Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer was teaching Indonesian plantation workers how to make their own film about union issues when he first forged the relationships that would lead him to make the Oscar-nominated documentary The Act Of Killing (2014) and its follow-up The Look Of Silence, exec produced by Werner Herzog. Since he made this pair of films about the Indonesian genocide of 1965, the Indonesian government has for the first time publicly admitted the genocide was wrong, and The Look Of Silence has turned its protagonist Adi Rukun into a national hero. This second film in Oppenheimer’s series, also Oscar-nominated, follows Rukun as he confronts the people who murdered his brother, asking them to admit to their actions—with mixed results.
How did you come to think about making these two films?
What my two films are about is not what happened in 1965 as such, but rather the impunity, and fear, and silence, corruption and violence in the present. (The plantation workers told me) millions of people are still living in fear, the perpetrators are still in power, and using boastful storytelling of what they did to keep everyone afraid, so keep filming the perpetrators they told me, and expose this whole regime of present day impunity. I spent the next two years filming every perpetrator I could find.
After eight months, I realized I needed to bring perpetrators together to see if they would boast with each other in the same way that they were all boastful when they were alone with me. I was horrified to discover that together the boasting was even worse. I had to acknowledge that, OK, this isn’t individual insanity, this isn’t individual monstrosity. If there’s insanity here, it’s collective. If there’s monstrosity here, it’s political. This boasting is a symptom or a manifestation of impunity.
At which point did you realize you needed to make the films as a pair?
There was a day in January 2004, where I filmed the scene where the two men take me down to the river, taking turns playing victim and perpetrator and showing how they killed. In that one spot they killed 10,500 people. That was already about maybe nine months into the process of filming perpetrators, and that was already after I tried to film at the very beginning of 2003 with Adi and his family and other survivors from Adi’s village, only to have the army come and threaten all of the survivors not to participate in the film.
The day that I filmed the two men coming down to the river, I thought, what if this impunity is the story of our times? What if there’s nothing unique to these plantation workers’ circumstance? What if this is why there is sweat shop labor and slave labor conditions around the global south? That evening I also noted in my diary that I should make two films, one about trying to understand the boastful performance of the perpetrators, and that would become The Act Of Killing, but I also knew I’d seek a second film about what is it like to have to live in a regime built by the perpetrators when there’s no justice. What is it like to live surrounded by the men who killed your loved ones? That’s of course The Look Of Silence.
Whose idea was it to have Adi confront the perpetrators on film?
Adi was the one who first asked me to film the perpetrators. Throughout the first two years of filming the perpetrators, and then subsequent five years of making The Act Of Killing, Adi would come to our house and watch whatever we had time to show him. Midway through the shooting of The Act Of Killing, he told me he was seeking out older patients in his job as a traveling optometrist simply so that he could ask people their memories of the genocide.
Then, in 2010, when we finished shooting The Act Of Killing, I gave Adi a small camera to look for images that might inspire the making of a second film. Adi said to me right away, “Joshua, I’ve spent seven years watching your footage of the perpetrators, and it seems to me I need to meet them. I need to see if they can take responsibility for what they’ve done, and especially I need to meet the men who killed my brother.” I said immediately, without hesitation, “absolutely not. It’s too dangerous.” Adi said, “let me explain why this matters to me.” He went and he got the little camera and he showed me the one scene in The Look of Silence that Adi himself shot, where Adi’s father is crawling through the house calling for help. Adi said this was the first day his father couldn’t remember anyone in his family. He said, “my father on that day had forgotten the son murdered that destroyed his life and destroyed in many ways our family’s life, but he hasn’t forgotten the fear, and now he’ll never work through that fear because he can’t remember what happened, and therefore he can’t heal. It’s too late.” He started to cry, and he said quietly, “I don’t want my children to inherit this prison of fear from my father, my mother, or from me. Millions of survivors in Indonesia will die in this prison of fear, and I don’t want that for my kids, and I owe it to them as a parent to try to approach the perpetrators and see if they can take responsibility for what they’ve done, showing that we can forgive them if they can just admit what they’ve done was wrong.”
How did you protect Adi, yourself and the crew?
We had to take many safety precautions, like having a getaway car where Adi could leave the shoot as soon as we were done filming while I and my Danish crew–I would film normally with an Indonesian crew, but for the confrontations I would use only a Danish crew, so no other Indonesians exposed to any risk–so I and my Danish crew would then break down the equipment and hopefully calm down the situation, so that we could film the next confrontation safely, and word wouldn’t spread about what we were doing. Then we would have the family during every confrontation at the airport with their bags packed, ready to evacuate in case they didn’t get a message saying everything was fine.
I told Adi, “even if you agree to all of this, I don’t think we’ll get the apology you’re looking for.” The eye-testing I came up with, as a way of building an instant intimacy and rapport, to show the perpetrators that Adi sees them, no matter what, as a human being, as any doctor will with their patients.
When did you feel most at risk?
There was the confrontation with the paramilitary leader who’s wearing the orange camouflage and starts by singing a song and says that he should be given a prize, the present of a cruise to America. He always had a kind of army of thugs, a little platoon of thugs surrounding his house and escorting him everywhere, ready to beat people up. He did kill people if they caused trouble for him. Honestly, we were afraid to the extent that we were ready to abandon all our equipment and flee. We had cars idling right out front. We had extra crew pretending to be runners and grips that we didn’t need. But really the risk that we were managing was the risk to Adi and his family, not so much during the shoot, but afterwards.
How have your films effected change both in Indonesia and for Adi personally?
Adi has been celebrated by the Indonesian media and the public as a kind of a national hero for what he’s done making this film. That’s offered a lot of protection. The Oscar nomination (for The Act of Killing) prompted the Indonesian government to say, “we know what happened in 1965 was a crime against humanity, we know we need truth and reconciliation.” It was specifically the President’s office that said this. It was a wonderful moment because it was the first time the government had ever admitted that what happened in 1965 was wrong. Meanwhile The Act of Killing got screened thousands of times around the country because we put the Indonesian language copy of the film online for free.
The editor of Indonesia’s leading news magazine called me and said, “Look, I’ve seen your film. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve been censoring stories about the genocide ever since I’ve been in this job. I won’t do it anymore because your film shows me, if nothing else, that I don’t want to grow old as a perpetrator like Anwar Congo.” They gathered a thousand pieces of testimony from perpetrators in two weeks, and published 75 pages of it, with 25 pages about The Act Of Killing. In one fell swoop the Indonesian media’s silence about the genocide ended.
The family has moved to another part of the country. There’s a team of five people working full-time to monitor their safety. We raised money to get the kids into much better schools and for a scholarship so they can go to whatever university they wish, as well as we’ve raised money for Adi to open a brick-and-mortar optometry store so that he’s not going door-to-door selling glasses.
The Look of Silence is able to have a wide public release, although still not in cinemas. It’s distributed by two government bodies, the National Human Rights Commission and the Jakarta Arts Council. The first screening was held in Indonesia’s largest theater that they use for about a thousand people. For the first screening, 2,000 people turned up and they had to put on a second screening. Adi was there as a surprise guest and received a 15-minute standing ovation from the audience and it was National Hero’s Day, the 10th of November 2014. It was trending on Twitter in Indonesia, with “today we have a new national hero and his name is Adi Rukun.”