Joshua Oppenheimer Discusses ‘The Look Of Silence,’ His Gut-Wrenching Sequel To ‘The Act Of Killing’

In The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar nominated documentary on the 1965 genocide in Indonesia, we meet the memorable Anwar Congo, the former gangster who boasts about the ways he murdered a thousand innocent men and women in Indonesia’s communist community. He seemingly has no regrets and is proud of his actions. But, by the end of the film, he is gagging over the reality of what he has done.

Where The Act of Killing introduces us to the perpetrators who casually and disturbingly demonstrate they ways they killed many people, the acclaimed documentary’s follow up, The Look of Silence, introduces us to Adi, brother of Ramli, one of the more well-known victims of the genocide. Connecting victim to perpetrators, Oppenheimer accompanies Adi, an optometrist, to confront the men who took a part in the killing of his brother, all while Adi gives them eye exams and as many pairs of spectacles as they desire. While checking their eyesight, he also asks deep questions about what they have done, with the hope that they will realize their actions are nothing to boast about. The L.A. Times calls The Look of Silence “a shocking and significant film… a documentary that will make a difference in the world.”

I spoke with Oppenheimer about the next chapter of this story, how he met Adi and why he will never return to Indonesia.

When you were filming The Act of Killing, did you know you were going to have a follow up with The Look of Silence?

Yes, I always knew that The Act of Killing was the first of two films that together would form a single work. I don’t think either film is about the 1965 genocide; neither film is a historical documentary. Both are about what happens when the perpetrators win and when there’s nothing remotely like justice. The Look of Silence, complements [The Act of Killing’s] exploration of impunity by asking, What does it do to human beings to have to live for half a century afraid? What does it do specifically for survivors that have to re-build their lives surrounded by this still powerful man who murdered their loved ones, who are unable to grieve, unable to mourn because they can’t even speak about what happened? That’s The Look of Silence.

At what point did you meet Adi?

I met Adi a full nine years before we started making The Look of Silence. I met Adi in 2003, I had been working with plantation workers on a Belgian-owned oil-palm plantation in North Sumatra. They were dying because the Belgian company was making them spray pesticides and herbicides with no protective clothing. And one of the herbicides was so toxic that the mist would get into their lungs and their blood stream, and eventually their liver, and it would dissolve their liver tissue and kill them. The plantation workers finished making the film that they were making with me. I was running a film making workshop with them. After they finished they said, “Come back and why don’t you make the film about why we’re still afraid? About what it’s like for us to live with the perpetrators still in power and consequently with the fear that this could happen again.”

I returned right away to start that work and was immediately introduced to Ramli’s family because Ramli was the one victim in that region whose murder had witnesses. At first, I was introduced to Ramli’s mother and father. I fell in love with them both immediately. Ramli’s father was not yet suffering from dementia and was very eager for a film to be made. Ramli’s mother would insist that I speak to Adi. She would just say, “You must meet Adi. He was born two years after Ramli died and because I had him I was able to continue living. He talks like Ramli, he looks like Ramli, he acts like Ramli, he has the same body language as Ramli. You must meet him and then you’ll understand what I lost.” She called him to the village, and I met this young man who was born after the killings and consequently wasn’t as traumatized as the rest of his family.

And, from there, when did you realize he should be the focus of the second film?

When I came back to make The Look of Silence, I didn’t know Adi would be the main character in the film. I think we knew that he would be a key collaborator. He had spent seven years, the whole time, I was filming the perpetrators, watching my footage. He said, “I’ve spent all this time watching your footage with the perpetrators and I need to meet them. I need to confront the man who killed my brother.” And I instantly said, “Absolutely not. It’s too dangerous.” And Adi said, “Well, I feel that if I go to them not seeking revenge, not out of anger, they will realize that this is a long, un-consciously, hopeful opportunity for them to stop their manic boasting, to accept what they’ve done to find some semblance of peace. They’ll apologize and I’ll forgive, and then my children will be able to inherit a world where they’re not afraid of their neighbors the way my parents and I have been.” I warned him, “I don’t think we will get the apology you’re hoping for.” I explained to him that I spent five years working with Anwar Congo [for The Act of Killing] and at the end of that process, he’s retching over what he’s done. But he can’t get himself to admit, even then, consciously and consistently that it was wrong.

