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Daring to Disturb the Sound of Silence: Oppenheimer Returns to Indonesia

By Marc Glassman

Editor's note: Over the next few weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the films that have been honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with an Oscar® nomination in the documentary category. You can see The Look of Silence on Saturday, February 27 at DocuDay, the IDA's daylong celebration with back-to-back screenings of the nominees at the Writers Guild of America Theater. This article was first published in the Summer 2015 issue of Documentary magazine.

From Joshua Oppenheimer's 'The Look of Silence.' Courtesy of Drafthouse Films

With the North American theatrical release of Joshua Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence coming up this summer, it's time to look at what this intensely intellectual filmmaker has already accomplished in his career. The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer's previous film, is one of those rare works that transforms a society and reveals truths to a world. It exposed the genocide that took place in 1965 and '66 when, in the wake of Suharto's coup that ousted Sukarno, nearly a million people—accused of Communism—were killed.

With descendants of Suharto's regime still effectively in power, it took great courage on the part of Oppenheimer and his crew to make The Act of Killing. The fact that the film went on to be nominated for an Oscar and garner the British BAFTA, European Film and Asia Pacific Awards seems almost superfluous to what Oppenheimer's documentary achieved towards creating an honest discourse in Indonesia.

It's an accomplishment that the filmmaker understandably relishes. "The Act of Killing helped to catalyze a fundamental transformation in how Indonesia talks about its past," he acknowledges. "The media now talks about the genocide as a genocide; they talk very honestly about the legacy of the killings for the present, which is really what The Act of Killing is about; they talk about the terrible thuggery, impunity, corruption and fear that has become the country's political system in the wake of the killings, and the impunity for the perpetrators—indeed, the power of the perpetrators. That national conversation replaced the silence."

But what about that silence—the oppressive lack of naming fundamental ills in a culture for nearly half a century? Oppenheimer has been haunted by that vast quietude since he first learned about the holocaust while making The Globalisation Tapes, a community-oriented project with macro-economic ramifications, in 2001. It inspired him to make not only The Act of Killing, in which Anwar Congo eventually comes to realize the moral implications of the murders he committed in the name of Suharto, but also The Look of Silence, in which Adi, a gentle optometrist, confronts the perpetrators of his brother Raml's death during that horrific time.

From Joshua Oppenheimer's 'The Look of Silence.' Courtesy of Drafthouse Films

"I returned to Indonesia in 2003," Oppenheimer recalls, "and very quickly realized that the workers wanted me to make a film that was, thematically at least, very close to what The Look of Silence became: a film about what it's like for the survivors to live surrounded by the still-powerful perpetrators—afraid of them—and to live in fear that the perpetrators could do this to them at any time. Very quickly I was introduced to Ramli's family, and the reason for that is that his name was virtually synonymous with the genocide across that whole region, because his murder had witnesses. Everyone else had just been taken away in the dead of night and murdered, their bodies thrown into rivers to drift out to sea, never to be heard from again. But Ramli had resisted. People saw him resisting; he ran home; people found his body in the plantation. So to speak about Ramli was to insist that these events that had traumatized everybody—that the army had threatened everybody into pretending never occurred—had really taken place.

"It was inevitable that I was introduced to Ramli's family right away," Oppenheimer continues. "I met his parents; I sort of fell in love with his mother and father immediately—his father wasn't yet suffering from dementia, and was very active in trying to make a film about this with us. He wanted to redeem the good name of his murdered son. And very quickly, they introduced me to Adi, who was unique because he was born after the killings. He was seen by his family as a replacement of this man whose name was repeated again and again across the region as an act of resistance, and yet Adi really had never known what had happened. His parents had been too afraid to tell him in any detail what had happened, because they didn't want him to get in trouble by talking about it with others in school during this time of dictatorship. So he latched onto my filmmaking process as a way of trying to find answers to these questions about which he was desperately curious: What happened to his family, what happened to his community, what happened to his country?"

As Oppenheimer reflects back on his process of making both Killing and Silence, it becomes clear that the films are inextricably bound. To him, "They're very precisely complementary to each other."

