Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing was a film made up of memories of mass slaughter—Oppenheimer has no problem using the word “genocide”—recalled, and eventually reenacted, by its own perpetrators in their twilight years. While the documentary profiled Indonesian death squad leader Anwar Congo, it also disentangled the relationship between his anti-communist (and U.S.-backed) mass murders in the 1960s and the ruling far-right Pancasila Youth party today, following veterans like Congo and their low-level enforcer friends as they extract protection money from village shopkeeps and mingle with neighbors’ families, as casual in their comportment as Oppenheimer’s film would have us believe they’re also feared and hated. The Act of Killing is a towering accomplishment, a documentary obsessed with questions of denial, guilt, complicity, and—in the longer run—the question of filmic reconciliation, and the remoteness of its own possibility. Following the film’s beyond-broad adulation and thorough unpacking within cinephilia, Oppenheimer’s announcement of a completed follow-up documentary about the purges could only arrive as a surprise last year.
It’s hard not to view The Look of Silence as a complicating accompanied text, doggedly foregoing its predecessor’s probe of the executioner mentality and, this time, seeking direct on-screen confirmation of culpability. Adi Rukun, an optometrist, goes door to door in the Sumatran village where he grew up, soliciting veteran killers under the guise of selling them on a pair of glasses. While Oppenheimer’s doomed-epistemology motif—wherein the perpetrators try on a pair of adjustable frames, inviting countless metaphors about blindness and oversight—is heavy-handed, the results of these face-to-face encounters are too gut-churning for it to matter. Like Kazuo Hara’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, Oppenheimer’s film grows more frantic the closer it gets to the truth.
His older brother murdered under suspicion of being a communist, Adi seeks a closure that feels damn near impossible. In the darkness of the movie theater, The Look of Silence’s feedback between accusation and denial becomes a painful paroxysm shuttering through the audience, begging the eternal question: Even with an on-screen confession, can cinema really change anything? Oppenheimer is surprisingly optimistic on this score, hoping the films’ public exposure within Indonesia can help push the country toward something akin to a Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Aesthetic or philosophical hang-ups be damned, we will underestimate his work at our own risk.
I’d like to begin by asking you about the disparity between these two films. You’ve used the word “diptych” in other interviews, so I suppose maybe just tell me your thoughts on pairing them, your forecasting, or not, of their pairing. The Look of Silence strikes me a more sober visual creation. In some ways, it’s even harder to watch than The Act of Killing, it doesn’t have the reenactments…
So, first of all, it’s not being pedantic, it relates to how the films relate to each other: I would say, in neither film are there any reenactments. Reenactment is something used to make visible a past, which is no longer available to the film, to excavate the past, or to illustrate it. I would say even simple demonstrations of killing that you see in The Act of Killing, when performed in that boastful register, are precisely dramatizations of the present-day lives, fantasies, stories that the perpetrators are clinging to so that they can live with what they’ve done—the persona they inhabit so they can live with what they’ve done. And then in The Look of Silence, the film goes on to explore the terrible consequences of those lies and fantasies when imposed upon the whole society, so that means the guilt, corruption, thuggery, fear.
Now, I shot The Look of Silence after I had edited The Act of Killing, before it had its first screenings, at which point I couldn’t return safely to Indonesia anymore. I had this sense with Silence, the audience should enter into any of those haunted spaces, cut through the director’s cut of Killing, and feel: What is it like to have to live there? As a survivor? What would it be like to rebuild a life surrounded by the still-powerful men who killed your loved ones, always afraid this would happen again? Too afraid to work through trauma or grief, or just to mourn. What does it do to human beings to have to live for half a century, afraid? In that sense I think the two films are very complementary. Formally speaking. And I understood that from very early on, January 2004, when I was in the middle of the two years I would spend filming all the perpetrators I could find.
I saw that they were even worse when they were together. They were reading from a shared script. It was terrifying for me because I had to let go of the hope that these men might be crazy, that their boasting was the symptom of some kind of psychosis. I had to recognize that if there’s insanity here, it’s collective and political. The boasting is a symptom of impunity. That realization came to me as if I had wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, only to find the Nazis in power—if the rest of the world had celebrated the Holocaust while it took place.
It allows for a narrative destressing on the role of the individual. It’s not highlighting…
Well, when I realized that these men aren’t insane, that they’re not monsters, I also was arriving at the premise for both films: that every perpetrator in the film is a human being, and there’s no notion of being divided into good guys and bad guys. That these men might be monsters, or psychotic, is a lie. That mainly serves to reassure us, that we have nothing to do with these men.
When you say “us,” though, do you mean as Western moviegoers? As Americans? Another difference between the two films is the given context of United States foreign policy.
You’re asking two separate questions. First, I want to say, I mean for “us” as human beings. That we are all closer to perpetrators than we’d like to think, and this is a frightening thought. But the fact is, if you or I grew up in Anwar Congo’s family, or the families of any of the perpetrators in The Look of Silence, we went to their schools in 1950s Indonesia we would hope that, in 1965, we would make different decisions. But we know we’re very lucky never to have to find out. When you overcome that frightening thought, you recognize that every act of evil in our history has been committed by human beings, by a human being like us. That’s the only hopeful perspective on human evil because it’s the only one that implies that we ought, therefore, to find ways of organizing ourselves, ways of living together, we teach one another, we encourage our children to do two things: one, to practice the widest possible empathy. With people we’d be otherwise tempted to dismiss as an other. Because we depend upon their suffering to feed ourselves and clothe ourselves, or all the people who make our electronics who we know are forced to survive in conditions of misery. From which we profit, at least, materially. I don’t think we profit in human terms. So we might be tempted to think of them as distant, remote from us. Or people we would otherwise likely demonize or see as different. If we encourage each other to practice the widest possible human empathy, and if we can encourage everybody in our society to doubt, to not accept the messages… To understand that the most important message in school should be, you shouldn’t really trust everything your teachers say. You shouldn’t trust authority - the exact opposite of what most schools teach children. We may be able to find a way of living together where these kind of unthinkable violence is no longer inevitable, but actually no longer even imaginable.
Earlier in the film we see an NBC documentary from the time, which is celebrating the genocide, reporting the genocide quite honestly, talking about hundreds of thousands of people being killed, but celebrating it on television as good news, as a victory over communism. They say such things as, “Bali is now more beautiful without the communists.” They would have us believe that in the exotic cultural difference of the Indonesians, the Balinese victims might have asked to be killed, which makes them so different from us we can’t even imagine their thoughts and feelings might have been.
There’s an important moment, also, in the director’s cut of Killing where Anwar and Adi watch this government propaganda film justifying the killings, and that was forced upon generation upon generation of younger Indonesians, essentially blaming the victims for what happened to them, saying they deserved it, the perpetrators were heroes. And I asked, “How do you feel about this film?” Adi says, “Oh, we know it’s a lie, it’s obvious, it’s ridiculous.” And Anwar, panicking, interrupts him and says, “It might be a lie, but it’s still the one thing that makes me feel better. Please don’t say that”—suggesting the cognitive dissonance that lies at the heart of all the perpetrators’ boasting. We know what they did was wrong, but because they’ve never been removed from power, they still have available to them a victor’s history justifying everything that they’ve done, so they do what every human being feeling guilt would do: They try to take these bitter, rotten memories and sugarcoat them in the sweet language of a victor’s history. Which would celebrate their atrocities.
That accounts for the persistence of their boasting, and why they always have to talk about the worst details. Because those are the bitter memories they need to swallow.