63: Joshua Oppenheimer on 'The Look of Silence'
February 22, 2016 4:44 p.m.
Episode 63: Joshua Oppenheimer on 'The Look of Silence'
Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer talks about making documentaries from a subjective point of view in "The Act of Killing" and "The Look of Silence," which is up for a Best Documentary Oscar this Sunday.
Related Story: Podcast Episode 63: Oscar Nominee 'The Look Of Silence'
Beth Accomando: Welcome back to KPBS cinema junkie podcast. I’m Beth Accomando. Okay my apologies for the flurry of podcast that came on each other’s heels, but I had such wonderful opportunities this past week to speak with a trio of truly gifted and innovative filmmakers. So following my podcast with S. Craig Zahler on Bone Tomahawk and Robert Eggers on The Witch here’s one with documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer about The Look of Silence. The Look of Silence is up for best documentary Oscar and there will be a pair of screening here in San Diego. Tonight Monday, February 22nd at UCSD and tomorrow night February 23rd at San Diego State University, for more information go to KPBS.org/junkiepodcast. And if you missed the screening of the film, it’s available on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube and more. And it’s a film you need to see, not just because it tackles an important issue regard the Indonesian genocide, but also because it artfully and stunningly challenges our expectations about what a documentary is and can be. The Look of Silence was designed as a companion piece to Oppenheimer’s first documentary The Act of Killing. Both look to the Indonesian genocide.
A largely unnoticed victory over the communist has been decisively won in South East Asia; in fact it is the single biggest defeat ever handed the communist anywhere in the world. 16 months ago these beautiful and tranquil looking islands exploded with stunning violence. And many cases entire families were liquidated and the purge continues to this day. Ted Yates, NBC News reporting.
Beth Accomando: But the first film looks to people involved in the killings and asks them to reenact those killings as movies. The Look of Silence looks to a man who lived through the genocide and is trying to find some sort of closure regarding the death of a family member. I began the interview by asking Oppenheimer how he got into documentary filmmaking.
Interviewee: Well I actually I went to University to study theoretical physics and cosmology, because I was interested in the nature of existence and then how come it’s a part of that which exists, can perceive. And I realize those questions were really philosophical questions, but then I realize that these are question that aren’t really maybe best answered in words but through experience and so for me nonfiction film became this way of turning my whole life and work into a kind of – a perpetual process of exploration, the deepest mysteries of what it means to be human, so that’s how I became a nonfiction filmmaker. I switched from physics to film in the middle of University, but that been my past.
Beth Accomando: The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence work very well as companion pieces and I understand that there was – you had done one interview that inspired you to make both of these films can you talk about that?
Interviewee: Sure, it’s a scene that comes in sections through The Look of Silence and it’s a scene where two dead squad leaders take me down to the Snake River where they help the army kill upwards of 10,500 people at one spot and they take turns playing victim and perpetrator showing how they killed boasting about it. Almost trying to outdo one another in the enthusiasm by where which they described these heinous acts. The time I filmed it was January 2004 and I had been filming perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide for six months. And I was doing this at the request of survivors and the family that’s at the center of The Look of Silence, who were threatened by the army not to participate in my film. They then said okay if you can’t film with us, try to film the perpetrators. And I was afraid to film the perpetrators at first, when I overcame that fear I certainly approached them alone, because I thought that if I approach two they might conspire to report me to the police – will be harder to read whether it was dangerous or not. But after six months of filming perpetrators boasting alone to my camera, I felt I have to know were they only boasting for me, is it something about my demeanor or the fact that I’m American and they knew that America had participated in the genocide or is it a consequence of – yes the presence of the camera, what is it that eliciting this boasting.
