in conversation with Joshua Oppenheimer
Can art help us to see ourselves clearly? four by three talks to Joshua Oppenheimer about The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, giving an insight into how to break an imposing silence of fear and guilt through cinema.
Joshua Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence is the impressive companion piece to The Act of Killing, which won over 60 awards around the world. Both films open up space and time for the perpetrators of the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide to look at themselves anew, exposing their fractured humanity to their families, neighbours and the world. In The Look of Silence a family of survivors discovers not only how their son was murdered, but as well the identities of his killers. This award-winning documentary focuses on the family's youngest son Adi, who makes possible the seemingly impossible: breaking fifty years of visible blindness and audible muteness.
Oppenheimer's sincerity, dedication and compassion enables The Look of Silence to be an unforgettable journey into and outside our own individual conscience; our uniting, as well as alienating, national and international social conscience. The result is a most genuine poem about Adi's dedication to break a detrimental silence, thereby exposing one of the most horrible atrocities in the 20th century, while asking nothing less than what it means to be human, what it means to fear and to be guilty.
How does The Look of Silence relate to your last award-winning documentary The Act of Killing? Why have you started this extensive and arguably dangerous project and what has changed since these two documentaries have been released?
Joshua Oppenheimer: The Look of Silence and The Act of Killing are companion pieces that complete one another, forming a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts – at least this is what I hoped to achieve. These two films explore complementary aspects of present day impunity. I first went to Indonesia for a different reason, but I found myself in a village of survivors who were living in fear and under deplorable conditions. They were afraid, as their parents and grandparents had been killed in the genocide of 1965 and feared, as the perpetrators were still in power, that this could happen to them again at any point in time. I had this awful feeling about the situation that I had stumbled upon, so I started working with the survivors, while the army threatened them to not participate in the filming. However, they suggested that I should film the perpetrators instead. When I started filming them, I discovered that they were boastful, pretending to be proud of what they had done. At first I believed that they were actually proud, but then I realized that this was just a defence mechanism. I had this awful feeling at some point, in fact during a scene which can be found in The Look of Silence, in which two men take me down to a river, taking turns playing a different perpetrator, demonstrating how they killed, giving the illusion to be proud of what they had done. I felt as if I was walking into Germany forty years after the Holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power. If the rest of the world had celebrated the Holocaust whilst it was taking place, so that ageing SS officers could speak without shame of what they had done to an outsider and that horrible experience with the realization, that this is not the exception to the norm. The situation I encountered isn't some kind of science fiction scenario, but actually the rule across much of the Global South, which led me to stop everything else I was doing and determine to spend as many years as it would take to address this situation. Here I am talking about impunity, which I feel is the story of our times.
The Act of Killing came first to Indonesia, which subsequently opened the space for The Look of Silence. These two films have come to Indonesia like the child in the emperor’s new clothes. The Act of Killing shows the lies and stories that the perpetrators have left everybody afraid, which enabled enormous corruption, thuggery and intimidation. The Look of Silence has come into that space, making visible something every Indonesian experiences and lives each and every day – namely the prison of fear, even the abyss of fear, the guilt and the fear of guilt from the perpetrator, which divides neighbour from neighbour and relative from relative, sometimes alienating people from their own past, which in turn means from alienating them from themselves. The Act of Killing opened the space for The Look of Silence to helped catalyse a transformation in how the media and public talk about their past. The mainstream media now talk about a genocide and a crime against humanity, whereas before they were silent or talked about the heroic extermination of the Indonesian left. However, now the public talks with openness about the present day legacy of the horror, the corruption and fear that I have briefly outline, as well as the ongoing threat of violence and impunity. Due to The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence has received a far wider release, as suddenly the whole country was able to talk about it. Whereas the first film began its life in secret, The Look of Silence has been released by two government bodies, the National Human Rights Commission and the Jakarta Human Rights Council. It has screened already over 3500 times. 500 screenings took place on the first day of the release – all public. Roughly a month before its official release, they put billboards around Jakarta announcing the preview screening of The Look of Silence. Over 3000 people came, which was double the capacity of the theater, so they had to put on two screenings. Adi was there and received a long standing ovation from an audience, who could not believe the extent and depth of his dignity and his courage. Both films have shown just how torn the social fabric is and how urgent truth and reconciliation are needed to inspire Indonesians to take forward the struggle for it.
Deception about the past, as well as about the present, is at all times present during both films, not just on an individual, but as well on a collective level. What insights have you gained into the human condition, its depth and limitations, since you started this project?
