Following on from the award winning documentary The Act of Killing, director Joshua Oppenheimer talks about making his second film The Look of Silence and its impact in Indonesia and around the world.
Jess Melvin spoke with Joshua Oppenheimer on 18 March 2015 as he arrived back in Denmark from a promotional tour in the United States. This is an edited transcript of that interview.
The most shocking aspect of The Look of Silence is Adi Rukun’s confrontation with his brother’s killers. In calling them murderers he breaks through fifty years of unspoken taboo in Indonesia. How can the perpetrators manage to maintain this level fear in the community?
The perpetrators are able to maintain fear in the community because they continue to hold power across the country. It doesn’t mean they have an absolute monopoly on power. At the national level for this to change President Jokowi would have to do something to distance himself from the oligarchs and the cronies of the former military dictatorship who surround him, but he hasn’t done this yet in my view. This is something that still needs to be done. But certainly in the region where we were shooting the film the perpetrators really do control the power structure. Everybody with power in the local government is either a perpetrator or a protégé of a perpetrator, without exception, so people are afraid of them.
Were you concerned Adi’s confrontation with his brother’s killers might be dangerous?
What Adi is doing is unprecedented, not just in the history of Indonesia but in the history of non–fiction cinema. For a survivor to confront a perpetrator while the perpetrator retains that much power has never been filmed before because it is usually too dangerous.
When Adi told me in 2012 that this was what he wanted to do, I said no immediately, because I thought it would be too dangerous and then he explained why he wanted to do it. He said, ‘Joshua, I need to meet the perpetrators because I’ve spent seven years, from 2003 to 2010, watching the footage you were filming with them, I’ve seen as much of it as you have, it’s changed me and I’ve realised the only way my family is going to get out of the trap of fear it is currently imprisoned in is for me to actually meet these men so they can actually realise that what they’ve done is wrong’.
He said, ‘I believe when they meet me they’ll see that I’m not coming for revenge, that I’m coming with empathy and a simple request that they take responsibility for what they’ve done, they’ll realise that my brother was probably a gentle man like I am and they will acknowledge what they’ve done and they will apologise for it and at that point they will no longer be identifying with their crime so I will be able to forgive them as human beings and then we will be able to live side by side as neighbours, as human beings, instead of as victim and perpetrator afraid of each other.’ That’s what Adi explained to me in slightly more religious language and I was deeply moved.
Did this help to shape the way you approached making the film?
I’d given Adi a camera in 2010, once I’d finished shooting The Act of Killing. I asked him to look for visual metaphors that would help inspire our work making The Look of Silence. When I came back in 2012 to shoot this film he told me that he had shot a tape that he had never given me. Trembling, he went and got the tape, telling me that it had been too personal. He put the tape in and immediately started to cry as he started to play the film for me and find for me what would become the one scene in The Look of Silence that Adi shot, the one scene that I did not shoot. It’s a scene very close to the end of the film when his father is crawling through the house lost.
Adi shot that scene. And he shot it before, actually, the rest of the film was shot. He was crying while he showed me and I asked him why he had shot it and he said, ‘you see Joshua, this is the first day that my father couldn’t remember who we were. He didn’t remember me, he didn’t remember my mother, he didn’t remember my siblings. It was Lebaran and all day we were all together and we were trying to comfort him and he was inconsolable, because each time we would try to console him he would just become more afraid because he didn’t know us, and I realised at some point that the most loving thing I could do was to film him’. I asked him why and what it meant to him and he said, ‘well you see, my father has forgotten us, he’s forgotten Ramli, he’s forgotten the events that have destroyed his life, and so it’s too late for him to heal, he’ll die grieving, but unable to heal, unable to morn, he’s forgotten the events that have ruined his life but he hasn’t forgotten the fear, so he’ll die in this prison of fear. It’s like this man trapped in a locked room who can’t even find the door, let alone the key, and I don’t want my children to inherit that prison of fear and that’s why I have to meet the perpetrators so they have the chance to apologise and we can live together as human beings.’
He was crying while he told me this, and I knew at that point that not everyone would like this scene but the success or failure of whatever film I made with this man would depend on my ability to create a kind of visual poem that culminates in that scene.
Were you hopeful Adi would get the apology he was looking for?