I had to see that if I brought two perpetrators together would they still boast in front of each other. And after six months I took the risk of bringing perpetrators together and found that they were even worse when they were together, that they were reading from a shared script, and that if there was insanity here it was collective insanity, if there was evil it was political and collective evil. And in the middle of the scene where they take me down to the river the two men pause to smell some flowers on the side of this dirt track that leads to the clearing of the river where they kill people, and then they help each other down this slippery, grassy embankment in gentle way and in that moment of pause I felt as though I wandered into the eye of a storm and had a moment to think and to catch my breath and the thought that came to me was is as though I wandered into Germany 40 years after the holocaust only to find the Nazis still in power. If the rest of the world had celebrated the holocaust while it took place and I went home that evening very upset by what I filmed that day and noted in my diary, what if this idea of the Nazis winning isn’t the exception, but the rule kind of the pattern across much of the [indiscernible] [00:06:03].
What if this impunity is the story of our times and I decided I would make two films that day, one about the lies, the stories, the fantasies, the perpetrators held to justify their actions so they can live with themselves and the terrible consequences of that for the whole society, and a second film in a way the more important one, what does it do to human beings to have to live in such a society. What is half a century of fear and violence due to our humanity and that’s The Look of Silence.
Beth Accomando: So you knew very quickly that you would take these two radically different approaches in these two documentaries and talk a little more about what you hoped each style would help you to accomplish?
Interviewee: Sure. Well in The Act of Killing the idea of inviting the perpetrators to dramatize what they done and how they feel about it in whatever way they wish was a way of trying to understand how they want to be seen and how they see themselves. It was a way of trying to understand, I felt that the perpetrators were boasting and boasting is always performative, it’s not like – it’s not the sober testimony that you would expect for a film about such a subject and performance is always intended for an audience and the question for me was who is the perpetrators imagined audience, how do they want to be seen by me, by the world, and how do they want to see themselves and how do they really see themselves. And allowing them to dramatize what they done in whatever ways they wish was a way of making visible, the lies, the stories, the fantasies through which they make – they tell themselves they can live with their actions, to which they make sense of what they’ve done. And by confronting them with those dramatizations, they’re forced to see their lies as lies, and that led to this kind of flamboyant fever dream of a film particularly if you see the uncut version of the film. It’s out on Netflix in the United States as the director’s cut of The Act of Killing, it’s not really a director’s cut, because it’s made – it’s not made afterwards and out of regret, like most director’s cut, it’s the original uncut film and it’s the version that came out everywhere in the world apart from the US.
But when you see it you feel like you’re not watching a documentary, but this kind of fever dream and it’s cut through by these moments of absolute silence, these shifts in perspective, from the perpetrators to the absent dead and in The Look of Silence I knew I wanted to take the viewer into anyone of those haunted silences to punctuate the director’s cut of The Act of Killing and make you feel what is it like to have to live there, as a survivor surrounded by the powerful men who murdered your loved ones. And I took a different approach; I tried to find a way of making visible these normally invisible things of fear and silence and the ghost of the unburied dead that involved coming up with a cinematic language that was precise and trained on that which is almost invisible. The traces of this fear, what it’s done to this family that’s lived with tremendous dignity and love and grace in this kind of impossible circumstance, and then also how to make visible the danger, what’s it’s like to live surrounded by men who killed your son.
When Adi proposed to me, the main character in The Look of Silence after editing The Act of Killing, but before it had its first screen at which point I knew I couldn’t return to Indonesian safely at all. When he proposed to me that he wanted to confront the man who killed his brother having spent years watching my footage with the perpetrators, I immediately said no, I said it’s too dangerous. He convinced me as to the importance of trying and we found a way of doing it safely. And I realized that these confrontations would never achieve the reconciliation for which Adi was hoping rather gentle humanizing gaze would make it harder for the perpetrators. Adi’s face would become a kind of mirror in which they see their own conscience. They would return his gaze and see him as a human being. And then therefore by extension Ramli, Ad’s murdered brother is a human being and then all of their victims are human beings. And they would panic, because all the lies they’ve told themselves justifying their action are based on dehumanizing their victims. Suddenly through Adi they see their victims as humans and they would panic, grow defensive, scramble for new lies justifying what they’ve done.