JO: Maybe one of the most important things I have learned is that the human capacity for evil depends entirely on our ability to lie to ourselves. Every perpetrator is human and any evil act is committed by human beings, who suffer from guilt. Guilt is a powerful deterrent for evil. For example, you know you are not going to kill me now or harm me, because you will feel guilty. Therefore, it would hurt you to hurt me. But if you have been incited by an army or a government to kill someone, then our fear of guilt becomes part of the mechanism of evil itself. We immediately start telling stories to justify our actions, making excuses for ourselves, such that ‘It’s a political killing’, as the government and your commander provide you with an excuse. So if a week later you are asked to kill 50 people, you have to do it and you cling to that excuse handed down to you for life. Since, if you were to refuse, it would be tantamount to admitting that it was wrong the first time around. What we see is fear of guilt. Once we got pushed or are incited to cross the threshold of morality and start doing something that we know as individuals is truly wrong, we fear that our morality can easily become part of the mechanism of evil itself, because we start justifying what we have done, so that we can continue to live with ourselves. When a whole regime commits atrocities, but subsequently wins with the effect of having the ability to impose its own version of events on the entirety of its society, I think what happens is that you build a whole culture around the justification and even normalization of evil. Yet what we see in both films are the consequences of the fact that every perpetrator is a human being just like you and me, that is to say, as Primo Levi put it, ‘There may be monsters among us, but they’re too few to worry about’.
In both films, the perpetrators start off by believing that they won’t need redemption, as, according to them - at least on a superficial level - they haven’t committed an atrocity in the past. In contrast, many victims keep repeating that justice will come about in the future and not just that, as they repeat that the perpetrators will be held responsible for their action and receive their punishment in their afterlife. Much along Nietzschean lines, you are determined to show that the past is to be found in the present and that change and accountability lie in the here and now, rather than in the then and there. Could you elaborate on how you feel about this.
JO: We hear again and again in The Look of Silence ‘let the past be past’. The survivors always say it out of fear, whereas the perpetrators always say it as a threat. In either case, this illustrates that the past is never just the past. If there is a message to be found in the film, it is that the present isn’t just haunted by the past, but it is the past, as it is always with us. It isn’t even that we can or cannot run away from our past – it is us, we are embodied by the past. So the past is not dead, as it is not even the past, as William Faulkner put it. Much of the film is defined by the past - from the sound design to the way moments of fear in intimate moments of mournful sorrow issue into the silent landscape shots. I am trying to suggest that our world, even right here in this very room, is always haunted and I want to question whether we actually perceive this sufficiently. But whether we perceive this or not is entirely up to us. If we want to perceive the reality, of which we are part and if we want to understand physically and emotionally the life that we are living, we must stop and listen to the ghosts that surround us at all times, like the sound of the crickets in the film.
I couldn’t help but feel that The Look of Silence is a very beautiful film, some of which appears nearly too perfect of a fit, as to be random or coincidental. In The Act of Killing the process of filming and subsequently staging situations was made explicit, transparent, maybe even one of the defining features of it, whereas the companion piece deals with it much more implicitly. How much of the final outcome of The Look of Silence was actually staged or re-enacted? Would it be appropriate to say that this documentary, or any documentary for that matter, is deceiving the audience at least to some extent?
JO: One thing I’d say is that there no re-enactment in either film and the simple demonstrations of killings you see in The Look of Silence are, I would argue, like the most elaborate genre-inspired dramatizations in The Act of Killing. In all cases what we are seeing are dramatizations of present day lies and fantasies that the perpetrators live with and tell themselves, so that they can live with themselves. They are the making visible of the narratives that constitute self-deception and it is a very important distinction, because re-enactment is a way of making past a present, which is no longer available to be filmed, whereas here I am arguing that we are using the camera to make visible the mechanism, the fantasies and stories told in the present, which constitute a regime of present day impunity. There is a pivotal difference between a film about the past and a film about the present.