I knew that Adi would fail to get the apology that he was hoping for. I’d already edited The Act of Killing, so I knew that after five years of working with Anwar all we get is a kind of shattering recognition of the horror. We never get a conscious, consistent expression of remorse, we don’t get redemption, we don’t get catharsis. The Act of Killing is the least cathartic ending I think in the history of cinema.
So I thought Adi would fail in his confrontations, but I thought that in showing why he fails the film would show how torn the social fabric of Indonesia is; the abyss of fear and mutual suspicion that divides neighbour from neighbour, family member from family member (think of Rohani and her brother) and also, of course, the ruler and the ruled.
I thought if we could expose this it would show to ordinary Indonesians how urgently needed truth and reconciliation is. And it would show, through Adi’s dignified example, and perhaps through the reactions, if not those of the perpetrators themselves, then through some of their children, that this kind of dialogue is both so necessary and also possible. So I wondered if there was some way that we could do this safely, and I realised, well, I’ve [already] shot The Act of Killing. The production of The Act of Killing had become famous across North Sumatra – they produced the TVRI talk show hyping it in the middle of production.
All of the men Adi wanted to meet were regionally powerful or locally powerful executioners or their commanders. But none of them were as powerful as the high ranking people in The Act of Killing with whom I had famously collaborated – famous across that region. So because The Act of Killing had been made, but had not yet come out, I realised that the perpetrators Adi wanted to meet, even the most powerful ones, would have to think two or three times before sending their thugs out to attack us because they would worry about offending their commanders. They’d worry about offending Yapto, they’d worry about offending the Governor, and they’d worry about even offending Anwar and Ibrahim Sinik, who I have just heard passed away two days ago.
I think that these discussions are completely unprecedented and the fact that we were in this highly unusual situation of having made The Act of Killing, but not yet having released it, allowed us to do something completely unprecedented. I think you feel that in the confrontations themselves. You feel when Adi is confronting Amir Sihaan or Amir Basrun, that these men simply cannot believe that this conversation is taking place at all and that’s part of why they have no ready response. This is also down to Adi’s gentleness and empathy. He comes to them not speaking the language of revenge, he comes to them speaking the language of dialogue and understanding and empathy and forgiveness and they simply don’t speak that language. They’ve spent their lives enriching themselves through cheating through corruption and through threatening people so they don’t really know what to do.
Did you expect the scene where Adi confronts Amir Hasan’s family to end the way it did?
That scene was a really unusual one, because what happened was not at all what we expected, not even remotely. I had spent three months working with Amir Hasan’s widow, with his two sons and with Amir Hasan while he was still alive, to dramatise his book. So it never occurred to me that they would deny knowledge of what was in the book, or deny knowledge of their father’s participation in the killings. Originally we expected that Adi would go and say, ‘look, you know who I am, I know who you are, it’s not your fault what your father has done or what your late husband has done, but we have to live together, my daughter might one day marry your grandson, so how should we rebuild a life together?’ But that was impossible because they denied any knowledge of the killings.
When I’m confronting them with the old footage, proving that they’re lying, it’s not in order to humiliate them or to force them to tell the truth, it’s actually simply because I’m trying to get them past the denial so we can begin to have the conversation for which we’d come. But we never managed it, and when we left the scene, Erwin, the son, was telephoning the police. That’s not in the film but that’s what he was doing. At that moment I thought that we had nothing, that the scene was a complete failure, because of their denial. It was only later that I realised that in that denial the scene honestly shows the state of Indonesia today. It’s the fear of everybody for everybody and the impasse that makes dialogue too difficult, the impasse that means that our screenings of The Look of Silence get attacked and attacked and attacked, even though most go off smoothly. That should be said, we’ve had 2,500 screenings so far. Maybe 30 events have been cancelled, and there’s been virtually no violence, which means that 2,470 screenings have gone off safely and without incident.
How can such an obviously blatant lie continue to function even after it has been exposed?
