“I Don’t Give Audiences Breathers:” More Conversation with Joshua Oppenheimer

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In MovieMaker‘s Summer 2015 issue, critic Sam Adams interviewed Joshua Oppenheimer and offered a sage contemplation on the intellectual and emotional reaches of Oppenheimer’s new documentary The Look of Silence, companion piece to 2013’s The Act of Killing.

But Oppenheimer, one of the sharpest, most articulate filmmakers working today, had even more to say in a separate interview in late 2014 with MM contributor Josh Ralske—and far be it for us not to share it. Consider the following additional material an even more comprehensive dive into the historical, cinematic context behind these films, and their complex implications on Indonesia’s politics and culture.


 

On Ramli Runkun

Josh Ralske, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What does Ramli Runkun [murdered brother of The Look of Silence‘s protagonist Adi Runkun] symbolize?

Joshua Oppenheimer (JO): I’m not sure what he symbolizes, but Ramli’s murder had witnesses, and because of that, everybody in the region was talking about Ramli almost as though he was synonymous with the whole genocide. To speak about Ramli was to admit that these events really happened. Imagine you’re in this awful situation where the government is threatening everyone, all the survivors, to pretend this never happened. On the other hand, they’re pretending that it could happen again. That’s this kind of doublespeak that makes people crazy. But to insist, “No, this did happen; we’re traumatized for a reason,” is to insist on your own sanity.

So people would talk about Ramli whenever I mentioned 1965. Very quickly, I was introduced to his family, and I met Adi. Then I discovered that Adi was born afterwards, and therefore was not traumatized like the rest of his family, but wanted to understand very badly why everyone around him was so traumatized. So he was born with this kind of bravery that the rest of the family couldn’t have, this questing curiosity, and the power of being told that he had saved his mother’s life by just existing, by just replacing Ramli. And a sense of duty, a burden, and a mission. That’s how I understand it. Ramli, for the family, is this awful thing that happened.

His mother can’t let go her memory of that night, not least because that terrible doublespeak became personalized in the most awful way imaginable for her. They came to take him away, and she couldn’t resist or fight back because they would kill the whole family. Then they helped her give up her own son to be killed by saying, “We’re going to take him to the hospital.” And in the moment, I suppose she had to believe that, or at least try to believe it, so she could do what she had to do, which was to hand over her son. She’s complicit, in her soul, because she swallowed the lie. She feels if she hadn’t swallowed it, maybe she would have done something to save him, which we know she couldn’t have done. So that horrible, manipulation of her is something she can never forget, not least because she can’t talk about it with anyone.

That’s why when Adi was at the [2014] Toronto and Venice International Film Festivals, and saw the audiences’ reaction to the film, and finally it was talked about, and people were responding with love and support, it was very healing for him but very overwhelming. The premiere in Venice was certainly the most powerful thing that I’ve ever seen in a cinema. He stood up afterwards. In Venice there are no Q&As if you’re in competition. The light comes up, so we stand up, and the audience gave a standing ovation, and Adi totally broke down and clung to me. He couldn’t sit down again, and we embraced. I whispered to him, “OK, whenever you’re ready, we can leave the cinema,” but he couldn’t move for 10 minutes, while the audience stood there and applauded his courage and the movie that he’d just brought them. It was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever experienced. Certainly the most powerful thing I’ve experienced in a movie theater.

Adi Runkun in The Look of Silence

Adi Runkun in The Look of Silence

On the Politics of Warfare

MM: Neither religion and politics in The Look of Silence—communism; the religious beliefs of communists or of the perpetrators [of the genocide in the 1960s]—seems to have anything to do with what happened.

JO: They’re excuses. The army, with the support of the United States, killed everybody that was potentially opposed to the new military dictatorship. That included everyone on the left, everyone who was fighting for land reform in the aftermath of a really feudal distribution of wealth in the Dutch Colonial times, and everybody who was fighting for anything progressive. The Indonesian members of the women’s movement were killed. The farmers’ cooperative members were killed. Adi’s brother Ramli was actually not in the Communist Party, but was the head of the farmers’ cooperative in his village. That was why they were killed, but the perpetrators needed an excuse, as did the Americans who were helping.

The Americans were killing because they were being lobbied by Goodyear. The bogeyman of communism was evoked. Our business interests were being threatened. I think that’s the only reason America does anything, in terms of foreign policy. Genuinely! If you go all the way back, except for maybe when we were bombed at Pearl Harbor, the only time we intervene, the only thing that gets American foreign policy out of bed, is trade. And that’s true of all countries. Directly or indirectly. Maybe some of our European allies do things for what seem like better reasons, but it’s so then they can be seen as allies of the U.S. and have good business relations. That’s my cynical belief. That’s not how it should be, but that’s how it is.

America also needed the bogeyman of communism to justify their actions. Take, for example, Vietnam. We go into Vietnam. We implement the Phoenix program. We kill millions of people. We bomb a country back to the Stone Age, as has been oft-described, to prevent the domino effect. But from 1965 onwards, American policy makers knew all too well that Indonesia, the largest domino in Southeast Asia, the only one with any valuable resources or shipping lanes, was not going to fall. The communists were destroyed, killed, exterminated. So were we really in Vietnam to prevent the spread of communism? No. But did that story soothe the consciences of the perpetrators of the war, that story? Yes. So too did the lies about the communists soothe Inang’s [a perpetrator whom Adi interviews during an eye exam] conscience.

