Joshua Oppenheimer discusses his collaboration with Adi Rukun, the importance of empathy, and the magical realist landscape and soundscape of his Oscar-nominated documentary The Look of Silence. This is an excerpt from the ebook In Their Own Words: Documentary Masters Vol. 1. To read the full interview, purchase a copy of the ebook here.
Is it possible to confront the men who murdered your older brother in such a way that facilitates dialogue and reconciliation? It’s a feat that would require someone with enormous empathy. But this is precisely what Adi, an Indonesian friend of documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer, felt he needed to do after seeing the footage from Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. In his remarkable new film, The Look of Silence, the director follows Adi as he seeks out the men responsible for his older brother Ramli’s death to give them an opportunity to repent. If they admitted their wrongdoings, Adi felt, “he could forgive them. He would be able to reconcile his family with the families of the perpetrators living around him. In that way, his children would not have to grow up anymore afraid of their neighbours.”
In 1965, the Indonesian military dictatorship mobilized civilians to exterminate the country’s communists, amounting to over 1 million murders. Anyone opposed to the military dictatorship at the time could be labelled a “communist,” including union members, landless farmers, and intellectuals. Remarkably, the perpetrators continue to remain in power, creating a culture of fear and silence. In The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer filmed the perpetrators as they boastfully re-enacted their killings. In The Look of Silence, he revisits the men responsible for Ramli’s death with Adi to film their encounters with “precision and intimacy.”
Oppenheimer recalls that the first time he showed Adi footage from The Act of Killing, “Adi had very much the same reaction as he has in the movie, which we shot in 2012. I originally shot that material in 2003. I remember Adi saying, as he says in the film, ‘He must feel so guilty, otherwise he wouldn’t need to feel so numb.’ Whereas I remember feeling, as I’m sure the audience feels, that this man’s a monster.” Oppenheimer admiringly continued, “That instinct to empathize and understand and see everyone as a human being is something that defines who Adi is and that I learned from Adi, actually.”That instinct to empathize and understand and see everyone as a human being is something that defines who Adi is and that I learned from Adi, actually.Click To Tweet
I was struck by how calm and composed Adi remains throughout all of his interactions with the perpetrators. “Adi is a man who never really gets angry. You have to push him very hard,” explained Oppenheimer. But this doesn’t let the perpetrators off the hook. Instead, Oppenheimer reasoned, “I think it makes it harder for the perpetrators. Adi goes with this humanizing gaze, refusing to see them as anything other than human, showing that he’s willing to forgive. They’re forced to return Adi’s calm, humanizing, understanding gaze. They’re forced to see him as a human being and to realize that, by extension, Ramli is a human being, too. All of their victims were human beings. Consequently, all of the lies they’ve told themselves demonizing their victims are lies. As that armour shatters and crumbles and falls away, you see them desperate, defenseless, scrambling for new lies to protect themselves. You see them panic. You see them get angry. You also see them create new forms of denial, denying responsibility that just moments earlier they were declaiming.”
Oppenheimer predicted that the perpetrators would not be able to ”find the courage to say what they did was wrong. Instead, I [thought] they [were] going to panic in response to Adi’s gaze.” So the challenge, Oppenheimer said, was to find a way to capture the emotions behind the confrontations to ”make visible the prison of fear in which everyone in Indonesia is living” so that anyone who sees The Look of Silence would support “truth, reconciliation, and justice.” In this way, they could succeed “through the film as a whole, in a much bigger way, where we might fail in these individual confrontations.”
To read the rest of the interview with Joshua Oppenheimer on The Look of Silence, purchase a copy of the ebook In Their Own Words: Documentary Masters Vol. 1 here.