The Look of Silence

PBS Premiere: June 27, 2016Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

Executive Producer Werner Herzog and Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer discuss the making of the film The Look of Silence.

Werner Herzog: Joshua Oppenheimer, when we talk about The Look of Silence, it's not an isolated film, it's very close to The Act of Killing, your previous film. And there's a very big project that is even beyond the two films. Can you speak a little bit about that?

Joshua Oppenheimer: Yeah, the two films I think importantly are not about what happened in 1965. They're not about a genocide in Indonesia, they're about impunity today. What happens when you have mass murder, when the connections between human beings across a whole society are ripped apart violently and how there's no justice, there's no acknowledgement. The perpetrators remain in power. And in The Act of Killing, boastful perpetrators are free to dramatize what they've done in whatever ways they wish.

Werner Herzog: And they enjoy it. They have a good time.

Joshua Oppenheimer: They have a good time, except that the dramatizations become for the main character, Anwar, a kind of mirror in which he's forced to confront the horror of what he's done ultimately.

Werner Herzog: And his own demons.

Joshua Oppenheimer: And his own demons. And so The Act of Killing is this kind of fever dream about escapism and fantasy and guilt. And The Look of Silence asks this complimentary question about impunity, what is it like for human beings to have to live surrounded by the men who killed their loved ones? What does it do if you spend 50 years of your life in a world that has become for you an open air prison? What does that do to a family, what does that do to our ability to mourn, to move on, to heal or not to heal? And so The Look of Silence is a kind of poem about what 50 years of fear and silence does to a human being and does to a family.

Werner Herzog: And in this film of course The Look of Silence you have some sort of sense of something like a glimmer of hope. Something like feeling redemption could be possible. Reconciliation could eventually become a possibility remote, but it is there.

Joshua Oppenheimer: I think that's right. I think Adi is showing through his dignified example what kind of dialogue would be necessary for the society to move from this terrible impasse, this frozen state of fear and corruption, from that to something like healing. All of the confrontations between Adi and the perpetrators end in these kind of, these awkward silences, where the perpetrator's not able to say the next thing that needs to be said. We long for the social and political change that would make it possible for Adi to get the reconciliation for which he's hoping. And it doesn't come, except for one daughter who finds the courage to apologize on her father's behalf. And there's hope there. There's hope in Adi's own courage. But I also think maybe the most powerful and important redemption in the film is in the dignity and the love and even the grace of his family. That despite this horrific situation has sort of held together so beautifully for such a long time.

What I'm trying to do with it as a filmmaker, is to kind of compose music or sculpt with the artifacts carefully composed of these journeys that I take with people. I take these long, intimate journeys where we create new realities that don't exist otherwise, whether it's the confrontations between Adi and the perpetrators in The Look of Silence, or the dramatizations of the perpetrators in The Act of Killing. These are realties that never existed before the film, that are created for the film, that are historic. And that they'll have effects, yes, politically and on the characters and they're unprecedented in what they're doing for this, in this society where they're seen. But through this journey, we're then gathering material and trying to sculpt with it almost trying to paint with it. I'm trying to interpret it and form it into a kind of condensation for a viewer of all of the mystery. And horror and magic and pain that I've encountered through the journey of making the film. I'm trying to create that experience for a viewer.

Werner Herzog: Yeah. And that's what filmmaking is all about. But let me go back one moment to the political side of it. My wife Lena, you know her well, she keeps saying, filmmaking doesn't change anything, doesn't have any impact into politics until it does. Art doesn't have impact until it does. And in this case, yes, there are a few rare cases like in France, The Sorrow and The Pity, by Marcel Ophuls, which revealed to the French for the first time that a huge amount of French people were collaborating with the Nazis in the Vichy Regime, which they had flatly denied as a whole nation. And yet of course the story was different and the film shows it. In your case, it has triggered something momentous, normally films do not trigger anything when it comes to politics. But here it has. Can you explain a little bit?