In Indonesian school, it used to be that people weren’t allowed to get decent jobs, or go to high school. They weren’t allowed to marry who they wished. They had to have a special ID card that said they came from an unclean background. The people who were actually accused had black ID cards, whereas their relatives’ said “Unclean Background.” Almost all of those laws were scrapped in 2000 because they underpinned the whole dictatorship and there was a brief era of swift reform. But the basic laws—the communist party is banned, Marxism and Leninism can’t be discussed—are still in the books, not because there was a great fear of communism in 2000, but because that still enshrined the “rightness” of the extermination of the communists. The lies that the communists deserved everything that happened to them, and that legal apartheid was necessary, are still taught in the schools to justify what happened, but also to shore up the position and the power of the protégé of the perpetrators, who continue to dominate the society. Stigma, discrimination, reduced economic opportunities are almost universal among the relatives of the victims, because of the legacy of that discrimination, and because they’re still stigmatized, as we see in the school. That’s what’s taught in every history class in Indonesia without exception. Even in the International School.

MM: I was wondering what you think about the political situation in Indonesia now.

JO: There’s a better president coming in [Joko Widodo, who was elected in July 2014]. Whether he can get anything done depends on whether Indonesians are able to overcome their fear, and their apathy borne of fear, their sense of disempowerment, in order to provide a sustained progressive base for him. Otherwise, he’ll have to use the oligarchs as his base, like American politicians do, and the oligarchs in Indonesia all enriched themselves through plunder and proximity to the dictatorship and the military. This president is better, but he’s surrounded by some pretty bad people.

MM: Like Obama.

JO: Exactly. There was this grassroots movement that was there to get elected the first time, and if it hadn’t demobilized so quickly, maybe Obama would have been able to do more of what, in his heart eight years ago, he would have wanted to do. Power corrupts in the sense that you lie to yourself. You convince yourself that what you’re doing is for the best. You find that all you can do is what your oligarchic backers want you to do, and you probably convince yourself it’s for the best. So Obama might no longer wish to do the things he did six years ago. But maybe if he’d had a sustained progressive base over those six years, he’d have different ideals today. I don’t know. Maybe he was always a pragmatist, or he could never have gotten elected in the first place.

On How the Two Films Informed Each Other

MM: Do you feel that making The Act of Killing first, and having it get the kind of attention it did, opened the way for The Look of Silence?

JO: The Act of Killing was like an angry wail, and of course captured attention. It says, “Look what is happening here. Look at what we are as human beings. Look at this thing that we don’t look at.” It doesn’t do so with spectacle and color. It’s saying, “Look at what our spectacle and color always is. And what are we?” Because it’s universal, that catches attention.

I think that it would be easier to dismiss The Look of Silence as a quiet, restrained, formally measured film about a genocide that no one cared about, if The Act of Killing didn’t come first. But I also have to trust that in The Look of Silence, as in The Act of Killing, we have very deliberately done something that you seldom see in documentaries about atrocity, which is to elevate everything to some kind of universal question of, “What does fear do to a human being? What does silence do to human beings? What is it like to live in fear?” I really resist making films about “topics.” I don’t like to think of these two films as about Indonesia, or about 1965. They are set in Indonesia. They deal with the present-day legacy of horrors that happened in 1965. I have to trust that the universality and the formal rigor, the cinematic rigor that I hope I brought to The Look of Silence, too, would help elevate it from the ghetto of the issue-oriented human rights documentary.

In Indonesia, The Act of Killing blasts open this space. The Look of Silence can then do its work. The Act of Killing is the whole country saying, “Oh my God, what have we done here? What is this? What’s happening now as a result of what we’ve done?” And then in comes The Look of Silence saying, “Look how urgently we need truth and reconciliation.” Adi—and the daughter of one of the perpetrators, who apologizes on camera on behalf of her father—show that it’s actually possible, and then strengthen the demands for truth, reconciliation, justice and some form of healing. So I agree with you in a sense.

MM: Do you think that this film will be seen in Indonesia to the extent that the other was?

JO: I think this film will be seen more in Indonesia because The Act of Killing was so polarizing. People from the perpetrators’ backgrounds resisted the film, but this film’s easier for people from the perpetrators’ side to take, strangely. That’s my sense from the initial reaction of the press. The reaction to both films was very positive, and the criticism of The Act of Killing in Indonesia was not at all like the criticism in the United States. It was much more from the army, saying, “This isn’t balanced.” It was always tempting to say about The Act of Killing, “Yeah, it’s all the perpetrators in the film. There’s no survivors in the film,” but the new film shows the way out.

The Act of Killing shows the problem and shows it so apocalyptically that some people said, “We have to do something,” but those who are invested, entrenched in the situation don’t want to do anything, because they don’t want to lose their power. As Adi Zulkadry says in The Act of Killing, “If this film succeeds, it will show that what we did was wrong, and we better stop,” because he doesn’t want to lose power. But The Look of Silence says, “We actually can do something about this.” Younger Indonesians from all walks of life will want that, because they don’t want to raise their kids in a society that looks like the one you see in The Act of Killing.

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