I said to him, “Adi, if I’m able to film with precision and humanity the reaction of the perpetrator— the panic, the guilt, the fear of their own guilt—if I can show that, I will be able to show how torn the social fabric of Indonesia is and make it impossible for anybody who is in Indonesia, or abroad who see’s the film, not to support truth, reconciliation, and justice. And, therefore, we may succeed through the film as a whole where we fail in the individual confrontations.” So, that’s how Adi became the main character.

It’s interesting, too, that Adi talks to perpetrators while giving them eye tests. Was that decided on as a strategy to be able to talk to then? Or was it a way to juxtapose those deeper questions, to have Adi ask them something very serious then right after ask, “So, which lens is better for you?”

I understood that it would be a very powerful metaphor for him to be testing the eyes of the men that he’s confronting because, of course, they would be telling stories about what they’d done in such a way that it would reveal an innate and profound moral blindness. Here’s this man trying to help people see who are blind, willfully blind. I realized that in that juxtaposition that you’re talking about, this contrast between the doomed attempt to help these men see and the things they’re saying, we would have this metaphor for blindness. But the eye tests were not a way of getting access. I initially realized it would help make the scene safer. They helped keep the scene safe because, when you’re having your eyes tested, or you are being examined by a doctor, you’re disarmed. You’re not likely to get violent. And also, the eye test was a context that Adi could prolong for as long as necessary in which the perpetrators would reveal crucial details of what they’d done, which they revealed to me seven or eight years earlier.

I’m curious about a moment you two had with a perpetrator’s family. Where the perpetrator’s sons tells you, “I use to like you Joshua and I don’t like you anymore.” What did you make of his comment? Did it make you question what you and Adi were doing?

That was a unique situation. Our intention for that scene was Adi would go and say, “You know who I am. I know who you are. It’s not your fault.” They were from the same village. They would know that Adi was Ramli’s brother, or they were very likely to know that. And then, “It’s not your fault what your father did,” he said. “We have to live together. We have to find a way of living together.” And yet because they knew who Adi was, I think, they did this unimaginable thing, which was deny knowing about what the father had done. So, I’m showing them this old footage not in order to humiliate them or punish them for this lie, or even out of anger, but I’m trying to simply get past this absurd denial so that we could have the dialogue for which we had come. And we couldn’t get there. They did this very human thing of once they had been caught in a lie they stuck to it. And, in fact, that was one of the only scenes that we had to escape from. The older of the two brothers called the police at the end and I left very upset.

It’s interesting to see that, and how right before that scene—when you visit another perpetrator and his daughter—you have the complete opposite experience. Where this woman tells Adi they are family.

That’s right. She finds the humanity and dignity to apologize on her father’s behalf. Which I’m not sure if I would have the courage to do. I imagine if someone came into my home and filmed my father, and my father told me those kind of things, all my allusions about him are shattered. I mean, we see her face collapse while she realizes that her father’s not the man she hopes he was. And that she will have to spend the rest of his life carrying for a man who now, in some terrible way, is a stranger. She becomes very still I think in response to Adi’s very humanizing gaze. It’s one of the most beautiful and delicate things I’ve ever seen.

Another powerful scene is when Adi’s father is wandering around his own home lost, what made you decide to film that moment?

That’s the only scene in the film that Adi shot, and, actually, he showed me that scene before we started shooting the rest of the film. I had given him a camera after I finished shooting The Act of Killing for images that would inspire the second film while I was editing The Act of Killing. He shot that scene and played it for me to say, “Look, my father is trapped in a prison of fear. He’s forgotten the son who’s murder destroyed his life, but he hasn’t forgotten the fear.” Apparently, on that day, his father was lost crawling through the house all day. In the moment he filmed he said, “I’m filming because this is the day it became too late for my father to heal.”

What’s the response been like when you screen the film in Indonesia? Is it ever difficult to coordinate those screenings?

The film has had a wide and profound effect in Indonesia. The first screening was held in Indonesia’s largest theatre, a venue for 1,500 people. Three thousand people came because they put billboards around Jakarta announcing the screening. There were two screenings so everyone could see the film. Adi was at both screenings and received a 15-minute standing ovation at the end. When the film came out a month later, on the first day, there were 500 screenings around the country. After a few months of these public wide community screenings, there was a backlash where the military pressured the Film Censorship Board to ban the film for commercial screening. That led to an outrage across the Indonesian media. Military also started hiring thugs to threaten to attack screenings and using this as an excuse to demand, in the name of public safety, that screenings be cancelled. That continued for a little while. Thirty screenings were cancelled that way until a group of students barricaded themselves at their University campus and went ahead with the screening despite that. That kind of threat and canceling of screenings ended. That stopped. So, there is some backlash, but, by and large, the film has now screened over 3,500 times. Soon, it will come out online and be seen by millions of people. Adi is seen by many in Indonesia as a national hero for his work on this film.

With Adi as such a public figure now through the film, why keep so many other Indonesians involved in the film anonymous?

My crew remains anonymous because the resources it takes to protect Adi and his family involves five people working full time, and another team of 20 people working on a voluntary basis or part-time. And that, of course, is a tremendous work, and we would be unable to do that if all of our crew was equally public. So, there’s a tremendous cause for hope that a national call for truth and reconciliation, the government has introduced a Truth and Reconciliation bill. It is woefully inadequate, but it would be an important start. And yet, at the same time, there’s a shadow state of gangsters, paramilitary group, and the military, especially, that continue to operate with impunity and make it too dangerous for me to return to Indonesia.

So, you can’t go back.

No, I think I could get into the country, but I don’t know if I would get out alive again. And Adi does not receive threats. The film has been out for eight months in Indonesia, Adi has not received any threats. But I continue to receive pretty regular threats. Now, I presume it’s from the henchman of some of the most powerful men in The Act of Killing who are really powerful indeed.

At what point did you meet Werner Herzog and Errol Morris to executive produce both films?

Errol first saw clips from The Act of Killing back in 2009 and was very eager to be involved. I met with him and showed them to him when we were still finishing the shooting of the film, and he does what he always does, which is to ask enlightening questions. When he saw a rough cut of The Look of Silence, he declared that he liked it even more than The Act of Killing and wanted to also lend his name to it. And, of course, we wanted that because Errol is one of the great inspirations for me as a filmmaker.

Werner came on much later after finishing the editing of the director’s cut, the un-cut version of The Act of Killing, we managed to get in a copy of the film through my British executive producer who produces and executive produces some of Werner’s documentaries and he called me out of the blue and said these beautiful things about the film and said, “Well, what are you doing now?” And I said, “Well I’m making a shorter version for the U.S. theatrical release because it seems that the economy of American cinema is such that they can’t play a documentary that is two hours and 40 minutes long. And he became very quiet and said in a very calm voice, “It is a crime to shorten this film.” And he hung up on me.

When he hung up, I thought, “Well, it’s like a beautiful dream, then you wake up from it, and then you’re back to your normal life.” He called back 10 minutes later and said he spoke to his wife and she could understand why, even though it would make the film weaker, it would be good for as many Americans as possible to see the film, at least a part of it. He offered to look at successive cuts of the shorter version, and, through that process, we became close friends, almost like family. He’s been supportive throughout the process, apart from that one wobble when he hung up on me.

(The Look of Silence opens nationwide on July 24.)