‘Look of Silence’ documentary plumbs ‘abyss of fear and guilt’ in wake of Indonesian slaughter

It’s a coincidence the U.S. Confederate flag falls from its 50-year-plus South Carolina capital perch on the same day Oscar-nominated director Joshua Oppenheimer is in town discussing his new documentary film, “The Look of Silence,” about genocide and the persistence of memory in Indonesia.

The film is a solo-standing companion piece to his astounding 2012 Academy-nominated documentary, “The Act of Killing,” and like its predecessor “The Look of Silence” focuses on the violence in Indonesia in 1965. The winner of last year’s Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, it’s a profound kind of tone poem on human violence, historical remembrance and the gulf of extended destructive silence and lies they often create.

“The past doesn’t just catch up with you, it is you, right?” Oppenheimer asks, pointing to the similarity (in kind if not degree) between today’s heated American kerfuffle over the rebel flag and what his new film showcases so precisely: “We are our past, and it’s always there. William Faulkner, a Southerner, said it beautifully, ‘The past is never dead; it’s not even the past.’”

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The new film’s focus is midcentury Indonesia, where nearly a million of its citizens were slaughtered by the government and its auxiliaries in an anti-communist crusade. Executive produced by award-winning filmmakers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, the film runs for two weeks starting July 24 at the Nuart.


“The Act of Killing” focused on the remorseless perpetrators of that crime who loudly and flamboyantly reconstructed their deeds on film, to the distaste of some critics. “The Look of Silence” offers a painful, sometimes bleak and unswerving close-up look at its victims, done mostly through one family, the Rukuns (not their real name). They are a mother, who is more than 100 years old, and father (now deceased) and their son, Adi, a family consumed by the dreadful terror and silent grief that has engulfed them for decades.

The soft-spoken, tireless filmmaker, 40, who lives in Denmark, believes that the documentary is ultimately a story about the terrible things Homo sapiens so skillfully and seemingly endlessly do to each other — such as genocide and exploitation — and the cultural stories perpetrators tell themselves to make it all OK and how victims break and survive. “It’s about willful blindness and what the silence that behavior creates looks like,” he says.

“I knew I wanted to make not just a political film about the co-existence of powerful perpetrators and frightened survivors,” says Oppenheimer, who explains that because these perpetrators remained in power post-genocide, the victims’ families were left to live in silence, in fear of retribution. For decades they lived among neighbors who were often the taunting killers of family members.

Oppenheimer adds that he knew his work “must also be a film about memory and oblivion, almost a poem constructed in memoriam, not just for the dead who can never be wakened, of course, but also for the lives broken and the half-century of fear that can never be made whole again.”

It was, in fact, the central character of the film, Adi Rukun, an optometrist born two years after the killings and whose older brother, Ramli, was murdered in that slaughter, who helped focus the director’s camera.

It was Adi who suggested early that Oppenheimer film the perpetrators. Afterward, as Oppenheimer watched those mind-blowing scenes during the years it took him to film and edit “The Act of Killing” (more than 1,200 hours were ultimately shot), it was Adi who asked Oppenheimer to shoot interactions between him and his brother’s boastful killers.

The director says he was initially appalled at the thought. “I reflexively, instantly, said ‘No.’ It’s too dangerous. There has never been a film before in the history of cinema when survivors confront perpetrators who still have a monopoly on power. I told him, ‘It’s just too dangerous, no.’”

But Adi persisted and showed Oppenheimer a clip he’d shot from a camera Oppenheimer lent him. It was of his elderly father, blind and near deaf. In it, the old man is shown devoid of any memory of reality but not of fear.

“It’s the one scene in ‘The Look of Silence’ that Adi shot,” says Oppenheimer, who last year won a MacArthur Foundation “genius’ grant” for his work, “and he was crying when he played me the tape. It’s the scene near the very end where Adi’s father is crawling through the house, lost, calling and shouting for help. He told me it was the first time the father couldn’t remember anyone in the family and he’d scream if anyone approached him.”

Adi told Oppenheimer: “This is the moment that it became too late for my father to heal, because he’s forgotten the son whose murder destroyed his and my family’s life. But he hasn’t forgotten that fear, and now he’ll never work through [it]. He’s become like a man locked in a room who can’t even find the door, let alone the key. I don’t want my children to inherit this prison of fear from my father and mother and from me. If [the perpetrators] don’t have the courage to break the silence, let me do it.”

The confrontations are electric, mainly from their lack of anger and retribution from Adi’s side. He told Oppenheimer, “If I go and meet the perpetrators and if I come with gentleness, not out of anger, they’ll greet this as some kind of unconsciously hoped-for opportunity to stop this manic flight from their own guilt, accept what they’ve done, and find forgiveness from one of their victim’s families and make peace with their neighbors.”

Though the apologies ultimately don’t come — something Oppenheimer says he warned Adi about — he promised the humble man other crucial things that could and hopefully would (and in fact did) occur.

“I told him, ‘If I can do my job well, with sufficient precision and intimacy, we won’t fail.’ That is to say, if I captured the recognizable human reaction that every viewer can sympathize if not empathize with about guilt and fear and shame, then we can make visible this permanently invisible abyss of fear and guilt that divides everybody in this country.”

The documentaries were conceived in Oppenheimer’s mind simultaneously. “I’ve said this many times by now, but it was when I was filming the two killers at [North Sumatra’s] Snake River [and who ultimately were revealed as Ramli’s killers] and I saw them holding each other’s hands, caring for each other as they stumbled down the slope, that I had the thought, ‘My God, this is like being in Germany 40 years after the Holocaust if the Nazis had won and the rest of the world had supported the Holocaust while it took place. I thought, ‘What if impunity is the story of our times?’

“And haunted by that thought that night I decided to make two films, one about the lies, stories and fantasies perpetrators tell themselves in order to live and the other about what it does to human beings to have to live in terror and unresolved grief for a half a century underneath these murderers.”

As the talk turns to the United States, he notes how Native Americans have had a similar experience of living surrounded by powerful perpetrators who craft a glorified-good-guy narrative to justify their crimes and shame the victims.

Both Oppenheimer films have had a significant impact in Indonesia, opening up once-verboten dialogue between the media and the populace. The first film was initially screened in secret and ignored by the government until it was nominated for the Oscar, but ultimately it had thousands of public screenings across the country. “The Look of Silence” opened late last year with much fanfare for tens of thousands of Indonesians at hundreds of public screenings throughout the vast archipelago, ultimately being screened 950 times in its first three weeks.

Oppenheimer personally gave Indonesia’s new president, Joko Widodo, a copy of the documentary and days later sent him a note with ideas on various actions he might take, urging him to take a stand toward cultural healing.

“Of course I’d love to think there’s a causal relationship here, but I can’t say so — though President Jokowi [Joko Widodo] said the next day that in his upcoming state-of-the-union address on Indonesian Independence Day, July 17, he’ll apologize on behalf of the state to the survivors and the victims. But whatever justice, truth and reconciliation might come in the future in any part because of the films, it will never make whole all that’s been broken.”