Over the years, many filmmakers have redefined documentary. Few, however, have composed a new vocabulary for the medium as systematically as Joshua Oppenheimer.
Talk with him for even a brief while about his movies The Act of Killing, shortlisted for an Academy Award in 2014, and this July’s companion film, The Look of Silence, and you’ll quickly come upon some terms that Oppenheimer (politely) takes issue with. The movies, he’ll point out, aren’t about the history of the anti-Communist purges that killed at least half a million Indonesians in 1965 and 1966, but about their lingering effect on the present. The scenes in The Act of Killing where the perpetrators of those massacres restage their crimes aren’t “reenactments,” but “dramatizations.” When The Look of Silence‘s Adi Rukun grills the men who murdered his brother and thousands like him, it’s not an “interview” but a “confrontation.”
Even as innocuous a term as “shooter,” industry slang for a cinematographer, does not escape his grasp. “On the one hand,” he says, “the word is nice in that’s it’s not pretentious. On the other hand, it seems to be a slight misunderstanding of what we’re doing when we make film—as though we’re just shooting reality, the way we would at a wedding.”
The Austin-born, Copenhagen-based Oppenheimer’s precision shouldn’t be mistaken for pedantry. The words he targets have tremendous ideological weight, and they’re even more powerful because they’re so rarely examined. The distinction between “reenactment” and “dramatization” is as important as the one between “massacre” and “genocide,” a word Oppenheimer uses to refer to the Indonesian killings.
In some ways, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence serve the function of traditional issue documentaries, raising global awareness, stimulating local dialogue, and prompting genuine change in a country that has swept a massive historical atrocity under the rug for nearly half a century, and is now dealing with its past. Act‘s premiere in 2012 prompted Indonesia’s Tempo magazine to publish a special double issue of the perpetrators’ testimony, breaking 47 years of mainstream media silence. The country’s National Commission on Human Rights issued a statement calling the film “essential viewing,” saying: “If we are to transform Indonesia into the democracy it claims to be, citizens must recognize the terror and repression on which our contemporary history has been built. No film, or any other work of art for that matter, has done this more effectively than The Act of Killing.”
At the same time, both documentaries force us to confront what it means to absorb this subject matter in a climate-controlled auditorium at a film festival or an art house theater; how our countries confront their own dark legacies, or more often fail to; and what nebulous buzzwords like “awareness,” “dialogue” and “change” really mean. If anything at all.
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While we’re defining our terms, let’s start with one of the most abused terms in the history of movies: “cinéma vérité.” It’s most commonly used to denote the so-called “fly-on-the-wall” aesthetic, where the documentary crew, perhaps after some period of acclimation, simply disappears into the woodwork and life goes on—on camera—as it has before.
“There’s a claim that the camera is a transparent window onto a preexisting reality,” Oppenheimer said in March at the University of Missouri’s Based on a True Story conference, dedicated to exploring the relationship between journalism and documentary. “But what really is happening is that the director and the film crew and the subjects are collaborating to simulate a reality in which they pretend the camera is not present. It’s a kind of dishonest story about how the film was made, one that performs a useful function—namely, it helps us to suspend our disbelief and perceive that simulation as reality.”
Oppenheimer’s own films are closer to the original definition of cinéma vérité—nearly 180 degrees from the way it’s come to be used. As conceived by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, whose Chronicle of a Summer is a classic of the form, cinéma vérité was devised precisely to step away from the passive-observer tradition of ethnographic documentary. There was, Rouch determined, no way for a white Frenchman to eavesdrop on the inhabitants of France’s African colonies without his presence having an effect. What he could do was make the effect the subject of his movies, to film the truth of his subjects’ interaction with the camera. Cinéma vérité, he explained, was not the cinema of truth, but the truth of cinema; a powerful truth, but not the only one.
In Oppenheimer’s movies, his subjects are not just participants but onscreen collaborators. In The Act of Killing, he invites the perpetrators of the 1965 genocide to, yes, dramatize their actions, which some do with astonishingly cold-blooded verve (though by the film’s end, cracks have started to show in their bravado). And in The Look of Silence, he cedes the role of onscreen interrogator to Adi Rukun, whose brother, Ramli, was murdered by some of those same perpetrators.
“The essence of nonfiction is creating the occasion in collaboration between the filmmaker and participants,” Oppenheimer, a 2014 MacArthur Fellowship recipient, explains from a café in Cannes, “where everybody is moved to a space that is not quite comfortable, within the overall safe space of making a film. It is a space where things that would never be revealed in the normal course of things are revealed. It’s a chance to rub reality against the grain.”
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The journey toward both films began with a scene that Oppenheimer filmed in 2004 and acts as the heart of The Look of Silence: Two executioners, Amir Hassan and Inong, stand by the banks of the Snake River and recall carrying out Ramli’s murder, laughing as they do. Oppenheimer had been helping oil palm plantation workers make a film about their struggle to unionize (2003’s The Globalization Tapes), when he discovered that a major obstacle to the task was the lingering fear instilled by the 1965 genocide, whose perpetrators had remained in power ever since. Although it was nominally intended to root out Communist subversives, the perpetrators themselves describe a gory, indiscriminate free-for-all designed to sow submission and fear.
The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are not sequels in the traditional sense, but Oppenheimer views them as “two parts of a greater whole.” Look answers the most common complain about Act: that including only the genocide’s perpetrators and not its victims unbalances the film. In fact, Act‘s unusual form came about at the urging of genocide survivors who, though they believed it was not safe for them to speak on camera, nonetheless wanted Oppenheimer to make the film. Although the two films were shot one after the other, he made sure photography for Look was completed before Act was premiered at Telluride in 2012, since he knew he would not be able to go to Indonesia afterwards. Rukun and his family relocated before Look was premiered.
“The films are about present-day impunity in the aftermath of a genocide where the perpetrators have won and remain in power,” Oppenheimer says. “They’re dealing with very distinct areas of human experience in that context. The Act of Killing is dealing specifically with escapism, fantasy and guilt, the stories the perpetrators tell themselves so that they can live with themselves, the effects of those lies on their whole society when the perpetrators impose the lies on the society. In The Look of Silence, we’re dealing with what that does to human beings, to memory, to a family, to our experience of a life, when you cannot grieve or heal because you’re too afraid to mourn and work through what happened. What does 50 years of silence do to human beings? Both of those things are precisely about the present.”
One of Oppenheimer’s inspirations was Claude Lanzmann’s monumental Shoah, which pointedly omitted any archival footage from its story of the Holocaust. Rather than inserting scratchy black-and-white footage of the concentration camps, which, no matter how grotesque or appalling the images, looked like an artifact from the past, Lanzmann filmed the camps as they were in his time—silent, empty, grown over with weeds. Rather than the bodies of the dead, he showed the space they once occupied, the void their executions left behind.
Oppenheimer took a similar approach for his own films. In the longer director’s cut of The Act of Killing, every sequence culminates in a hard cut to silence, as if, rather than hurtling onward toward some predetermined narrative end, we are constantly pausing to pay our respects. In the perspective of the film, he says, these cut are “transitions from the perpetrators to the absent dead, who I hope then haunt the rest of the film. Through those cuts, we remind the viewer that they’re there, even if they’re not visible.” Although the traces of the genocide have long since been obliterated, those empty spaces still have power. The climax of The Act of Killing, where lead perpetrator Anwar Congo retches as decades of guilt seem to physically force themselves out through his throat, was achieved not through confrontation, or even dramatization. After acting out and describing his deeds in the building that once served as his abattoir failed to move Congo to any kind of catharsis, Oppenheimer took him through a third time in silence, room by room, and the bile surged.