American director Joshua Oppenheimer has received a MacArthur “genius” award and two Oscar nominations, one for each of two full-length documentaries on a harrowing subject: the continuing aftermath of the Indonesian massacre of 1965-1966, during which at least 1 million people, targeted as communists, died at the hands of the government and the military.
The first, The Act of Killing, released in 2012, invited former death-squad leaders (many of whom still wield political or military power) to take part in fictionalized re-enactments of their crimes, staging them like scenes from crime movies and even musicals. The horrors the men committed — and the horror that lives inside them — are unbearably chilling.
The second, The Look of Silence, reveals the continuing impact on the families of those murdered. It follows Adi, an optometrist, whose older brother was killed and dismembered during the massacre, as he confronts the murderers, offering them forgiveness — but only if they will acknowledge and take responsibility for their deeds. Adi was born after his brother’s death; the men he confronts are now elderly.
We spoke to Oppenheimer by phone from Los Angeles, where he will be attending the Oscars on Sunday night. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.
You’ve said this film is about the present-day legacy of the genocide. Is the silence part of that: No one talks about what happened?
The film is looking at the legacy of what happens when the perpetrators win, when they remain in power, when they are free in their positions of power to lie to themselves and to impose those lies on the whole society. This of course creates a regime of fear and silence for everyone in the society. It has been 50 years of silence and fear.
The film suggests that the victims are silent because they are powerless to take the perpetrators to task. By comparison, the perpetrators are seen boasting, laughing, about their killings. How do we make sense of that?
The [perpetrators] have no problem boasting of the details of the killing, but they cannot confront the moral meaning of what they did. The boasting is their way of not confronting the real meaning. They have spent 50 years escaping from and outrunning the moral meaning. That’s the dramatic engine of the first film, the perpetrator realizing gradually that what he did was wrong, and the floodgates of guilt opening.
And in this film, the engine is Adi, an optometrist in his mid-40s, trying to get the perpetrators to confront their own responsibility?
The perpetrators have been telling themselves that it is acceptable to have dehumanized the victims. But when Adi comes to them, saying, I can forgive you if you can admit what you’ve done, they have to look at him as a human being. And when they do that, they then [must] see all their victims are human beings. So they panic, become defensive, deny, are full of justifications.
In both films the subject is grim. But the physical backdrop is the lush greenery of Indonesia’s beautiful countryside. Was that deliberate?
To an observer, an Indonesian village might look beautiful, idyllic. You wouldn’t notice the fear, the unresolved grief, the silence [about what happened] into which the people have been intimidated. The beauty of the landscape makes the violence, the killings, the intimidation and dehumanization much more painful.
I also wanted viewers [in The Look of Silence] to be able to register the wrinkles of Adi’s mother’s brow and the emotions behind Adi’s calm face. And I wanted to show, and make the viewer feel, the dignity, the love, even the grace with which the family has been able to survive and live despite the regime, and despite the fact that they live in the most frightful situation.
It is as if the perpetrators and the victims exist in different realities. How would you describe the world in which the victims’ families are living?
Adi’s father and mother are living in between time periods. They are living in the present but in dialogue with ghosts. Adi’s mother is depicted almost as ethereal. Adi is seen [by his mother] almost as a re-incarnation of the murdered brother. And there is a chorus of crickets in the background, like a chorus of ghosts.
How has the film been received in Indonesia?
At the first screening of the film in Indonesia, Adi was given a 15-minute standing ovation. He is seen as a kind of national hero.
The film has been screened over 6,000 times around Indonesia by the government itself. At the same time, though, here we are heading to the Oscars, and the army has threatened to ban screenings and did manage to pressure the Indonesia film center to ban it. So we have this unusual situation where the film is first Indonesian production formally nominated for the Oscar, and it is being distributed by the Indonesian government, but it has also been banned by the government’s film censorship board, which is associated with the army.
But the movies are having an impact. They have inspired conversation and a movement against impunity.