Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing, about Indonesia's 1965 genocide of more than half a million alleged "communists," was not only the best documentary of 2012, but one of the finest films of the past decade. In it Oppenheimer persuaded the perpetrators of mass murder to re-enact their crimes on camera.
No surprise, then, that his companion piece to that effort, The Look of Silence (which debuted to raves at last year's New York Film Festival), is also masterful. An intellectually rigorous, emotionally wrenching return to the subject of Indonesia's genocide and its present-day impact, Oppenheimer's latest shifts its gaze from the murderers to a family of survivors. They're led by Adi, an ophthalmologist who sets out to conduct interviews with those who perpetrated the government's anti-communist massacres (including the murder of his brother Ramli), and who still hold prominent positions in the country today. On the eve of the film's premiere, Oppenheimer discussed the reasons he chose to return to the subject, the dangers the project entailed, and the way in which both of his documentaries are, fundamentally, about cinema.
Why make a companion piece to The Act of Killing?
The Look of Silence is much closer, in theme, to what I initially set out to do. All of the film's perpetrators are people I knew from the two years before I met Anwar [Congo, a killer seen in The Act of Killing]. So chronologically, although it comes second, it comes first in my heart and head. And I can see people seeing it first, and then going to see The Act of Killing — from what I've heard, it works just as well, maybe better.
The scene in The Look of Silence which is the genesis of both films, and the genesis of my commitment to spend a decade on this, is where [government-supported murderers] Amir Hasan and Inong walk down to the river and take turns playing victim and perpetrator, re-enacting with glee as Inong produces a knife as a prop, which he thought to bring from home, and Amir Hasan complains that he didn't think to bring a machete. That was in January 2004. I was traumatized by that afternoon's filming.
How did they seem different from the other killers you'd interviewed previously?
They weren't the first perpetrators I'd filmed, but what I'd done that was new there was to bring two perpetrators who scarcely knew each other together, to see how they would speak. They were from neighboring villages; they didn't really know each other; they didn't kill together. And I had this feeling, at once, that they were reading from a shared script.
That transformed and elevated the boasting I'd up to that point seen from individual perpetrators, in the sense that I recognized at once that their boasting was political and collective. I imagined that, if the Nazis had won and the aging SS officers were allowed to go back to their villages, maybe they would be unofficially encouraged — though Hitler said famously quite the opposite, that, should they win, they should never speak of this glorious but painful chapter in their history — to tacitly boast about what they had done, so they'd become feared proxies of an ongoing totalitarian regime, keeping locals and survivors afraid.
Did you realize, even that early on, that there would be two films?
I always knew there would be two films. The first would be about what happens when killers win, and are able to justify their actions by writing a victor's history. What happens when they impose that on a whole society? What do those decades of self-deception do to their humanity? What moral vacuum does it create, politically? I wanted to make a kind of epic exposé about what that does to our collective humanity. Note, that's a film about the present, not a film about 1965. And of course that became The Act of Killing — it's exuberant, it's flamboyant, it's a film about self-deception, storytelling, escapism, fantasy, and guilt.
Then I knew I wanted to make another film which was also a film about now, which was about what it means for survivors, and what having to live for decades and decades in silence and fear does to humans. And that became The Look of Silence.
Did you always know you'd make them in this order?
I don't think one takes precedence over the other. Of course, inevitably, one would have to come out first. And The Look of Silence, such as it is, could never have been shot had we not made The Act of Killing. And it could never have been shot if we had already released The Act of Killing. Once it was released, it would be unsafe for me to return.