Joshua Oppenheimer: Of course. So the first film, The Act of Killing prompted a fundamental transformation in how the media and the public in Indonesia talk about the past. Before, the media was silent, or even celebratory of the mass killings. Now they talk about the killings as a genocide and more importantly still they talk about the criminal regime that's been in power in one form or another ever since. And the film, The Act of Killing, began its life in secret, with secret screenings around Indonesia. Ultimately the screenings became public because of the media's support for the film. And in the end there's been thousands of screenings around the country and then millions of people seeing the film online. We made the film available for free online. And that opened a space in which the silence was broken and people could publicly embrace from the very beginning The Look of Silence. So The Look of Silence is distributed in Indonesia by two government bodies, the National Human Rights Commission and the Jakarta Arts Council. This could never have happened without The Act of Killing and it couldn't have happened at the beginning of The Act of Killing. It could never have happened without The Act of Killing. And the first screening of the film was held in Indonesia's largest theater, a venue for a thousand people, the Human Rights Commission put billboards around Jakarta announcing the screening. So 2,000 people came. Adi, the main character came to, as a surprise guest and received a 15-minute standing ovation from an audience that simply couldn't believe what he had done. Now this was National Heroes Day in Indonesia, coincidentally. It was November 10th, 2014. And trending on Twitter because Indonesia's the world's largest Twitter using country, was, we have a new national hero and his name is Adi Rukun. A month later, the Human Rights Commission launched the film nationwide with 500 public screenings. It's at this point, the moment that we're speaking, we're at 6,000 public screenings and the films have recently gone online and will be seen by many, many more people.

Werner Herzog: So Adi has become some sort of a national treasure, but not for all.

Joshua Oppenheimer: No.

Werner Herzog: How safe is he?

Joshua Oppenheimer: So Adi has not been threatened since the film came out, that's important to say. The family hasn't, in the end, had to leave Indonesia. We have had to have a team of five people working full-time to monitor the family's safety. And the family maintains visas to come to Denmark where I live, for as long as necessary, if there are any threats. Now there haven't been. That family is in a much more supportive community. The family's out from under the shadow of the perpetrators who've been threatening them and extorting them for 50 years. The children are in better schools. Adi is opening a brick and mortar optometry store now. But above all, I'd say that Adi has taken his place as a kind of inspiration and a key figure in the movement for truth, justice and reconciliation, which the film has energized in Indonesia which the film has catalyzed.

I think my work on the 1965 genocide's finished. I think the first chapter opened a nationwide and even worldwide discussion on what happened. The second chapter entered that space and said, look how urgently we need truth, justice and reconciliation. And the third chapter will be the struggle for that. And that will not be written by me, that will be written by the people of Indonesia.

Werner Herzog: But since you have hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage, all this footage will be out for let's say the Indonesian public in form of an online archive, because there's so much a treasure trove of opinions, of events.

Joshua Oppenheimer: Yeah, it's the largest audio visual archive relating to the genocide which actually is a sad thing. Given that it's pretty focused on one region, it's a sign of how little there is that this is the largest. And we're working now to make as much of it as possible open to the public and indexed so the public can find anything they want. Some of it deals with people who are still alive and who would if it becomes public, would need to be protected in the same way that my anonymous crew is protected, or Adi's family has been protected. So we have to make some of the archive will only be available for human rights activists and advocates and scholars. But as much as possible will be available for everybody.

Werner Herzog: Yeah. Of course, it has to do with solidified memory, but your film at its very core is about memory. And some of it is strange and almost fictitious memory of, for example, Adi's father who is kind of suffering from Alzheimer's. [He] finds himself -- even though it's his own home -- believing that he ended up stranded, got stranded in a foreigner's house and is helpless and tries to find an exit. It's really heartbreaking and of course all of it has to do with memory and vanishing of memory and changing stories because of memories activate things in a very strange way. And transform...

Joshua Oppenheimer: I was at a screening recently of a film and a friend from high school said to me, I hadn't seen in 25 years, and I don't know if you know the experience, when you meet someone from years ago you don't remember the texture of real relationship. He came up to me and he asked this question that I thought was so brilliant and as much talking as I've done about the film, it hadn't occurred to me to think of it in this way. He said, tell me about why you represent Adi's parents, especially his mother as so ethereal. And I thought that's a strange word to use, ethereal. But then I realized...

Werner Herzog: But they are.

Joshua Oppenheimer: She's between layers of time and it's Adi's parents in the film are sort of living at this sort of intersection of all these sheets of time. She's in the present, but she's in dialogue all the time almost incantatory dialogue with the ghost of her son, Ramli. She sees her son Adi as a reincarnation of Ramli. The scene with Adi's father where he can no longer remember where he is and thinks he's in a stranger's home and is going to be beaten up, that was actually really, in a sense, the genesis of the film.

Werner Herzog: But in fact he remembers very well that he fell in love and he believes he's 18.

Joshua Oppenheimer: Yes.

Werner Herzog: And he remembers that and believes he's 18 and he sings a song, a love song.

Joshua Oppenheimer: Right.

Werner Herzog: So he's caught in some memories that have transformed him into somebody who is back to 18.

