In Conversation With: Joshua Oppenheimer

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Joshua Oppenheimer is a filmmaker and MacArthur Fellow based in Copenhagen. He was twice nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary as the director and producer (with Signe Byrge Sorenson, his partner in Final Cut for Real) of 2012’s The Act of Killing and 2014’s The Look of Silence. Both projects were executive-produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, with significant numbers of additional crew listed anonymously for their protection. The films are companion pieces that detail the ongoing power differential between the citizens of Indonesia and members of the national government who were involved in the 1965 Indonesian Genocide. Together, these documentaries are two of the most acclaimed films of the current millennium, earning their director accolades around the world and influence with international human rights organizations.

Beginning June 27th, 2016, The Look of Silence will be shown on POV, the longest-running showcase on television for independent documentaries. Joshua Oppenheimer spoke from Denmark with Ben Altenberg of C.M: Film Commentary and Criticism about American complicity in the Indonesian Genocide, his relationship with The Look of Silence’s protagonist, Adi, and screening his work at the Library of Congress. This interview has been transcribed, edited, and compressed from audio for publication.

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Editor’s Note: To sign the petition to help end the silence and create positive change in Indonesia by contacting your Congresspeople, click here. To watch the films on demand, click here.

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Ben Altenberg: Back in April, there was a symposium on the anti-communist killings that appeared to be endorsed by the Indonesian government to some degree, followed by the president prompting an investigation into the existence of mass graves, and yet as recently as a few days ago, it seems the defense minister [of Indonesia] made some very disconcerting comments about those killings. So I’m just wondering: are there any signs of real change?

Joshua Oppenheimer: I think that it will not be a simple matter to get an acknowledgement from the government, an official acknowledgment that what happened was a crime against humanity and the necessary truth commission, changes to the national curriculum, school curriculum, and reconciliation process, let alone justice. And the reason for that is that since 1965, you have had in power in Indonesia, essentially, a shadow state consisting of the perpetrators and their protégés and their oligarchic business partners. You have the very, very wealthy working with the military, still in many ways in power behind them, unofficially, despite the official transition to democracy starting in 1998. And the moment that there is this official acknowledgment of what happened, it’s equivalent to the government admitting that all of the wealth and power of the oligarchs and their partners in military are really the spoils of plunder, mass murder, and torture. And nobody wants their power and wealth delegitimated in that way. I’d say my two films have helped, and I emphasize helped, catalyze a kind of transformation in how Indonesia talks about its past. It’s triggered what I think is inevitably the beginning of a national reckoning.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be an official recognition and acknowledgment and transformation without a kind of struggle. Yet I think that whatever happens, I think that there’s no turning back. The two films’ primary intervention(s), The Act of Killing and then The Look of Silence, has been to say, first with The Act of Killing, “Look, the lies that the regime has repeated to justify crimes against humanity are lies,” making it impossible or difficult for people to repeat those lies anymore, and to just accept them. And the second film, The Look of Silence, has shown how urgently truth, justice, and reconciliation are needed and embolden people to sort of follow Adi’s example and start talking about these things. And this is what’s happened. There’s been a kind of coming forward and sharing of stories, asking older people what they remember from the time, from the killings. And so I think a national reckoning is underway even though there is a backlash from the government…or there’s a backlash from parts of the shadow state, I should say.

I think that [the Indonesian officials] who opened the symposium you talked about will probably not be cowed by the recent backlash that you describe. The backlash that you describe is from, relatively – despite the defense minister’s statement at this conference of anti-communist militia, paramilitary and military veterans – lower-ranking retired army officers, less important retired army officers. And so I actually think that although it’s intimidating and disgusting, a lot of what’s being said, it’s not terribly substantial. And that symposium in April was a project of the state at the highest level. And of course the fact that the defense minister said such awful things as the victims deserved to be killed would make you think that this backlash has the support of some of the highest, most powerful ministers in the country, but it’s inevitable in Indonesia that, if invited to such a conference, as the defense minister was, he would accept that invitation, go, and say something truly deplorable. But it’s not a sign that the conference at which the defense minister spoke had a tremendous amount of political support from the highest levels.

Are you able to stay involved, despite not being able to return to Indonesia for the time-being? Are you in communication?

I’m in communication really regularly with Adi and with my anonymous Indonesian crew. The crew is now embarking on an ambitious oral history project similar to the many efforts to start gathering stories that have been inspired in the aftermath of the release of The Act of Killing. And I’m involved in any way that I can to support those efforts, to raise resources for them and so on if I can be of help. But I’m also moving on. I’m working on new film projects that are not connected to Indonesia. Just the other day, I was being interviewed by someone who asked me about a BBC article that had appeared a day earlier and it struck me as amazing that I hadn’t heard of it yet because until very recently, I would hear immediately of an article if it was touching on the impact of my films in Indonesia. I would hear about it immediately but actually I heard about this one from an interviewer. I think what’s happened is that the response to the films, the national discussion which has emerged, is gathering momentum, and is involving more and more people, and this is a country of 300 million people. So even if this were my full-time job, I don’t think I could keep up with all the developments and, given that I’m moving on in my filmmaking, I’m no longer trying to. But it’s a strange transitional time for me to sort of let that go while still being helpful in whatever way I can when I’m asked to be.