And I warned Adi I don’t think we’ll get that reconciliation, but I also if we can show why we failed with empathy and precision, we’ll be making visible the prison of fear in which everybody living will be a gazing into this abyss of guilt that’s dividing everybody fear and guilt that’s dividing everybody and will anyone who sees the film, long for the social change, the political change that would’ve made it possible for Adi to succeed that is what made anyone who sees the film long for truth, justice and reconciliation and so perhaps succeed in a bigger way through the film where we fail in the individual confrontations.
Beth Accomando: So you mentioned that you can’t go back to shoot anything else after the films came out has that proven to be true and do you have any desire to test that?
Interviewee: I have no desire to test that, because everybody who monitors the security in human rights situation in Indonesia insists I mustn’t go back, and I receive pretty regular death threats from the henchmen from the most powerful perpetrators in The Act of Killing. Luckily The Look of Violence which is distributed by two government bodies in Indonesia, the National Human Rights Commission and the Jakarta Arts Council something extraordinary since The Act of Killing opened the space for in which The Look of Silence in come out, but had to do so by having it screening at least in secret, The Act of Killing has been out for – The Look of Silence has been out for over a year in Indonesia and Adi has not been threatened on the contrary Adi is been seen by the media and the public as a kind of national hero, because he doesn’t confront anyone quite as powerful as the man offended by The Act of Killing. Because of those threats that I still receive, I don’t dare test it. I think I’d get into Indonesia pretty easily, I just don’t think I’d get out again.
Beth Accomando: Your films really challenge the conventional notions of what a documentary is, so for you what do you feel defines what a documentary is, what do you feel it needs to do to qualify as that?
Interviewee: I think I simply define a nonfiction film as a film in which people play themselves. And what I try to do in a nonfiction film to make that meaningful to mind that idea of people playing themselves for all that it’s capable of delivering is to find characters who lie at the kind of epicenter of something that deeply fascinates me and then to take a journey with them and it’s a journey of discovery, where together we search for situations that we can create, new realities that we create, whether it’s the dramatizations in The Act of Killing or the confrontations in The Look of Silence, new realities that we can create together, that make visible the secret hidden source of the problems that fascinate me. Source things that need to – that normally remain unspoken either because they’re too frightening or because if they made explicit they no longer function in the same way.
And I look for situations realities that I can create with my characters that make visible the deepest causes of the problems that I’m trying to address through the film and I of course because I don’t – of course because I’m getting to know my characters through this journey and because we’re pushing the limits of what’s possible always. We are discovering as we go what situations are going to be most effective, but once we get on the track, once we get on the right path we find that we’re creating realities that push everybody beyond their comfort zone, not just the participants, but necessarily if it’s going to be an honest film, the crew as well, within the overall face space of making a film and I would say that the finished film is not a report of what happened during the shooting, but actually a kind of condensation, a kind of emotional journey, series of occasions and moods and tones and instances. Condensation of all the mystery and pain and magic and horror and beauty that we encounter on this journey, condensed into an hour and a half or two hours, or two and a half hours experience for an audience.
Beth Accomando: When people talk about documentaries a lot of times this notion of objectivity is brought up. How important is that notion to you, because in some ways I feel that there’s really no such thing as objectivity in documentary like every documentary has some level of subjectivity, but how do you view that.
Interviewee: I think it’s normally described as objectivity in documentary is really a kind of distancing that serves above all to reassure the viewer to keep the viewer at a comfortable remove and usually in a position of moral superiority to the thing that’s being explored and that’s not objective, it’s playing into the subjective wishes of the viewer to be gratified, to be confirmed if someone good for having taken the time to watch the film and someone above the evil exposed by the film and or implicated in a simple way that we can – maybe I wouldn’t even say that, above the evils exposed by the film and I think what I try to do is not to have this objective distanced, but actually to immerse the viewer in the situation to make them feel the space and understand the space in which the film takes place, so in The Look of Silence it’s a space of ghosts, the ghosts of the unburied dead and fear and silence and the dignity of survival. And to make the viewer immersed – my goal is to immerse the viewer in that space to give them no distance, but to give then a moral perspective on that space in which they’re immersed.
Beth Accomando: Well you achieve that amazing well.
Interviewee: Thank you.
