On Safety Issues that Arose Making The Look of Silence

MM: You didn’t think it would be possible to return to Indonesia after The Act of Killing came out.

JO: I knew I couldn’t safely return to Indonesia. When Adi first proposed to me that he wanted to meet the perpetrators, I said, “No. That’s crazy. I’ve never seen a movie where survivors meet perpetrators while the perpetrators are still in power. I don’t think one exists. And I don’t think it’s safe. How can we do that safely?”

That’s when he explained that the perpetrators, upon meeting the brother of a victim, would be forced to see that they were killing human beings, especially if he approached them not in anger, but in empathy and understanding, and then they would acknowledge that what they did was wrong. He would be able to separate the crime from the human being, and forgive the human being, living side-by-side with them as humans instead of as perpetrator and victim, and therefore get his family out of this trap of fear.

And when he explained that, it felt profound enough that I thought, “Maybe we can do this because I’ve shot The Act of Killing.” The production of The Act of Killing was famous across the region, which meant that all of those perpetrators I’d filmed before knew that after filming them, I’d worked my way up the chain of command to some very powerful people. They thought I was close to the Vice President of Indonesia, the governor of the province, the head of the paramilitary organization. And because no one had seen The Act of Killing yet—none of those men like me anymore—they had to think two or three times before sending their thugs to beat us up, or to detain us, because they wouldn’t want to offend their superiors.

Adi was with us at the Venice Film Festival, at the Toronto Film Festival, at the Telluride Film Festival. We spent the last six months figuring out how we can make the best of a terrible situation. His family knew they would have to leave North Sumatra. They decided to make the film knowing that was likely. We’ve worked very close with them to figure out how they can make the best of that. But it is terrible that they’ve had to move, and it’s a sign of how far Indonesia still has to go that Adi, who goes to meet them in order to forgive them, should have to run away like a fugitive.

MM: It’s unbelievably courageous on Adi’s part to take part in this. There is a scene where he talks about it with his wife, and she doesn’t seem to have been—

JO: —told! That’s a mistake; Adi should have. But because we’d already started shooting, she watched some of the scenes that he’d shot so far with the perpetrators, and then she was really moved and said, “Keep going. I support you in this.” And then we started having a discussion about what life would look like if they relocate to another part of the country, or leave the country. They’ve relocated.

Joshua Oppenheimer. Photograph by Daniel Bergeron

Joshua Oppenheimer. Photograph by Daniel Bergeron

On Pacing The Look of Silence

MM: The Act of Killing had these queasily, darkly funny elements to it, but The Look of Silence has genuine light. The scenes with Adi and his daughter, some of the scenes with his parents… were they intended to show what’s at stake, or to give the audience a breather?

JO: I don’t give audiences breathers. [laughs] No, it’s intended to show what’s at stake. There’s a willful, deliberate contrast between the brutal violence the perpetrators commit and the violence of their ongoing intimidation, on the one hand, and the fragility of the human capacity for love on the other. The film ends in kind of two places—a little schizophrenically, I think. It ends with this mess in the final confrontation, where the sons [of a perpetrator who has passed away] get angry. They get angry at me. I maybe push everything too far by making them look at this old footage that shows they’re lying when they say they didn’t know [about the atrocities committed by their father]. This is the mess that Indonesia’s in now. That’s why I felt that’s the only honest way to end it. I could have ended with the daughter giving him a hug, and that would be a lie, in terms of what is said overall.

The film ends with footage Adi shot of a family holiday, when I wasn’t around, where his father [who suffers from dementia] is crawling on the ground. Adi spent the whole day trying to comfort his father, but couldn’t. It was such a moving image for him. His dad has forgotten the event that’s destroyed his life, and therefore can never heal from it, but is trapped still in the fear. He said, “This is like an image of the prison of fear that all the survivors’ families are in.” He gave that image to me, saying that. It’s the only image in the film he shot. It ends there, because that’s kind of an allegory for the survivors’ situation, but then it ends with this little coda with the beans and the mother. It ends how every good life should end—with death and with love. I hope your life ends that way. I think that’s why those scenes with the family really provide the flesh of the film. The confrontations are the spine, maybe. MM

The Look of Silence opens in theaters starting July 17, 2015, courtesy of Drafthouse Films. Stills courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media.

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