaway vehicle so that we could leave without being followed. So there were all sorts of things we could do to make the shoot safer. You’re constantly aware and responsible for monitoring risk, and maybe that makes you fear less.

You also then have the director’s eye of seeing the threats coming and recognizing that Adi is crossing so many boundaries. He’s literally saying the unsayable, and he’s doing something unprecedented—not just in Indonesia, but in documentary. I don’t think there has ever been another documentary where survivors confront perpetrators while the perpetrators are still in power. There was this beautiful documentary from Cambodia called S-21 where survivors confront perpetrators, but the perpetrators had been removed from power at that point. You never see that because it’s usually too dangerous. But because I made The Act of Killing, we had this peculiar opportunity, and an unprecedented opportunity—who else has done something like that? 

The men in this film are at the end of their lives. They have the same beliefs they’ve always had, they’re still repressing any emotion, and here you come and make them talk about these things and have that exposed to them in such a way that no one has done before. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were thinking, ‘I’ve thought I’d really gotten away with this or gotten away with my whole life and finally someone is coming to do this’—or perhaps their way of thinking is too corrupt to even experience that.

That’s an interesting thought, and when you put it that way I pity the men. There are many times in the film where the truth comes out somehow, and it’s not without trauma and not without ambivalence on my part. There’s a moment when Adi tells his mother that her brother was involved in killing her son, and she repeats again and again, “I didn’t know, I didn’t know.” You begin to think maybe she had to know but couldn’t live with thinking it or acknowledging it. You can see on Adi’s face—I think quite clearly—that he’s wondering: Maybe I’ve gone too far, maybe I shouldn’t have told my mother this. I had the exact same thought as I was shooting this close-up of his face, and his eyes are going back and forth and wondering, “Have I gone too far?” So the film inevitably became a poem to this trauma and this silence born from fear, and to the necessity of breaking that silence and to Adi who breaks it. 

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When did you know that in addition to Adi confronting the perpetrators you wanted to explore what this silence has done to his family as well?

I knew that the fundamental question of the film is not what happens when you confront the perpetrators with what they did—in a sense, that was one of the questions in The Act of Killing. But the question here was: what did it do to a life, to a human being, to a bod, to a relationship between mother and son or husband and wife, and to a family? What does it do to your life to have to live everyday in a trauma and fear that’s so present and so constant that you can never work through the events that have destroyed your life? What is it like to not be able to heal because you’re too afraid to talk about the traumatic events that caused the wound? So to do that, I wanted to focus on the little details. How has that silence and terror shaped the wrinkles on Adi’s mother’s brow and how is it present in the water that flows down his father’s ancient body’s skin?

Did you know that his father would come to act as this physical manifestation of pain? 

Yes, that idea became clear to me pretty early on in the shooting. I’d given Adi a camera because I knew we would make this film together and I wanted him to be thinking about what images in his family most embodied their predicament and what exactly this fear and silence had done to his family. In the film there’s only one scene that he actually shot, and it’s a very short scene during the end of Ramadan. The whole family as around and there’s this scene where his father is lost, crawling around in the house. I wasn’t present when he shot that scene but Adi explained to me that his father was confused and raving all day in his advancing dementia. Adi spent the whole day comforting him but he was inconsolable. When Adi felt he couldn’t comfort him anymore and that nothing was working, he felt all he could do, and the only loving thing he could do, was to bear witness. He felt that here was father and he’s now forgotten the son whose murder destroyed his life, but he hasn’t forgotten the fear. He’s trapped in this fear and he will never get out of that prison of fear because he can no longer remember the event that caused it—he’s lost the key and can’t even find the lock.

So that image of the human manifestation of the prison of fear was exactly what all of those carefully composed, hopeful and poetic moments with the family are meant to evoke, and are building up to. The whole movie is building up to, just like in The Act of Killing the whole movie is building up to that final scene with Anwar on the roof where he retches or the final tableau of the fish where they’re dancing. If you say there’s this family trapped in fear, well why are they afraid? What those confrontations between Adi and the perpetrators are really doing is showing the contours of a rule of terror; they’re making it visible. When Adi challenges the power, you see the power.

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Adi is asking these questions that have never asked before and risking his life at every moment, yet he’s outwardly so calm and collected. How did you two prepare together and plan out exactly how these confrontations would carry out?

He wasn’t rehearsed, but we did talk about what he was trying to do, what he was trying to do with a scene, what does he want from this man, what does he want to confront them with, and why? We use the eye testing as a device to disarm the perpetrator, because whenever you’re being tested or looked after by someone medical, there’s a shift in power, a vulnerability, and an intimacy. So we thought that would prevent any early eruptions of anger and violence. We also thought we could use the first part of those confrontations to let the perpetrator tell what he had done, and Adi could prolong the eye test for as long as necessary to make sure the whole story, such as we understood it from the old footage, had come out. Then it became this powerful metaphor for Adi trying to help people see who are willfully blind. Adi’s calmness and composure just stems from a very deep dignity and empathy, and a deep inner calm that he has, which is pretty amazing. 

There are moments in the film that give you a knot in your stomach because they’re so harrowing and completely terrifying. But then there are also these moments between Adi and his family that are so tender, and even humorous at times—like when he asks his father how old he is and he says he’s 16. When I saw the film initially the audience laughed at that moment, so to have that juxtaposition from moment to moment is fascinating to me but I imagine difficult to pull off.