Because of threats and fear. Not enough people have seen The Act of Killing in Indonesia, the media people have seen it and the middle classes have seen it, but not enough people have seen these films yet to change this. It’s exactly like the child in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, which I spoke about a lot with The Act of Killing. Everybody knows the king is naked but nobody can say it because they’re afraid, and nobody wants to go through life thinking they’re afraid, so they start pretending that the king’s wearing clothes even to themselves. And the reason this is so dangerous, as The Act of Killing particularly shows, though maybe both films show it – is our capacity for evil depends on our ability to lie to ourselves. As Primo Levi pointed out really importantly during the aftermath of the Holocaust, there may be some psychopaths out there, there may be some monsters, but they are too few to worry about.
We see this with Anwar in The Act of Killing, when he and Adi are watching the Penghianatan G30S/PKI (Treachery of the PKI/G30S) government propaganda film. Adi says to Anwar ‘it’s a lie’, and Anwar replies, ‘I know it’s a lie, but it’s the one thing that makes me feel better’, which means he knows and doesn’t know. He believes but he doesn’t believe. It’s cognitive dissonance. It’s self–deception. So of course there may be some parts of the younger generation who simply don’t know the history, but the problem that the film exposes is what people know but refuse to believe because it’s too painful.
It’s that which people know, but of which they live in denial, because no one wants to go through life feeling threatened. No one wants to tell their children ‘I send you to school to be lied to by your history teachers because I’m too afraid to call them out on the lie’.
Then it’s on a kind of continuum. That might be an ordinary Indonesian family’s predicament, but that’s on a continuum with the predicament of survivors. Think of Rohani and Rukun who had to send Adi to school to be taught by Amir Hasan and his death squad members after they had killed Ramli. Amir and his wife, Siti Hapsa, were teachers in the village primary school and several of the other teachers were also in Amir’s death squad.
When Ramli was in prison in the former cinema in Sialang Buah his younger brother (Adi’s older brother), was eight years old and in elementary school. One day Ramli’s younger brother heard his teachers over the lunch break talking about how later that night they were going to kill a list of people, including Ramli. When Ramli’s brother heard this he went home crying and told his mother, Rohani. Now what did Rohani have to do the next day? She had to send him back to that school and what did she have to do when Adi was born, she had to send him back to that school also, to be taught by the people who killed his brother, her son.
Why did she do this? Because she has fear and because of a perceived lack of any other option and that’s what the whole film is about. It’s not about the events of 1965 per say, it’s about the silence and fear that is inevitable when there is total impunity for atrocities.
Amir Hasan, meanwhile, was promoted to head civil servant at the Ministry of Education and Culture for the region as a ‘thank you’ for his participating in the killings.
How is this fear perpetuated? Is there still a fear of physical violence in Indonesia today?
There’s the threat of losing your job, of stigma, of making it harder for your kids to get a job, of being ostracised as a communist or troublemaker. It depends who you’re talking about. For Rohani there certainly is a fear of physical violence, and for Rohani’s granddaughter, for Ramli’s adult children, who are alive but not in the film. They were afraid to participate in the film because of their fear of physical violence. They know their father, who was head of the PKI–affiliated Indonesian Peasants Front (BTI) in their village where he effectively managed a village farmers’ cooperative, was killed and they know the killers are still powerful.
It’s not only Indonesians who are being intimidated. To tell you a recent story, I arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport for a festival in January and there were some Indonesians waiting who knew me, and who called me as I came out of baggage claim into the terminal. They were waiting for a French man named Stefan who had been in Indonesia to attend screenings of The Look of Silence and to film survivors. He had been asking them to tell their stories. He did not meet any resistance in Jakarta, nor did he meet any resistance in Central Java, but when he went to Palembang he noticed that some people slipped into the screening that he didn’t recognise and that looked like they didn’t belong, but the screening continued smoothly.
The next day he flew to Padang and on the flight the flight attendant asked if there was a man named Stefan onboard. Stefan raised his hand and when the plane landed in Padang twenty intelligence agents, police and army personnel picked him up at the plane and took him in for questioning. They booked all the rooms in the hotel around where he was staying in Padang. They followed him to breakfast and took pictures of him at breakfast, they followed him back to his room, they followed him to lunch, then back to his room and followed him to dinner. He of course cancelled all of his events and left the country and happened to be arriving back in France when I was arriving in France.