When I say that the human capacity for evil rests on our ability to lie to ourselves, we only define it as a lie, when there is another part of ourselves that knows that we are in fact lying to ourselves. In general we live through narrative, storytelling and fiction. In post-production I do not intend to create a faithful representation of what happened when I was shooting, because if I were to do so, I would be deceiving the audience by hiding the most important truths: emotional truths, mysteries and insights that were actually gleaned in the shooting. Otherwise you would just have a boring report of what happened. ‘We started to argue, then we started to get tense, but then Josh would cut it, because there was a microphone problem and then the next clip, which could appear is that the building of tension actually stopped and then we had to start over and come back the next day to continue the scene’. Werner Herzog actually put this nicely: this is the distinction between an accountant’s truth and poetic truth. And I don’t think emphasizing poetic truth over the accountant’s truth is deception. Quiet to the contrary in fact, if I had spent a decade of my life exploring what I felt to be some of the most urgent questions about what constitutes a whole, an entire regime of fear - but also what some of the most urgent questions pertaining to what it means to be human, how we live with one another, how we harm each other, how we live individually with the consequences of thereof, as well as the effects it has on our societies - but then had chosen out of a moral sense of duty, or I don’t know out of what sentiment, an accountant's truth, it would be a very myopic film to present you with. I would feel that an accountant’s report of what happened would be a much greater deception: it would be holding back from my audience everything that I’ve learned and everything that matters.
There is still a sense in the history and discourse of cinema, as well as in the wider public, that deception is built into the very fabric of film…
JO: But it is a false understanding of what non-fiction film is or should be and I think it stems in part from the dominance of so-called Direct Cinema. It is a consequence of the narrative that practitioners of direct cinema have told their audience for obvious reasons, so that their audience can appreciate their work. They are seeing the world as a fly on the wall might. But in fact they aren’t. If you look at the great works of direct cinema and if you are trying to work out how these films are made, you can see the presence of the camera as an occasion for the participants to express something explosive, conflictual, painful, remarkable and mysterious. Yet in the grammar of how those films are edited, one could argue at least, lies a sense of or a hint at deception. However, I would argue that it is necessary for these films to do so – they have to create the sense of an authentic reality that is unfolding irrespective of the camera. The same holds true in fiction film, as we can’t be thinking about the multiple takes that the actors are making for each line, as we have to imagine that it’s a reality. This is to say that we have to suspend our disbelief. But this has led to a misunderstanding that either a film as a whole or a camera is a transparent window onto a pre-existing reality. This has led to the idea that in films everything is either authentic or everything is staged and inauthentic. But quiet to the contrary, if you want to understand how non-fiction film of every sort works, you have to understand that any great non-fiction film is actually a series of occasions created in collaboration between the filmmaker and its subject, in which everybody is pushed beyond their comfort zone. Not just the subject, but even the filmmaker himself, is conflicted and contradictory, so that worries, mysteries and sorrows are revealed that would never otherwise be visible. And this is done if the filmmaker is a caring person, as this is done within an overall film making process. The filmmaker has to ensure to his utmost abilities to make everybody involved feels safe. And in that sense filmmaking is always collaborative and is always to some extent performative. Once you understand this, you see at once that this distinction between the staged and the merely observed is a false distinction.
It is often said that art doesn’t have the purpose or isn’t equipped to bring about real change outside its own discourse. However, your films have made a real difference in the lives of many victims and in the discourse about the genocide inflicted in Indonesia in the 1965-66. Hence, this characterization of art wouldn’t be applicable to your endeavours. Two questions follow from here: Do you feel that documentaries are an art form and should be judged on those terms? How would you position yourself in relation to it: would you consider yourself to be a journalist, an activist, a filmmaker or an artist? Maybe all or none or would you deem this question altogether superfluous?
JO: I certainly see myself as a filmmaker, because all I do and all I know about is how to make films. In fact, I think that this is a really interesting question, as it seems important to draw a distinction between journalism and art. I think journalism is about providing a window onto an aspect of reality that people don’t know about as of yet – letting people see whether it’s something that they didn’t know, through gathering new information, putting it in a context so that it can be deployed and put to use for the public good. That is at least what journalism ought to be. It’s about investigating things that the public didn’t know, but should know about. However, I think art stands actually to the contrary. It goes without saying that journalism and art do overlap, but art is actually about provoking an encounter with things we already know – inviting, seducing, sometimes even forcing viewers to look in the mirror that they have been afraid to look in before, to actually see, to look at aspects of what it means to be human and our experience that we are either too afraid to look at, or for which we perhaps haven’t words, because it is frightening, or because we aren’t allowed to talk about it, or because its too mysterious. And this is not about providing new information, this is about helping us to see ourselves – sometimes in new ways, because we’re looking at an aspect of ourselves that we didn’t want to look at before. Instead of the shock of the new, it is the shock of the familiar, the shock of the known.
