I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about what goes on inside the head of documentary director Joshua Oppenheimer. Almost as much time as wondering about the inner workings of those two quixotic filmmakers, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, both of whom, it so happens, are executive producers of Oppenheimer’s staggering pair of films, 2014’s The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, which premieres today in New York City.

As a set, I’d consider these two films among the ten best documentaries of the past decade. Does that mean I can simply say that I “love” them? Well, do I say, “Wow, I really loved Shoah. That was a good movie.” No. (More on that comparison soon.) It’s more complicated than that. I wrote about my reaction to Oppenheimer’s latest film earlier this week, and let’s get into a conversation I had with him here.

After seeing The Act of Killing, in which perpetrators of the 1965 Indonesian genocide were asked by Oppenheimer to reenact their crimes, word spread that the director was coming out with a companion film, which would focus on the victims. I assumed that Oppenheimer was making this second film as a response to the criticism he received for the outrageous, and potentially unethical, conceit of his film.

I was wrong, according to the director, who told me that he had the epiphany that he would need to make two separate films during production in January of 2004, when he was filming both Amir, whose brother was killed, and two of the killers by the Snake River, where victims’ bodies were dumped.

It was while filming the two perpetrators together, who spoke “as if they were reading from a shared script,” Oppenheimer says. “They were even worse when they were together. I had to let go the idea that these men were crazy. Or, if they were crazy, it was collective and therefore political.”

“I wondered what if the Nazis had won World War II,” Oppenheimer adds. “I wrote in my journal that I would make two films: the film about the perpetrators and the story of how they live with themselves and a second film about what it is like for a human being to live in fear of these still powerful men.”

Anyone wondering how Oppenheimer could putatively align himself with these men by letting them relive their hideous glory needs to understand that they continue to live without fear of being punished. In fact, they are considered heroes.

This evolution of the film is a strong retort to the criticism that the BBC’s doc impresario Nick Fraser (who provocatively called it a “snuff” film) and a few others have levied against it. I myself have previously questioned some scenes from Killing (such as when the main perpetrator is shown retching seemingly in reaction to his crimes) and Silence (when Adi’s blind father is filmed desperately trying to move around a room) as being potentially overly manipulative.

But Oppenheimer had concise explanations for everything I threw at him. Above all, he suggested I watch the director’s cut of Killing, which Herzog has described as the definitive version of the film, and better represents the reality, as well as Oppenheimer’s vision. I will definitely be taking him up on that.

“It was Adi who convinced me to film the perpetrators,” he says, noting that it was also Adi who filmed his father in the sequence I questioned. “He said, ‘I don’t want my children to inherit this prison of fear. If I confront the perpetrators, they will welcome this opportunity to stop their manic spite,’ from guilt that both of us feel has been behind their manic boasting.”

Watching both films, I sense Oppenheimer’s empathy for the victims. (And the impact of the films in Indonesia has allegedly been profoundly cathartic, which is important to consider.) And I also recognize an audacious, complex vision.

“My films are not about the crimes that happened in 1965. They are about impunity today,” Oppenheimer says, by way of explaining why he pushed so hard against aesthetic and ethical boundaries to make Killing and Silence. “They are about memory and almost a poem in memoriam for all that has been destroyed and the lives ruined by fear and broken beyond repair.”

The Look of Silence begins its U.S. theatrical run today in New York City before expanding to Los Angeles and other cities in the next two weeks. Find screenings at thelookofsilence.com.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen