Joshua Oppenheimer on ‘The Look of Silence’ and Immersive Filmmaking

By Jamie Maleszka

Joshua Oppenheimer

Joshua Oppenheimer is a singular filmmaker. Masterfully, his vision is articulated not solely on screen but within the viewer himself, in that space between the limit of words and intuition. Reverberating at gut-level, his documentaries are wholly engulfing. There is no swimming to shore.

His latest film, The Look of Silence, is a companion piece to the Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing. Both films mine the aftermath of the 1965 Indonesian genocide, in which upwards of one million people — many branded as communists — were exterminated by a regime that still remains in power. A suffocating culture of terror and impunity persists to this day.

Through Adi, a local optometrist, The Look of Silence immerses you in the middle of that haunted space of fear and silence. Adi, whose own brother Ramli was killed in the genocide two years before he was born, confronts the very men who carried out the murder and asks them to accept responsibility for their actions.

I recently talked to Oppenheimer about the immersive and instinctual quality of his process, how he doesn’t consider himself a storyteller and just why the past persists.

Nonfics: The filmmaker that you are today was forged in the fires of these two documentaries (The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence). Can you talk about some of the changes that have occurred in your craft during the making of these films?

Joshua Oppenheimer: It has been an 11-year journey. To remember who I was as a filmmaker 11 years ago is difficult. I certainly became much more precise.

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Has the change occurred on an instinctual level?

Yeah. Absolutely. For me, as a filmmaker, I don’t see myself as a storyteller. I don’t see myself as having an idea for a story and going and shooting what I need to tell that story. I see myself as an explorer. I see myself starting with themes and a set of questions that profoundly bother me — that keep me up at night — and characters, whom I’m so fascinated by that I can’t think of anything else. I’ve developed some methods to figure out how, with those characters, I can most effectively find the answers to those questions. I set in motion with those things a process of exploration. I continue for as long as I am getting deeper and when I just am starting to move sideways, then I stop shooting.

I think what qualifies as an insight in this journey or a beautiful moment or a scene that embodies the whole spirit of the film is something that somehow embodies everything I am trying to say. It is very hard, and this is what I love about filmmaking, it is something beyond words. It is something that I don’t have words for why, for example, when I was filming Inong while Adi is testing his eyes and he is telling all of these awful stories about the atrocities that he committed, in a way that he is trying to impress and terrify Adi at the same time. After each anecdote, after each story, he would sort of linger and twitch to wait for Adi’s response. Adi has put these red glasses on him, and I had this sense: this is a moment, a tiny detail from a Hieronymus Bosch. I have to move the camera, which is meant to cover this whole conversation to be just a close-up on Inong’s face, because this image says everything. There is double-ness and triple-ness in this image that I don’t even begin to understand. Those are instincts. It is insight but beyond words, which is what makes it exciting.

When you are excavating insight in nonverbal ways and you are working on something that you feel is important, you are probing the most important questions that you can come up with but through experience, through images, through sounds, through moments, through bodily experience. After all, that’s how life’s mysteries unfold to us. They don’t unfold to us through philosophy texts, right? They unfold to us through vivid, lived experience and places, sometimes the places that art transports us but places that all experience transports us. So when you come across an image like that, you grab it.

When I talk about deepening the exploration, I am talking about this instinctive pursuit of truth. Even in the editing, I don’t ever see myself as telling a story. I see myself at first, excavating the layers of meaning — the double-ness, the triple-ness — in my footage. And I try to shoot images that are layered. They are not one to one. There are multiple things going on and the audience’s attention can shift between different things. Whether it is Anwar Congo playing his own victim in The Act of Killing where you feel for the man who is being tortured, then you do this double take and you realize that no, it’s the killer who is doing this. Then you do another double take, yes, but it’s all stylized as if it is a film noir scene. Then you do another double take when you remember, yes, but it was those film noir scenes, those films that helped him kill without feeling, without emotional impact of what he was doing at the time. Or in The Look of Silence, these eyeglass tests, where you shift your perspective from, okay, listen to the stories that he’s telling. Listen to how he’s telling the story. Look at Adi’s response. Look at the scarlet test lenses on his eyes. Is he aware? There is all this. I try to build in all these layers. In the first half of editing, I am not telling a story. I am excavating these layers of meaning.