In that sense the role of the artist is to be like the child in the emperor’s new clothes, pointing out a reality that everyone knew about, but was too afraid to talk about, too afraid perhaps to remember. A reality that people spend an awful lot of energy trying to convince themselves of isn’t there. But of course they know it’s there, otherwise they wouldn’t spend all that time trying to convince themselves otherwise. In that sense, I think that if journalism is a window, art is a mirror and there is a relation to activism. Of course both journalism and art can lead to activism and if they’re dealing with something important, they often do. Yet both are distinct from activism. Activism is a struggle that is far harder than just making something visible. But sometimes art can issue into activism, art can make activism possible, because you obviously can’t solve a problem that you cannot even talk about. So if art makes it possible to talk about something, if art makes it possible to talk about our most serious problems, and it is inescapable for us to talk about our most serious problems, then activism follows by necessity.
In The Look of Silence, just as in The Act of Killing, there is an implicit suggestion that it is not simply through testimony and language, but through looking, re-enacting and experiencing that the moral magnitude of these atrocities is to be gleaned. In this context it might be worth quoting Wittgenstein, who famously claimed that: ‘Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent’. Do you think that the visual arts offer distinctive ethical possibilities of relating and experiencing them, as opposed to expression confined to language in isolation? Is this why film and documentaries are particularly well suited to approaching what it means to be human in all its varying dimensions and shades?
JO: When I first started this project I already had the title The Look of Silence in mind, as it defines a project of making the invisible visible. Silence is something you cannot see, as sound is a tactile experience, and I wanted to make visible this abyss of fear and guilt of the perpetrators. Fear of guilt divides Indonesians from each other, from their own relatives, from their own pasts and therefore from themselves, as we are our pasts. I had this feeling that I didn’t just want to describe the silence, I wanted to immerse the viewer in the silence. If you take the uncut version of The Act of Killing – there are silences that immerse the viewer. In the uncut version, each sequence culminates in an abrupt cut to silence and these are abrupt shifts in the perspective of the film from the perpetrators to the absent dead, who I hope haunt the entirety of the whole film.
While making The Look of Silence I had this feeling that I wanted to take a journey as a filmmaker into any one of those haunted spaces and then through that journey ultimately create a film that would immerse the viewer in this haunted space, make the viewer feel like what it would be like to be forced to live for 50 years in that silence, being afraid, unable to grieve, unable to mourn, unable to work through trauma and therefore by necessity unable to heal. Haunted by the past, haunted by the dead, who have never been buried and never been given a proper burial, still surrounded by those powerful perpetrators, who murdered your relatives. That, for me, is not about words, as it is about an immersive sensory physical experience. I do believe that empathy can be triggered by words, but what really triggers it is often the physical, or an imagining what would it be like to be that body, to be in that space, in that temperature, in that emotional state. And so it is very important to me that cinema is a sensory and immersive medium, because I actually think that it is a terrible medium for words. To contrary, however, it is a wonderful medium for doubt, for silences, for pauses, for moments when people don’t know what to say or don’t believe the words they are saying or hearing. This is one of the reasons why the uncut version of The Act of Killing is so much deeper than the shorter one, because we have time for Anwar’s doubt and moments of pause. We can see that he is no longer believing, as he is actually perceiving the growing cracks in his own narrative. I studied Yasujirō Ozu and Robert Bresson’s films in preparation for shooting The Look of Silence, because I felt these were the filmmakers, who had perfected a grammar of silence. We premiered The Look of Silence at the Berlinale and in this context I did a Q&A with Werner Herzog, during which he pointed out the scene, in which Adi confronts his own uncle. There suddenly exists this moment of shame at the end where the uncle is revealed to have been a part of the killings. Adi is just sitting there and both of them don’t know what to say to each other, which hammers back and forth in visual language, or a documentary language of dialogue, as all that is being said is silence. This sense of trying to find a way of capturing and creating a poem about silence was really my focus and aim. I would just say that one reason perhaps I say I am an explorer, rather than a storyteller, is that when you are told a story, you are listening. There is automatically a distance, as the storyteller is speaking from a distance. I feel that there is a fundamental phenomenological difference between telling a story to someone and immersing someone in a world. No matter how absorbed we might be by a story, the storyteller always creates a distance. In contrast, I hope that I am creating a world that embodies and that condenses the mystery, pain and the wonder that I’ve encountered during shooting into a visceral experience for the viewer that immerses his whole being, just as it did with mine and learn to look into the mirror, to see something we already know and hear the truth from afar.