When killers win: Joshua Oppenheimer on The Look Of Silence

Director follows up hard-hitting Act Of Killing with devastating doc


THE LOOK OF SILENCE directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. A Blue Ice Docs release. 103 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (July 24). See listings.


After a documentary like The Act Of Killing, what do you do for an encore?

If you’re Joshua Oppenheimer, you continue to investigate the legacy of the Indonesian genocide of 1965-66 in a companion piece, The Look Of Silence. He brought the new documentary to TIFF last fall, two years after wowing audiences with The Act Of Killing.

“I always knew there were going to be two films,” he says. “In a sense, the genesis of the whole project is the scene [in The Act Of Killing] where two men take me down to the river and pose for photographs at the bottom in the spot where they helped kill 10,500 people. That was when I knew I would spend as many years of my life as it would take to try and figure out what was happening here, and to address it.”

If The Act Of Killing was, as Oppenheimer puts it, “about what happens when killers win,” The Look Of Silence is about what happens to the citizens who lost. People like Adi, an optometrist whom the documentary follows as he chats about the genocide with its perpetrators, who are now his elderly patients.

“What does it do to a human being to have to live decade after decade in fear and silence?” Oppenheimer says. “There are many films where we hear testimony from communities that have been long persecuted, but I want-ed to really explore, in images and sounds, what that fear and silence looks like. What does it do to a hu-man body? I wanted to make a film almost in memoriam to the dead who can’t be wakened, the lives that can’t be made whole.”

He met Adi while working on The Act Of Killing, and knew he wanted to include him in the project.

“He said right away, ‘Now I want to meet the perpetrators. I want to meet them to see if they’ll admit what they did was wrong so I can forgive them,’” Oppenheimer says. 

“That was sort of devastating to me. I thought, ‘Why do you want to forgive them?’ And he said, ‘Because I don’t want my family to be forever trapped in fear, living side by side with them as survivor and killer. I want to live side by side with them as neighbours, as human beings.’ But I didn’t know at all how we could do this. I didn’t know how we could safely approach the perpetrators and chal-lenge them as I knew Adi wanted to.”

In the end, Oppenheimer found that his reputation preceded him.

“There were many steps we took to simply secure our safety,” he says, “but perhaps the most protective thing was that we’d made The Act Of Killing. All the perpetrators knew me… so they all had second thoughts before calling out their thugs to attack us.”

The release of the earlier film allowed Indonesians to discuss the geno-cide openly for the first time in dec-ades, and Oppenheimer hopes The Look Of Silence can build on that film’s work. 

“One of the things I hope this film does is use that space in a constructive way to say ‘Okay, look how urgently we need truth and reconcil-iation and healing. Feel these emotional pressures, feel what this has done to the millions of survivors. Feel the awful, impossible situation that even the widows and wives and children of the perpetrators face.’

“We need a way out of this.”

Joshua Oppenheimer on the movie’s “organizing metaphor”:

Oppenheimer on a key difference between the two films:

Oppenheimer on how he and Adi managed to interview people who’ve made themselves invulnerable through threats and intimidation:

Oppenheimer on his visual approach to documentary filmmaking:

See our review of The Look of Silence here.

normw@nowtoronto.com | @normwilner

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