Joshua Oppenheimer: I think we are our pasts. I think of course we live in the present, but everything, all our wrinkles and scars and memories and ways of reacting comes from the past. I think in this culture in particular, here we are, being filmed for television. It's this sort of constant present tense, forward, relentless, brutal erasure of the past. Looking to the present. So much of our media and our, our culture, even in the idea of journalism being the news. What's new? The idea that stories move us because they're new. I think that we are our pasts. And I think that again and again in The Look of Silence we hear people say, let the past be past. Let's move on. And we hear it in our political culture all the time. We hear politicians say, we need to move on. We can't get caught up with the past. But survivors in the film always say it out of fear. And perpetrators always say it as a threat, which means the past isn't past, it's right there. It's this open wound keeping survivors afraid and empowering perpetrators to threaten. And if the film has any message, it's that because we are our pasts, when we are divided by the past, there's no way for us to come together as human beings unless we find the courage to stop, look backwards, acknowledge what happened, try to understand it and not simply condemn it or in the case of the perpetrators, celebrate it. Try to understand it. So that we can move forward into the present, knowing ourselves really for the first time.

Joshua Oppenheimer: I want to go back to this scene with Adi's father crawling through the house because it's the only scene in The Look of Silence that Adi himself shot. Everything else was shot by me, but I'd given Adi a camera to look for images that could inspire the making of the film, knowing that after I made The Act of Killing, I would return to make this. And when I returned, he said to me, Joshua, I've spent seven years watching your footage with the perpetrators. It's changed me and I need to meet the men who killed my brother and see if they can take responsibility for what they've done. I said, absolutely not, it's too dangerous. There has never before been a film where survivors confront perpetrators while they're still in power. And Adi took out this camera with one tape and said, I'm sorry I never sent you this tape. Put it in the camera, pressed "Play" and showed me that scene. It was that. And he said, this was the first day my father couldn't remember anyone in the family, and we were trying to comfort him all day, but he would shriek with fear because we had become strangers to him. And at some point I was assigned, just make sure he didn't hurt himself. And I thought it was unbearable to watch dad crawling through the house in this way. And so I decided, I'll practice my shooting because it'll give me something to focus on and to think about while I'm still keeping an eye on him, because he couldn't bear just sitting there watching his father. And he started filming and realized, he said, I realized I was documenting the moment that it becomes too late for my father to heal. He's forgotten the son whose murder destroyed his life. He can't forget the fear. And now he'll never be able to work through or move on or heal because he can't remember what happened. We watched this scene play out and he said, I don't want my children to inherit this prison of fear from my parents and from me and I owe it to them as a parent to try and go to the men who have been extorting the family for so long, threatening the family and to say, look if you can just admit what you've done is wrong, we can forgive. He felt they would welcome this and that this would be a chance to give his children a future where they wouldn't be afraid, they wouldn't grow up afraid of the neighbors the way that Adi and everyone else in the family had.

Of course it fails.

Werner Herzog: So what do you think is going to happen now with the film? It will be released theatrically?

Joshua Oppenheimer: My film's been out in theaters.

Werner Herzog: It has been out in, in Indonesia already. It will be, or it has been online already, or....

Joshua Oppenheimer: It's both. The Look of Silence has already kind of done its theatrical journey around the world. It's screened in Indonesia now I think 6,000 times. And it's inspired the Indonesian history teachers association to create a new alternative history curriculum where they can say this is what we're supposed to teach you, but this is the truth. And for eleventh and twelfth graders that involves showing the film. So the film's now screening in hundreds of Indonesian schools. Something that again, we never could have imagined this four years ago, before The Act of Killing came out.

I think that I had the feeling that I thought of the film as like a seed, you know. And you know when you find a seed and you don't know what plant it is and you don't know what soil it needs, what conditions it needs. Does it need sunlight or shade or warmth or cool? A lot of water, a little water? I just planted it with the faith that somehow, at some point the conditions for it just to germinate and take root would come.

And I had no idea that, that Indonesia was ripe for that now and that these films would be this kind of mirror for Indonesia. You were asking at the beginning of this conversation, you were asking about journalism, I was saying, I think that what makes a documentary powerful is never that it simply brings us a new and important story. I think it's actually never the shock of the new that makes a film powerful, it's always the shock of the familiar. It's this moment where we recognize ourselves in the film. Something terrifying about ourselves, profound about ourselves...

Werner Herzog: Or finding, finding someone like your hidden secret brother inside of you and you become known to him.

Joshua Oppenheimer: Yes, exactly.