Only in the sort of second half of the editing, am I trying to construct an experience for the viewer, which is not a report about what happened while shooting. There is no claim that this is a faithful record of what happened in the shooting. The claim is deeper than that. This is going to immerse you in every insight I was able to uncover. You will experience those insights, hopefully, as I did, in a space beyond words. This will be a kind of sensorial condensation of everything I learned in my excavation.

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Considering the sheer weight of the atrocities, how do you structure a coherent experience? How does the film’s vision not get bogged down by grief?

When I am watching a cut of my film, if I have made the cut, or my editor proposes a cut that feels like a sort of heavy-handedly telling of something or closing down mystery where mystery is the whole reason we are doing this — if it feels instinctively wrong, it is almost like a physical response. It is not an intellectual response.

It’s all gut.

Yes. And it’s not the question of that works or that doesn’t work. It often works, it’s just wrong. At the same time, you could also have a beautiful cut, but if the audience is not yet prepared in their understanding to appreciate the cut, to experience it the way that you do, then it also is wrong. So, one of the important things you do at least in the second half of editing really, you have to think pedagogically about how the experience is being constructed. This is the way that I think about it, so that the audience doesn’t fall behind. There is nothing more irritating in some fiction films where there is created this false sense of suspense. The audience is behind the story. In nonfiction film, it is inevitable that the viewer is behind because you don’t have all the pieces necessary to bring the viewer right up with the characters so that they can perceive with the characters what’s happening, but therefore you want to avoid that as much as possible. If you follow that principle and you work with that from the beginning of the film to the end of the film, you’ll find actually the path, the most efficient line through the whole experience.

Then there are also principles that you work out early on. Like in The Look of Silence, there are six confrontations between Adi and the perpetrators. In the shooting, it was clear that we had to start with the least powerful perpetrator and work our way up the chain of command. It was also clear that we had to work very quickly — one confrontation at a time. It was clear that the chronological order of the shooting was not the most important principle. That was a requirement of safety, but it was clear that what really had to happen in the film was the movement from the political to the intimate. We have the two very powerful perpetrators in the beginning and then the real core of the film is the last three confrontations with Adi’s uncle, with the daughter of a perpetrator and then the family of a perpetrator at the end. There was also this principle of working from the political to the intimate. You find things like that.

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That also keeps it very much in the present tense. This is not a historical documentary. By working that way, we as viewers are aware that the experience is occurring in the now. It even gives a sense of glimpsing the future.

That’s right. There is a way in which we are seeing the perpetrators through Adi’s eyes in this film. Adi is a young man. I suppose he is middle aged, but he looks younger than that. We are seeing this horror that has been inflicted on his parents, who are old, by these men he’s meeting, who are old, but we are seeing it through the eyes of the younger generation. The one time that he gets the reconciliation he is hoping for is with the daughter of the perpetrator, who is roughly his age.

There is a feeling that the film is raising a question about a future to, I think in this case, everyone in the world, actually. Because we all inherit the mess from the previous generation and are faced with the stark choice of whether we will leave that same mess to our children or make it worse or try to make it better.

I think certainly in Indonesia, through the film, Adi has succeeded in a much bigger way than he ever could have through individual confrontations. Younger Indonesians see this film and are forced to talk about something that they always knew but were too afraid or found too painful to talk about, namely that everyone is being asked to live their lives, grow up, raise their children in a kind of prison of fear. It is because of Adi’s example and the example of that daughter who apologizes, who finds it impossible not to somehow support the cause of truth, reconciliation and some form of justice afterwards.

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I think she even says to Adi, “We are neighbors. We are family now.”

In that moment, she hears that her father is not the man that she thought he was. There’s a collapse in her face. Her face sort of falls when she realizes that she will have to spend the rest of his life looking after him. In some ways, he is not only a stranger to her but also frightening. And maybe he is too old for her to ever have that conversation with him about: Who is this man? Who is her father? Instead of doing what I think that I would do, unfortunately, which is to panic and get rid of everybody, she uses the occasion of the film, the focus and the presence on that moment to become very calm for a second and look inwards and listen to her conscience and to first acknowledge this abyss of guilt really that could divide her from Adi and say, “No. What my father has done, he has done. Let’s reach out to one another and try to be a community.” There is a line in the film where Adi says, “It’s not your fault what your father did.”