Beth Accomando: Both of those documentaries were so powerful. I’m wondering for you, because documentary is a type of film where so much of it is constructed in the editing room and The Look of Silence in particular has this very personal journey to it. How difficult was it to edit in the sense of having to repeatedly what some of this footage which is some of it is really chilling.
Interviewee: Well one of the painful things in editing a film with such – included such painful material and also such beautiful and delicate material is that you become numb to it and you feel almost guilty when you watch perpetrators both doing about a heinous crime for the fifth, sixth, tenth time that you’ve become inure to it somehow. And yet the moment you screen a cut with that material in it to an audience you feel their horror in your stomach. And you reconnect with how the material actually plays and what it actually means and that’s a very powerful – that’s invariably a very powerful moment where you realize what you’re dealing with. The Look of Silence was a very unique film to edit. The Act of Killing was cut from 1200 hours of material; it took three years to cut. There were two younger editors working for a year and a half, fulltime under my supervision to reduce the material to 23 hours of scenes. We then moved with that material to Denmark where Niels Pagh Anderson compressed that into the two hours and 40 minutes finished film what’s called the director’s cut.
And then The Look of Silence by contrast Neilson I edited that film after, first of all there was less material, but we edited it having done this immensely complex work of making The Act of Killing and it felt like we were dancing together, we put down the first shot, the shot of the eyes. We put down the second shot, the shot of the jumping beans. We put down the third shot, Adi watching and so we built the opening of the film. Then we built the first scene, then the first sequence, then the first half of the film and then we thought let’s make an ending and we worked our way backwards until the two pieces met and I don’t think we changed the opening by a single frame, that’s very unusual in documentary film where you’re often restructuring the film again and again to find the shape. We may be swapped around two of the confrontations and a couple of the scenes with the families once and that was it. It was a very, it was a mercifully easy process that reflected how I feel about the film, which is although the film was physically frightening to make and is therefore dramatic to the audience, it was an emotionally healing film to make and so if you’re – if you seen The Act of Killing and hesitant to subject yourself to something quite so harrowing, I’m not saying it’s a walk in the park, but it is a gentle film, a deep film and a healing film.
Beth Accomando: You’re going to be screening this here at San Diego State University where it’s likely that they’ll be not just students but also students who maybe film students. I feel like your film has so much to offer them both in terms of just the content of the story you’re telling as well as the approach that you have to filmmaking are you looking forward to this screen and interacting with the students?
Interviewee: I love screen the work for young filmmakers, because it’s just so interesting to see how – these are filmmakers who are discovering new directions and I’m aware that my films are a little bit out of step with most of what’s happening in documentary. And it’s just wonderful to see the reactions of students when they perceive that as a kind of breath of fresh air. I’m not saying that what’s out there is stale in anyway, but I’m saying that it’s wonderful to see the reactions of filmmakers when they see a new approach and it’s also wonderful to see people move by the possibility of pursuing something so deeply. Many of the students will probably know – have seen The Act of Killing and so when they see The Look of Silence there’s a sense of encountering a whole project, a deep project and what it means, in my case my whole youth making a single work and I do think of the two films as a single work.
Beth Accomando: After something so immersive as this project these two films do you have something already planned or do you need a little bit of a breather?
Interviewee: A little of both, I have something planned, but after – you know I live in Europe, so to be here promoting the film ahead of the Academy Awards involve little time to return home. So I will need a little breather when I get back, but yes I do have a couple of projects in the work, I’m excited about them and I’m so sorry I cannot talk about them.
Beth Accomando: That’s all right I kind of expected that. All right well I know you’re on a tight schedule today, so thank you very much for your time and I look forward to meeting you when you come out here to San Diego.
Interviewee: It’s an exorbitant pleasure, thank you.
Beth Accomando: Thank you. Thanks for listening to another edition of the KPBS cinema junkie podcast. Coming up on Friday we’ll have a podcast about Hammer Horror and a new film series I’ll be co-hosting with the film geeks at the digital gym cinema called get hammered, so till our next film fix I’m Beth Accomando, your resident cinema junkie.