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Right, because that was…I guess your time in Indonesia was a pretty significant portion of your life.

Yeah, it was. It was in a way. I joked about this after Q&As around my films. Actually I had a very lovely Q&A with Adi. No, it wasn’t a Q&A, I think it was an interview. Adi was interviewed for the New York Times and I was there because the journalist also wanted to interview me. Adi apologized to me for taking my youth. He said he met me and he was determined that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make his own film which would challenge the government propaganda about the killings and the stigma against his family. He was determined not to let me go until that was done. And then he turned to me and apologized for using my youth. It was 12 years, really, my youth. And it was really what made me the filmmaker that I am and the person I am in many ways.

I feel like this is the kind of project that youth is for.

Maybe. I hope it’s the kind of project that my, I can’t even quite get the words out of my mouth, middle age, but I hope it’s the kind of project also that the next stage in my life is for as well. Although maybe I’ve learned how to do things a little bit more efficiently because it was a long time. It took…I’m not saying we were inefficient, but it certainly was a long road.

But it certainly sounds like the work is manifesting in real tangible consequences now.

It is. It is.

Like recently you were involved with an organized effort in the United States to persuade the federal government to acknowledge its role in the killings along with Senator Tom Udall. I believe you did a screening for the legislature in some capacity.

I did a screening for Congress with The Act of Killing that Senator Tom Udall hosted at the Library of Congress. And then I did a kind of panel discussion for legislators and staff, but with The Look of Silence, the main screening we did of that was hosted by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for policymakers from across the US government, including people from the executive branch. And that was, if I recall, in February.

I was curious about your experiences with the dialogue on that front, and what the reactions were there.

It was…interesting. We had meetings with Senator Udall and members of the House Human Rights Caucus staff. We had meetings with senators and congressmen and their staffs. Then we had meetings with different parts of the state department. It became clear at meetings with Human Rights Watch that a letter from the Indonesian government requesting that the United States declassify the documents pertaining to the 1965 killings would be very helpful in eliciting a response from the White House. And it struck me leaving those meetings that, in fact, this might not be very difficult to arrange because the National Human Rights commission of Indonesia, which was the body that would issue such a letter, is the distributor of The Look of Silence in Indonesia and has taken real leadership in trying to open up a national conversation about what the killings have meant for the country and to get to the bottom of what actually happened.

In very short order, the National Human Rights Commission drafted a letter asking, or wrote a letter asking President Obama to declassify the documents. That was all US documents pertaining to the 1965 killings. They delivered that to the US embassy in Jakarta but then a National Human Rights commissioner, right after the Oscars, traveled with me to Washington, also with members of Indonesian Civil Society, to present the letter to the National Security Council at the White House. That was an extraordinary meeting because I had the feeling that the people we met with from the National Security Council all had some connection to Southeast Asia and were deeply moved by the situation. They had all seen The Act of Killing, and some of them had seen The Look of Silence. They wanted to do something.

At the same time, I could see their jobs almost required that they not divulge anything, that they were almost required by their jobs to ask questions like, “Well, what if what’s revealed would stoke anti-American sentiment?” I remember one of them asked, “What if this would only fuel conspiracy theories about America’s role in these killings but also in other crimes of this sort, or violence of this sort?” And I remember answering, “Well, if you declassify the documents, and there’s nothing there, then you’ll put those conspiracy theories to rest. And if you declassify the documents, and in fact America was involved, that won’t stoke conspiracy theories because you’ll have simply admitted that there was indeed a conspiracy.” And then we’re no longer in the realm of theory. We’re in the realm of fact, but you can start to put that behind you.

It’s the unwillingness to acknowledge what we’ve done, and to put the cover-up behind us and to say, “This was wrong,” that actually stokes the conspiracy theories. You just felt that they were sort of torn, like they would swing, some of them would swing from saying, “This is terrible. What can we do to address this situation, to address the terrible impunity in Indonesia, make sure this never happens again?” to being very defensive about not admitting to what America’s role might have been. It was fascinating to see them struggling with their own consciences, I felt. They promised to respond to the letter from Indonesia. That hasn’t happened yet. But they promised that the White House would seriously consider the request to declassify the documents and would respond. I don’t think there has been a response, but it was that visit from the National Human Rights commissioner to Washington that led to the symposium in April that you opened this discussion with.