“He is still your father.”

Adi understands the trap she is in. And she sort of says, “You understand the trap I am in and I therefore have to see you as a brother.” That puts this moment on Adi where now he has to take responsibility for the consequences of what he said he would do and what he really has to do, which is to forgive. Then he hugs her, And he doesn’t just hug her. He hugs her father too. I never really thought about this until right now, why it is so important that he hugs the father, who looks totally uncomfortable. Adi has to do it because if he just hugs her and treats the father like some pariah, it leaves her with the mess.

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How did you know that Adi was right for this? How did you know he could wade through this?

I’ve known Adi for a long time. I knew he was very rarely angry. I’d see him with his children. You never saw him raise his voice. Never. I just had a sense, and the way he convinced me to do this with him was he showed me this scene with his father. He said to me, “Joshua, I need to meet these men because it is the only way I can prevent my children from living in the same fear of their neighbors that we do.” It was clear that he wouldn’t get angry or seek revenge. It would obviously just perpetuate the fear. The cycle of violence would continue.

I just knew that he would come and speak a kind of language of empathy to men who have always talked about this in order to run away, I think, from their own guilt. Talked about this in the language of boasting and threats and violence. That there would be this moment where, through this encounter with this other way of thinking and seeing, he would be a mirror to them. Like in The Act of Killing, there is this way in Anwar’s own fiction scenes — and you see this much more in the uncut version. The scene where Anwar is watching the scenes he is creating and constantly feeling doubt arise in response to his own reflection. In The Look of Silence, Adi is doing that. I think the men respond to Adi the way they do because they are afraid. They aren’t afraid of Adi. They are not afraid of me. They are afraid of their conscience. They are afraid of what they see in the mirror of Adi’s questions.

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You’ve said that of the most horrifying aspect of this process was when you realized that the behavior, the boasting was systemic. You’ve said that pivotal moment with the two former leaders of different death squads along Snake River felt as if they were reading from a shared script. All the perpetrators seem to abide by this same script. In The Act of Killing there is this repetition and recitation of “And do you know what gangster means? Free men.” Certainly that’s the way that propaganda works, but in The Look of Silence, survivors also have their own-shared script. They repeat, “The past is the past.”

That’s a really interesting sentence in the film because it belies itself. The survivors always say it out of fear. The perpetrators always say it as a threat. Implying that the past is the past, it is right there being used to threaten people and is keeping people afraid. When a perpetrator says it to Adi, the past is right there backing up that refrain. The implication, and Adi understands it all too well, is why he is doing this.

None of the past is past. It has prevented Adi’s father from ever being able to talk about what happened. And it is preventing Rohani, his mother, from crying for I think 50 years. The day that Komat came to the door at the end, she cried. Adi, afterwards, completely broke down and said, “Mom, I’d never seen you cry.” She said, “I cried until I had you. Then I forced myself to stop crying.”

Rohani was unable to grieve, to mourn, to find a safe way of integrating that loss into her life. Because what did she have to do after she lost Ramli? She had to send her other kids back to school. The men in the death squad that killed Ramli were primary school teachers. Her second youngest, her youngest child at the time of the killing, was eight years old. When Ramli rebelled or freaked out on the truck at the end of their road and managed to come home, wounded, it was Amir Hasan, at that time the primary school art and drama teacher that comes to the house and says, “We are going to take Ramli to the hospital.” A terrible thing, Rohani needed that lie, I think, in order to hand over her son. But she had to hand over her son because Hasan is backed up by the army and comes with guns and they are going to kill the whole family if she doesn’t. She gives him Ramli and knows in this terrible moment of cognizant dissonance that condemns her to feel guilty for the rest of her life because she knows that they aren’t taking him to the hospital, or she has to believe they are in the moment. She is cruelly forced to be a collaborator in the murder of her own son, which is why I think the memory never fades. She hands over Ramli, and what does she have to do the very next day or the next week? She has to send her other child back to school to be taught by the men whom she knows killed her son. This context of fear prevents her from feeling even safe enough to talk about what she’s lost and why he was killed. It meant that she could never heal. None of the past is past.

The Look of Silence opens in New York City at the Landmark Sunshine this Friday, then it opens in Los Angeles on July 24th. A national rollout will follow.

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