That’s real fear and real harassment. If you come from a family of survivors you’re afraid of physical violence. 200 survivors got together in Bukittinggi recently and they were broken up by a violent mob, people were trampled on, hit, people fainted, of course they’re terrified of physical violence. These are people who have been tortured and that trauma is not going to go [away], especially when you know there’s a continuity between the people who tortured you half a century ago and people who are attacking you now.
The persistence of trauma is what the film is all about, along with its effect on memory. I really feel that in one terrible way the 1965 genocide has not ended, because there is no grieving, there’s no mourning, there’s no possibility of closure, because the perpetrators are still in power and so many people remain afraid.
Have you faced any resistance to your description of the 1965–66 killings as a genocide?
I’ve been talking about 1965 for the last two and a half years and I can’t remember being criticised once for my use of the term, as far as I can recall. There may be legal scholars who prefer not to use the term because there is a question as to whether the mass killings in 1965 satisfy the legal definition of genocide, just as there are questions about whether the Khmer Rouge genocide satisfies the legal definitions of genocide. I think there’s a robust discourse.
I would like to draw this whole discussion back to what Wittgenstein would say about language games; that apparently philosophical problems dissolve when one recognises that the same terms are often being used in different language games. Maybe within the field of international human rights law what happened in 1965 does not qualify as genocide. But in the mainstream media, which is playing a different language game and which doesn’t necessarily see the international legal definition when the term genocide is used, the events of 1965 are again and again referred to as a genocide, and I think there is a number of reasons for why this term is used.
First of all, there is no other word that we have in our vocabulary that has an equivalent moral force. Secondly, we are talking about the wholesale systematic, deliberate, premeditated elimination of entire segments of the population with hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of people being killed on the basis of two types of factors. The first factor is ethnicity, as you’ve pointed out, Chinese Indonesians were deliberately targeted, and that on its own, even if that only represents a minority of the victims as a whole, that may satisfy a legal definition of genocide as the elimination of a religious or ethnic group. Secondly, there’s a wholesale targeting of people based on their beliefs and I personally believe, as a human being, as I mention in my own doctoral dissertation, that this is sufficient to satisfy a common sociological definition of genocide. That is to say, genocide as used within a different field, a different language game. This is a common enough definition of genocide, and one that justifies our frequent use of the term to describe Khmer Rouge atrocities.
Secondly, 70 years on from the Second World War, I’d challenge a clear cut distinction between the elimination of a class of people for their beliefs on one hand, and the elimination of a class of people based on their religious beliefs on the other. If the elimination of people because they believe in a certain set of theological precepts is sufficient to label something a genocide, why shouldn’t the elimination of a class of people who believe in and who are acting on their belief in a common vision of solidarity and a common vision of a particular moral basis for society, why should that not be given the same moral force? Within the common discourse used by the media, and especially when the perpetrators are communist, such as in the case of the Cambodian genocide, when the perpetrators are the enemies of the West, we use the strongest word available, always, and that word is genocide. It seems that it is only when the perpetrators were our friends, such as in the case of Indonesia that we don’t.
I think the debate over terminology is disingenuous because we wouldn’t be having this discussion if the perpetrators were leftists and were not our allies and our client state. We talk about genocide all the time for Cambodia and nobody raises an issue. At the end of the day we’re talking about the murder of a million people and the subsequent impunity of the killers.
This comes back to Noam Chomsky’s idea of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ victims, right?
Of course. You can see this very powerfully in The Look of Silence when we learn that Goodyear, a multinational international corporation, is using rubber worker union slave labor on its rubber plantations in North Sumatra. Goodyear was sending them home to their barracks in concentration camps where they were either starving to death or being dispatched out to death squads to be killed, essentially replicating the German model of corporations that set up shop around the periphery of Auschwitz during World War Two. That’s a pretty profound stain on the United State’s record of being a force for freedom and democracy during the post war period. Twenty years after Auschwitz, with US support, American corporations were using prison labour, and not just prison labour, but concentration camp labour, death camp labour. One would have to look at each particular camp, but I know from my own research for example, that at Gudang Hitam in Tebing Tinggi, one of the camps that Goodyear was using, ultimately most prisoners were killed.
We set in motion, supported and wanted a regime that would exterminate the left on behalf of Western capital and implement a counter–revolution against the anti–colonial revolution so that Indonesia would return to being a colonial state. But with the Dutch being replaced by the army and [from then on] even more favourable access for American corporations and British corporations that’s what we wanted and that’s what we got. I don’t think we really cared about the hollow, empty, ghastly wreckage that would inevitably follow. So long as there are opportunities to profit, that’s generally what Western foreign policy cares about.