I wanted to get to the film just a little bit, The Look of Silence. In other interviews you’ve described Adi’s interactions with perpetrators and families of perpetrators as confrontations. There’s something of an unfamiliar quality to it, that these exchanges, they feel unprecedented as far as social norms go. As a result, the feelings for the viewer, as far as I could attest, are similarly, they feel completely foreign, this mesh of emotions that I’m feeling as I’m watching it. I guess all I really wanted to ask was, if it felt so overwhelming for me, what was it like sitting in that room witnessing it all play out?

I think, in one way, you’re watching the film from the comfort of your home, or a theater, and you therefore can have a safety to feel all of those things.

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When we were shooting these scenes, I, as a filmmaker, had to be very aware of the emotions that were rising in me but I also had to be distant from them just enough that I can concentrate on keeping the situation safe, above all, facilitating the unfolding dialogue to tend in a constructive direction, and, of course, to make sure that I’m capturing the emotions that are emerging with sensitivity, empathy, and precision. So, of course, I had to be feeling those emotions. I had to be perceiving as much as possible: the mixed and contradictory feelings that are flooding Adi’s face, however subtly – because his facial expressions are subtle – and also sometimes flooding the faces of the men and the people he’s confronting. But I also had to hold those emotions at some distance so that I’m not overwhelmed by them. That said, while I was shooting, I was sometimes afraid. I think Adi was also sometimes afraid, but I was thinking terribly hard. And then as soon as it’s over, then we would, in different ways, kind of collapse. Adi would be unable to speak. He would be speechless for about an hour after each of those meetings. After one of the confrontations I was trembling, I think because it had been so tense.

After another I remember I was crying. I don’t just mean crying because it was sad, but really I sort of fell apart and was weeping. My cinematographer on the film, who’s a big man, he’s over six feet tall and broad, really a big guy. The Indonesians, Adi’s family would call him ‘Seeraksasa the Giant.’ He would have me whisper wherever I could do this without disturbing the sound, a rough, simultaneous translation of what was happening in his ear so that he could understand exactly how we should be framing people’s faces. There was one scene where he actually caused a sort of fault in the camera because he was crying onto it. It was overwhelming to shoot. It was often frightening to shoot, emotionally and physically.

TLOS_ADI

The sequence that comes to mind for me is [the one] with the father and the daughter. The father talks about drinking blood and his daughter says that she had never heard this before. I’m sure part of it was my unfamiliarity with the language and the culture, but when you see Adi and that woman, there’s a sort of…that exchange that they have that is sort of colloquial. Was that something you were able to feel good about? It almost felt like a breakthrough, I guess. Was that a breakthrough?

I think it was for Adi. First of all, for me, it was one of the most beautiful and delicate things I’ve ever seen. This woman has always thought that her father was a hero but at the same time she’s probably known to some extent what he’s done. She says she’s known that he’s exterminated communists. She may have known some of the details as well, but in this sort of bald-faced way, the naked way that he describes so directly, and in a kind of boastful manner, the worst, really cruel acts, like bringing a Chinese person’s head to a coffee stall where Chinese people gather, just to frighten them. You see her face, especially when he describes drinking the victims’ blood, almost collapse as she realizes that her father is not the hero she always tried to convince herself that he was.

But she doesn’t do what I would have done, I think. She doesn’t panic. She doesn’t kick us out of the house. She becomes, even though she realizes that she’ll have to continue to spend the rest of his life caring for a man who now in a terrible way has become a kind of stranger to her. She does this amazing thing and listens to her conscience; becomes very, very quiet; and apologizes. And it’s not the most…some viewers maybe are confused by the kind of faltering nature of the apology or the fact that there’s an awkward laughter that precedes it. But ultimately, I think it is an incredible moment for Adi. Finally he gets the apology he’s looking for, not from one of the perpetrators, and he now has to take seriously his commitment to forgiveness and he has to forgive her. And in fact, that’s not hard, because it wasn’t her fault. If anything, I think Adi felt sort of terrible for opening all of this up for her because it wasn’t her fault.

At the same time, this is exactly the kind of acknowledgment that a national process of truth, reconciliation, and justice would require. She would have to understand what her father did if the country’s to go through the process that it so desperately needs. There’s a moment just at the end of the scene where she glances, almost fearfully, at her dad, or with disgust, almost, and says, Adi. When Adi says he has to go, she glances at her dad with almost something like fear, and this sort of revulsion at the feeling that she might have to now be alone with him after learning what she’s just learned. And she sort of almost pleads with Adi to stay, at least that’s in our subtext. And he hugs her, but he also hugs, Adi hugs her father, as though it is to indicate to her, yes, he’s still your father. You can go on loving him. It’s OK. And then Adi leaves and Adi stayed in touch with her for the next couple years. They’re still in touch by phone from time to time. I think it really was a breakthrough. At the same time, I did not end the film with that because to do so would be to end on an optimistic note which I think would have been dishonest.

One response to “In Conversation With: Joshua Oppenheimer

  1. Pingback: Sundance 2017: “Cries From Syria” Masters The Aesthetic of Atrocity | CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism·

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