Adi, the protagonist in Joshua Oppenheimer's 'The Look of Silence.' Courtesy of Drafthouse Films

He continues: "The army threatened the survivors not to participate in the film. Adi in particular, but all of the survivors more or less, said, ‘Please don't give up; try to film the perpetrators because you may find out what happened.' I was afraid to film the perpetrators at first, but when I did I found that all of them were immediately boastful about the worst details of the killings. When I showed that to Adi and to the other survivors who wanted to see it, they all said, ‘You must continue to film the perpetrators, because anyone who sees this will finally be forced to acknowledge it'—not so much that something terrible happened here in 1965, but that there's still something terrible still going on.

"I then spent seven years filming the perpetrators, in constant dialogue with the survivors—and particularly in constant dialogue with Adi, showing Adi everything I had time to show him," he continues. "He was transformed by that, and started, as an optometrist who would go door-to-door testing people's eyes, to seek out older patients just so that he could ask them what they remember of the killings. He was changing as a result of that, and when I returned in 2012, after editing The Act of Killing, but before releasing it—I knew I couldn't return to Indonesia once The Act of Killing premiered—I knew Adi would be my main collaborator. But I didn't know that he would be my main character until he said, 'I need to meet the perpetrators who killed my brother,' and explained that he needed to confront them in the hope that they would apologize, and then his family would find a way out of this track of fear."

Oppenheimer is clearly the kind of individual who sees metaphors in his life's work. Was he excited by the fact that Adi was an optometrist?

"It was very powerful," he admits. "But you know, metaphor is something that grows. I realized that his work would serve a practical function in the confrontations. It was very important that the perpetrators volunteer to Adi all of the important details just as they had volunteered them to my cameras seven or eight years before. All of the perpetrators in The Look of Silence are people I had filmed before I met Anwar; none of them were in The Act of Killing. It was very important because Adi could of course come to them and say, 'I heard what you said to Joshua seven years ago.' But then they would immediately feel trapped into talking about something that perhaps they didn't want to talk about, so I knew that an eye test would be disarming for them. When you sit in a dentist's chair or a barber's chair, you're vulnerable a bit, you're unlikely to react with violence.

From Joshua Oppenheimer's 'The Look of Silence.' Courtesy of Drafthouse Films

"It's also a context where people naturally chat," he continues. "And it's something that Adi could prolong for as long as necessary until all the important details about the killings that they had told me years before in my old footage had come out directly to Adi. And so it served a practical function, but I also understood that it would be a very powerful metaphor to see these men who we've seen boasting about atrocities in the old footage revealing fragments or pieces of the same stories with these bright, shock-red lenses on their eyes—men who seem willfully blind to the moral meaning of what they've done, speaking to someone whose profession it is to help people see."

Some festival reviewers have criticized The Look of Silence for its less overtly stylish approach to the Indonesian killings. Many had reveled in Anwar Congo's nearly operatic performance in The Act of Killing and were hoping for more transgressive material in the new film. The metaphor of Adi's profession and Oppenheimer's choice to show the perpetrators' revelations through close-ups of the heavy red lenses of an optometrist are the most distinctly "filmic" moments in The Look of Silence.

Oppenheimer sees the films as two works that flow together. "Making The Look of Silence—which I knew I would be doing from the very beginning—I wanted to take the viewers and place them in that haunted silence that punctuates the uncut Act of Killing, and create a physical-emotional immersion there, so that you would feel what it is like to be a survivor and to have to rebuild your life, to continue living for 50 years, unable to grieve, unable to heal because you're unable to speak about the traumatic past. What does 50 years of fear and silence do to our humanity?"

As for Adi's quest for an apology, Oppenheimer concedes, "I understood that Adi was likely to fail in that attempt, that the perpetrators would not find the courage to abandon the boastful justification of what they've done, because then they would have to live with their own consciences. My work with Anwar Congo and the men around him while making The Act of Killing taught me as much. I expected, rather, that they would respond as they do—with threats, with anger, with fear—and that we would reach an impasse, but I felt that by documenting that impasse we would be showing viscerally the challenge that Indonesia faces. We would be showing just how torn the social fabric in Indonesia is, and just how urgently needed that truth, reconciliation, justice and healing are for Indonesia. And I felt that where Adi would fail in the scenes he would succeed in the film because he's doing something absolutely unprecedented in Indonesia: confronting a perpetrator as a survivor. It's also unprecedented in the history of documentaries, in the sense that there had never been a documentary film where survivors confront perpetrators while the perpetrators still retain a monopoly on power, because to do so is too dangerous."


Based in Toronto, Marc Glassman is editor of Point of View magazine and Montage magazine.