Werner Herzog: That's what your film is.

Joshua Oppenheimer: Exactly, and I feel that way about all films. I think even people you would want nothing to do with, whether it's Anwar Congo in The Act of Killing or Aguirre in Aguirre, Wrath of God. What makes it horrifying is the sense, oh yes, could this be me? Is this me? Or is this us? Yes, oh yes, oh yes it is but oh I wish it weren't.

Werner Herzog: Yeah.

Joshua Oppenheimer: And I think that that quaking moment of recognition, it's that shock; it's that sense that the film's a mirror. That's what the film has done for Indonesia and I hope in the United States, that's also what it does. It makes people think about, this film is not about Indonesian history. The 1965 Indonesian genocide was also American history, but we also know there's countless episodes of impunity like this here at home. And I hope people see the film as a mirror in that way.

Werner Herzog: Being a German, something of course touches a chord in our past, the German collective past, the time of barbarism, the time of the Holocaust, the time of the most unspeakable, unimaginable crimes against humanity. And of course it's not only Indonesia when we look at your films.

Joshua Oppenheimer: It's not. And yet I'm glad you mention the Holocaust because there's a moment in The Look of Silence where we see, and this is not to say what happened in Indonesia was in any way like the Holocaust. It was a different crime and a different place and a different context. But there's a moment in The Look of Silence where Adi's watching an NBC documentary where we see the genocide being reported pretty honestly in terms of the numbers of dead, in terms of the scale and scope of it. But in sort a sunny tone we hear them say, that Bali is now more beautiful without the Communists and the victims in Bali asked to be killed. And we see that the United States media was celebratory of the genocide while it took place. There's one maybe more important piece of the NBC news clip that Adi's watching though, where we learn that Goodyear, a major multinational corporation was harvesting the rubber for our tires and for our condoms using slaves drawn from death camps.
And this is of course in a different way, in a different scale, this is of course analogous to what I.G. Farben was doing to create synthetic rubber, only twenty years earlier. And the fact that this was reported on American television and there was no flood of angry letters into NBC complaining about the report or the tone of the report or simply expressing outrage at this finding is a sign I think of two things. First, it's a sign of how easily the media and political discourse can just dehumanize whole parts of the population. So that in 1967, Americans could accept this on the news. Even though the Holocaust happened only twenty years earlier.

The other thing it's a sign of though is that perhaps the ideological anticommunism which supposedly motivated every American Cold War intervention and participation and episodes of mass violence, perhaps that was not the real reason for our American participation. Perhaps ideological anticommunism was an excuse, a ruse, a pretext. Perhaps desperately clung to by the American perpetrators just as we see in The Look of Silence, the Indonesian perpetrators have their own lies and pretexts and excuses to justify what they do. Perhaps ideological anticommunism was for America in the Cold War, a pretext for the kind of murderous plunder that you see in that clip. We know that the United States provided weapons, training, funding to the death squads. We know the embassy provided lists of 5,000 names of Indonesian public figures, artists, journalists, leaders of any left-wing political party and handed the lists over to the army and would say, work down these lists, check off the names as you kill them and give the lists back to us when you're done. We don't know the extent of American aid, that remains classified. Every Freedom of Information Act request, even though it's 50 years ago, comes back basically, denied, or the documents that are returned are fully censored. And we cannot urge truth, justice and reconciliation in Indonesia until we as a nation also are able to acknowledge and be transparent about our role in these crimes. So one of the film's impacts has been that Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico saw the two films. Saw The Act of Killing and then The Look of Silence and introduced a resolution demanding that the United States declassify those documents, saying and also urging truth and reconciliation for Indonesia. And it's important that we recognize this is American history too.

Werner Herzog: And you can dig into it with much more authority because you are American citizen and you vote in the country.

Joshua Oppenheimer: You do not.

Werner Herzog: I'm a Bavarian. I'm Bavarian. Of course that's part of Germany, but it used to be a kingdom until a hundred years ago, independent, separate. But I see your point. But that's not the key to all of it, but it's part of an avalanche of digging up some, something that has to be dug up.

Joshua Oppenheimer: Yeah, I think that traveling around the United States with the film, American audiences will draw connections to the Native American genocide, to slavery, to Jim Crow, to the Guatemalan genocide, which Americans are more familiar because it was more recent and because it was such an open policy of the Reagan administration to support the death squads there. The people will draw these comparisons to impunity at home. And I really hope that's what people do with the film, they recognize that first of all we are our pasts and that they'll see the film as a mirror in which we see impunity everywhere.