I really wanted the film to end with two things. Of course politically it ends in a total mess where this family is furious at me. There’s this little glimmer of hope in the daughter who has the dignity to apologize on her father’s beheld, but the film’s political story ends in this mess. The family says, “We used to like you Josh, but now we hate you, and this whole thing is going to end badly.” In fact, after that scene they were calling the police and I had to take the phone away and ask them to wait until we left to call the police—which isn’t really something you tell someone in that position. But anyway, it ends in this mess because you cannot have truth and reconciliation until there’s real social change and a political process—truth and reconciliation cannot be a one-man band.

To go back to what you said about tenderness, I felt that tenderness commemorates the fragility of life somehow, and is in opposition to the disregard which the killers held for the living. I wanted the film to end in its little epilogue where every good life will end, and where I hope your life will end, with two things: death, but also love. For me, that was the most important part of the conception of the film and its ending and the role of the family.

I can’t imagine watching this film without having seen The Act of Killing. Both films are extremely visceral and haunting experiences but in The Look of Silence the violence and terror was much more present and immediate. In a way, The Act of Killing was a good introduction to this frightening landscape.

I like that you called it an “introduction” because I see the two films as companion pieces to each other and the two films really sit side by side. I’m discovering now that a lot of people are seeing The Look of Silence first, but I hope they’re both mutually illuminating. It’s very important that, in contrast to The Act of Killing’s baroque fever dream, there’s this kind of restraint in the second film. They’re formally very different but absolutely complimentary.

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One of the most disturbing scenes in the film is when the two old perpetrators are down by the river reenacting how they murdered Ramli. But then when you see them interact with one another it’s so compassionate, and they’re picking flowers. Why was it important to show those kind of moments in the film?

That horrible afternoon of having the two men go down to the river, that was the genesis of both movies. That was the afternoon when I realized that this is as though the Nazis had won. I thought, this is how aging SS officers from nearby villages might speak to each other. I shot that in 2003 or 2004 and until that point I’d only filmed perpetrators alone. So one of the things I did on that shoot was bring together two perpetrators who scarcely knew each other but were involved with killing people at Snake River and see how they spoke to each other. Did they warn each other not to talk to me? Were they circumspect? Were they trying to one-up each other or are they boasting to each other? What really horrified me was that they were speaking from a common script, a script born of impunity and a language honed over the decades. It was flourishing in the present and revealing something about the present in their continued power. I saw everything there. I saw the performativity and the fact that they—

That they helped each other so gently.

I think you’re responding to something I also saw there, which was their humanity. I go looking for monsters and find human beings who were tender with each other—perhaps shadowing Anwar and his tenderness with his grandchildren or the ducks. Speaking to that humanity: every act of evil that’s ever been committed in our history has been committed by human beings, so what does it mean if we really take that seriously? Their humanity is a precondition for all of The Act of Killing, and it’s also a precondition for what Adi’s trying to do in The Look of Silence; he’s trying to get them to acknowledge what they did was wrong so that he can forgive the human being. When I shot that scene I knew it would take many years of my lie to address the situation. I set aside all the different projects I was developing to continue in Indonesia. I just stopped everything and focused on this for a decade. From that moment on I knew there would be two films: one about the perpetrators and escapism and fantasy and guilt and denial, then one about what it means for the survivors who have to live surrounded by these men.

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From the time you started on this project a decade ago to both films now being released, do you feel like you’re a different person as well as a different filmmaking having gone through the making of these two movies?

I’ve learned filmmaking through doing this. In university I learned only to blaze my own path and to follow my heart. I had a totally anarchic and wild mentor, Dusan Makavejev, who made some of the strangest, weirdest films ever made, films like Sweet Movie and WR: Mysteries of the Organism. He was my mentor and he inspired me to explore the interface between documentary and fiction—but he didn’t give me a model to follow, the only model being pushing boundaries and exploring and being wild and rigorous; Dusan was always rigorous. I developed my own take on what a nonfiction film can be, and what it must be. What are the ethical and aesthetic demands of the camera when we’re filming real people playing themselves? That differs from what I’ve seen in many other films, and I developed that totally through this process and this project. I have inspirations, I have influences, and I’ve become myself as filmmaker through this. Recently, a friend of mine showed me a video of me at 13-years-old, and I was expecting to see someone unrecognizable, but I saw this child, this prepubescent person at 12 or 13, whatever my age was, yet with totally with the same stupid sense of humor I have today and the same mannerisms. It was so strange, it was like looking in the mirror. So we also don’t change as much as we like to think. I don’t know if you’ve had any uncanny encounter like that your own past, but it’s weird. 

What comes next for you?

I’m interested in taking what I’ve learned from the The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence into a totally new context, possibly back here in the United States. I’m looking at the collective lies and fantasies that underpin who we are, and I’m looking at positive thinking and the American dream on one hand, and anxiety and fear of death on the other hand as this kind of strange shadow.  But how I approach this, it’s too early to say. I don’t really look for a topic, I look for themes and people who embody my obsessions—living metaphors for my obsessions—and then look for in those people, ones with whom I can take a very insightful and transformative journey as I did with Adi and I did with Anwar too. So there will be a long research process.