'The Look of Silence' Director on Filming 'Act of Killing' Sequel: "We Were Physically Afraid"

The Look of Silence
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival

Director Joshua Oppenheimer discusses the harrowing journey while shooting the companion film to his Oscar-nominated documentary.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s chilling documentary The Act of Killing went a long way toward piercing the bubble of silence surrounding the 1965 genocide in Indonesia. Giving the members of the death squad an opportunity to tell their version of events and showing them gleefully reenacting the brutal killings had a profound effect on the country's political landscape. Tempo Magazine, the country’s leading news publication, broke the Indonesian media’s 47-year silence about the genocide with a 75-page double edition to accompany the film’s release. Then in 2013, when the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, the Indonesian government, now under international scrutiny, was forced to publicly state for the first time that the1965 genocide was a crime against humanity, rather than a heroic act of sacrifice as it is taught to Indonesian school children.

What wasn’t widely known at the time was that Oppenheimer had shot a second film,The Look of Silence. In the weeks before Oppenheimer left Indonesia — he has yet to return to the country for fear of his safety — the filmmaker returned to his subjects one last time and brought with him a quiet ophthalmologist named Adi, whose family were victims of the genocide and is there to confront the murders. Watching these powerful men, who have acted with impunity for decades, be confronted for the first time by the humble Adi is a “riveting” cinematic experience, which is receiving universal praise from critics along with early Oscar buzz.

At the New York Film Festival last September, Oppenheimer sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss just how dangerous it is was to make this film and to discuss the impact he hopes his new film will have.

At what point in the process of making The Act of Killing did you know you wanted to make a second film about the 1965 genocide?

There's a scene, which ended up in the The Act of Killing, that was the genesis for both films. It’s when the two men take me down to the river and showed me how they killed dozens and then they pose for photographs at the end. They were having a wonderful afternoon, but filming that was a horrible, horrible afternoon for me. I came back from that traumatized.

I knew then that there were two films to make here: One was about what happens when killers win and for decades impose their fantasies and lies to justify their actions. And The Look of Silence, I knew had to be about what does it mean to live in the shadow of these men.

When did you meet Adi?

In 2003, I started to investigate the death of Ramli, Adi’s brother, who plantation workers spoke frequently about. It turns out that the reason Ramli’s murder is so often discussed is there were witnesses. He wasn’t someone who disappeared in the middle of the night never to be spoken of again, his murder was undeniable. At this time I befriended Adi and his mother Rohani. Adi, who was born after the killings, spoke openly and together we started to gather other survivors’ families. It became clear though that I could not tell the survivors’ stories without putting their lives in danger and I needed to make a different film.

Was that when you started to film the members of the death squad?

Adi said if the army won't let us tell you about our experience try to film the perpetrators and see if they'll talk. When I showed him footage of their boasting, Adi urged me to continue filming them because he believed anybody who sees the footage will be forced to acknowledge that something is wrong here now, not just that something wrong happened 40 years ago. I went through two years of filming every perpetrator I could find and Adi continued to watch.

At what point did you decide to put Adi in front of the camera?

After seven years of watching the footage I'd shot with the perpetrators, Adi said he needed to meet them. I said absolutely not, because I couldn't think of any way of doing it safely. But he was insistent, so I asked why. He said, ‘I want to be able to escape from this trap of fear that my family is in. I don't want my family stuck in the prison of fear and that's why I want to meet the perpetrators. I want them to acknowledge what they did and by meeting me maybe they'll see they killed human beings. Maybe if they realize what they did was wrong I can separate the crime from the human being and forgive the human being.’

I then had to think what we could do to make this possible. I started to realize there was some safety that came from my having shot with such powerful Indonesians and all these men knew I had. 

It’s clear in the movie that the members of the death squads trusted you. It strikes me though that once word got out that your latest interviews involved Adi confronting them, these interviews would become dangerous.

Exactly, which is why we did everything very quickly, in a matter of days. You work your way up the chain of command. If you start with someone powerful, they have access to the chief of police and everyone would be looking for us. So we started with the low ranking people. That's not the way the film is put together, but that's how we shot.

What precautions did you take do to protect Adi, yourself, your crew and your footage while you were shooting?

We copied the footage to drives and put a safety copy in a safe house. We'd also do other little things for safety. For example, we'd always have a second car to switch to so that we could escape discretely. Adi came with no ID, so if we were detained they wouldn't be able to figure out who he was before we got help from our embassies. I tried prior to this to use an Indonesian crew, but for these scenes I'd use a Danish crew.

People always ask if I was afraid when shooting The Act of Killing and I would always respond I was emotionally afraid, more than physically afraid. Here we were physically afraid and that's why the shoot was so short. There were a few particularly frightening moments. A couple of times they were calling the police at the end of the scenes and two of the subjects had groups of thugs surrounding them, which was terrifying.

A large portion of the crew are credited as "Anonymous," including someone you gave a co-director credit to. I assume this is to protect Indonesians still living there, but what about Adi? How is he being kept safe?

We spent the last six months working with Adi's family to move them thousands of kilometers away to the other side of the country, out from under the shadow of the perpetrators who are still power in North Sumatra. Trying to make most of the situation by moving them to a supportive community, to getting the kids in much better schools, surrounding them with human rights activists who embrace him and the film.

We have a plan B, C and D about what to do if there's any sign of danger. We’re prepared to evacuate him and his family to Europe at moment's notice. Adi has been able to go to film festivals in Telluride, Venice and Toronto and has returned to Indonesia without problems.

So it sounds like you were prepared for the worse case scenario, but what were your hopes for this film and its impact?

Adi's hope was that people would acknowledge what they did was wrong, which I think was naive. Perpetrators don't acknowledge what they did was wrong until they are forced to. You can have regime change, you can have perpetrators removed from power -- as happened to the Nazis or Khmer Rouge -- or you can have a long term cultural shift, which is the direction I think Indonesia is going and is the process I hope my two films hopefully supports.

I knew what Adi was doing was unprecedented and violated every taboo in Indonesian society and in doing so went against everything expected of the survivors. We feel that in the film — the tension, the fear and the confinement in which the survivors are forced to live. That’s what I wanted to do, to show people — as the title of the film infers — what this silence looks like. The Act Of Killing opened up a space where the country could speak honestly about its past and into that space comes this film, which shows just how damaged the society is by fear and how urgently it needs truth and reconciliation to heal.

The Look of Silence opens in New York on July 17 and in Los Angeles on July 24.