But we can’t break through that propaganda until we acknowledge our own complicity in the situation and what we have done.
Yes. Absolutely. That is why it has been very meaningful to me that those progressive Americans who have responded to my films have responded not by saying look how terrible the Indonesian state is, but as Senator Tom Udall did in his Senate resolution, he said ‘look, fifty years is too long for us not to acknowledge our role in this genocide, we need to declassify all of the documents pertaining to the genocide and we need to apologise for our role, to acknowledge our role and apologise for it’.
Does there have to be international action before something can happen in Indonesia?
No, I think they are two separate processes. It’s been a tough beginning for Jokowi. He’s had to deal with the KPK issue and the death penalty issue, and he’s had to keep jumping from one issue to the next. We need to remember that no progressive change has occurred in our history – from the legacy of the labour movement that gave us the eight–hour working day, to the movement to introduce universal healthcare – none of this was because of the goodwill of politicians alone. We need social movements. We need grass roots demands for a truth and reconciliation process to occur. Even if Jokowi sees The Look of Silence and is personally moved by it, there needs to be a push for him to change things. Just as when he won the presidency, Indonesians will have to mobilise. This movement has to come from the people of Indonesia.
Some people have asked me if I will make a third film, as a trilogy is perhaps more common that a triptych. Not only can I not go back to Indonesia to take new footage, I believe that the first film opened up space for discussion in Indonesia and the second film comes into the silence after the lie has been revealed. The third part will be a work of the people of Indonesia. The third part belongs to the people of Indonesia.
How do you respond to accusations by opponents of the film that The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence may rip apart the ideological basis of the Indonesian state?
The nation is already ripped apart. The people of Indonesia need to be able to come together to ask what sort of nation they want Indonesia to be. The idea that there is an unshakable framework for the state – it’s a decoy. In Denmark, where I live, people can come together to ask how we want our nation to be. If we have an ideology it is the protection of democratic space.
All political groups in Indonesia today, from the FPI (Front Pembela Islam: Islamic Defenders Front) to the Workers Party, they all claim Pancasila as their ideological basis. This is sham democracy. Yes, there are elections in Indonesia; at the national level the oligarchs can buy their votes, at the regional level elections are bought. If the law is not applied equally to both the most powerful and the weakest, it can’t be said that there’s democracy. It’s the same in the US. The poor cannot hold the oligarchs to account. The powerful are not accountable.
When the military came to power in Indonesia, and transformed the country into an oligarchy, it undid many of the gains of Indonesia’s national revolution. The army undid much of the democratic process that had developed. What ever you think of Sukarno, Indonesia was more democratic before Suharto.
The problem in Indonesia is systemic. We cannot hope that leaders will step down from on high and solve the problems. Indonesia is a country torn apart by its past but I am optimistic change will come from the younger generation, organised into a social movement. This is how all progressive change has occurred throughout history. People don’t want to send their children to school to be lied to. Once it becomes clear that victims are not coming for revenge, that they don’t need to be afraid of victims coming for revenge, then there can be reconciliation. People need to overcome the fear of looking at what they already know.
History teachers in Indonesia are one of the groups working to help achieve this. They are given a set national curriculum, but they are also presenting their students with supplementary material. There are groups of progressive minded people throughout Indonesia who are preparing this kind of material and The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence hopefully can play an important part in this process.
Change does occur. But you shouldn’t wait for change to be delivered, because you might have to wait for a very long time.
The Look of Silence (2014), Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer & Ass. Dir. Anonymous; Final Cut for Real; http://thelookofsilence.com/
Jess Melvin (email@example.com) completed her PhD, ‘Mechanics of Mass Murder: How the Indonesian Military Initiated and Implemented the Indonesian Genocide, The Case of Aceh’, at The University of Melbourne in 2014.
You can also read this article in French in AlterAsia.
An interview with Joshua Oppenheimer about The Act of Killing, Jess Melvin
Film review: When perpetrators speak, Jess Melvin
Film review: An act of manipulation?, Robert Cribb