A Cinema of Confrontation: With The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer Ekes Truth from Guilt and Denial

In The Look of Silence, one of Oppenheimer’s primary concerns was “to re-haunt the landscape.” Although the movie had to be filmed before The Act of Killing was released, since Oppenheimer knew that Act would make it unsafe for him, and especially his anonymous Indonesian collaborators, to continue working in the country, Act‘s success allowed him to spend extra time in post-production for latter release, especially the sound mix. “The amount of sound work that went into The Look of Silence is what would go into a fiction film,” he says.”A low-budget fiction film, but still, far more than would go into a documentary normally.”

What sounds like the organic chirp of crickets may be three or four different recordings combined and reworked, bringing the dead countryside back to life. “We were very aware of trying to create a kind of muted sound,” he says, “and we knew that this would require very carefully, very consciously, very precisely creating the silence, just as we were trying to create it visually.”

Runkun, who was born after the genocide and never knew his murdered brother, does not hesitate to confront the men who orchestrated and carried it out, encounters that often begin with him plying his trade as a traveling optometrist. But some of The Look of Silence‘s most powerful shots are of his silent face, either gazing upon his subjects or watching Oppenheimer’s footage. “We felt very strongly this was a kind of sacred moment that we should film very, very carefully,” Oppenheimer says. “We should focus sensually and precisely on the details of his face—not in extreme close-up, but just where you can really feel him—and create a kind of sanctuary, then film that very, very precisely.”

The import of those shots is perhaps more powerful for being unspoken: These men have hidden in plain sight for so long, relying on the people who know what they did being too afraid to speak the words. Now their guilt is seen, and it cannot be unseen.

* * *

It is easy now to think that everything is, or can be, seen: The American police may murder another person of color, but someone will be there to catch it on a cell phone, and there will be, if not justice, at least a righteous uproar. But in a country like Indonesia, which Oppenheimer has likened to a version of Germany where the Nazis never lost, there is no automatic outcry, no recognition of guilt. When he filmed Congo in The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer recalls, “Anwar had never been on Facebook. He had never been on social media. And I think there’s a kind of innocence there.” Yet an awareness of his public image did not stop Congo’s fellow perpetrator Adi Zulkadry from boasting of his crimes, reciting an “Old Testament litany” of the many ways he had put people to death. In the scene in Act where Zulkadry reels off that gruesome litany, his daughter, a soap opera star, is constantly taking selfies.

That “staging of self” is how we “distance ourselves from ourselves,” Oppenheimer says. But somewhere in that self-awareness is the germ of hope, and of understanding. Through his movies, Oppenheimer hopes to discover “spaces where people do that same process self-consciously. Maybe there’s an opportunity to return to a new confrontation with the self, or a confrontation with the stories that make us who we are.”

* * *

Oppenheimer deeply distrusts the structure of conventional issue-driven documentaries: the one built around onscreen crusaders convincing us that we’ll advance the cause of justice simply by watching, or those that end by directing us to a website where our contribution can make a difference. He deliberately chose not to end The Look of Silence on a note of reconciliation, even though some of Runkun’s encounters with the perpetrators’ families do achieve a kind of understanding—because “nothing can put together what has been broken.”

Instead, Runkun’s last encounter is with a perpetrator who uses his own wife as a stand-in to show Runkun how he used to kill women. It’s one of the most chilling moments in a film almost unbearably full of them, showing an unfathomable disconnection between the man and his former actions. But Runkun’s reaction in that moment changed the way Oppenheimer saw the perpetrators, and his films.

“When I was filming this, I was thinking ‘This man is a monster,'” the director recalls. “And Adi says to the man’s wife, ‘Don’t you think he’s numb in this way because he feels guilty?’ It was through Adi that I learned that no one’s a monster. That what appears to be most monstrous—boasting, and this apparent numbness—is not necessarily monstrous at all, and can actually be a symptom of guilt.”

“The hope lies in exactly the thing that most people find provocative and difficult,” Oppenheimer says. “Every perpetrator is a human being. Any narrative about history in which we seek to divide the world into good guys and bad guys mainly exists to reassure us, to knit us back into a community of the good. If every perpetrator in our history has been a human being, then we ought to protect the bonds that connect us—the very bonds that actually make us human.”

Runkun’s mother, Rohani, cuts fruit in her garden

Runkun’s mother, Rohani, cuts fruit in her garden in The Look of Silence

The most wrenching moment in The Look of Silence is the only one Oppenheimer did not shoot himself: Runkun’s father, his mind wiped nearly clean by dementia, crawling around the floor of their house, too disoriented to accept help from family members he can only see as strangers.

“Adi said, ‘At some point, I felt that the most loving thing I could do was to bear witness to this moment,'” Oppenheimer recalls. “He said, ‘It’s like my father’s trapped in a prison of fear, and he’ll never get out of it because he can’t remember the events that caused it.’ He can’t even remember the son whose murder led him to this trauma. ‘He’ll die in this prison of fear, and I don’t want my children to inherit this prison.’” MM

The Look of Silence opens in theaters starting July 17, 2015, courtesy of Drafthouse Films. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2015 issue. Stills courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media. Illustration by Duane Valentino.

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