A new per­spec­tive on atroc­ity

Com­pan­ion film on In­done­sian geno­cide shifts fo­cus from per­pe­tra­tors to vic­tims

The Washington Post Sunday - - MOVIES - BY STEVE DOL­LAR style@wash­post.com Dol­lar is a free­lance writer.

NEW YORK — Bald and mus­cu­lar, dressed in a black T-shirt, black pants and black shoes, Joshua Op­pen­heimer emerges from the dark­ness of a movie theater to stand again be­fore an au­di­ence and talk about In­done­sian geno­cide. He is ur­gent yet soft­spo­ken and strik­ing in ap­pear­ance, yet noth­ing too un­usual for the East Vil­lage. He could be a monk or a heavy-me­tal gui­tarist — call­ings with which he shares an in­ten­sity and a sense of pur­pose — rather than the doc­u­men­tary film­maker and MacArthur Fel­low whose 2012 “The Act of Killing” was as rad­i­cal a chal­lenge to non­fic­tion form as it was to a sys­tem re­spon­si­ble for the deaths of 1 mil­lion peo­ple.

Op­pen­heimer, 40, de­scribes that Academy Award-nom­i­nated film not as doc­u­men­tary but “a delir­ium.” He per­suaded now-el­derly hench­men who par­tic­i­pated in the 1965 geno­cide — which was of­fi­cially sanc­tioned as a purge of Com­mu­nist ag­i­ta­tors and their sym­pa­thiz­ers — to reen­act the killings as a way to make them con­front those ac­tions and ac­cept their guilt in an atroc­ity. The ploy made for grotesque rev­e­la­tions, provoca­tive in ways that won fans in even­tual ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers Werner Herzog and Er­rol Mor­ris, for in­stance, but that also drew crit­i­cism for tak­ing bold artis­tic li­cense with such grave sub­ject­mat­ter.

That the film­maker fears for his life should he ever again set foot in In­done­sia speaks to the work’s ef­fec­tive­ness. But there was more to come. Op­pen­heimer’s new film, “The Look of Si­lence,” which will open July 31 in Washington, is the com­pan­ion piece in the land­mark pro­ject, more than a decade in the mak­ing. The film shifts per­spec­tive from the per­pe­tra­tors to the vic­tims and the story of a fam­ily that has suf­fered pro­foundly in the long af­ter­math of the geno­cide.

“What does 50 years of liv­ing in fear do to a hu­man be­ing?” Op­pen­heimer asked an open­ing-night crowd in New York. The ques­tion was rhetor­i­cal but brought the di­rec­tor around to an oft-cited quo­ta­tion, from Wil­liam Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

That’s the case for Adi Rukun, the film’s pro­tag­o­nist, a mid­dle-aged op­tometrist who was born af­ter the geno­cide and never knew his brother Ramli, whose death has scarred the lives of his par­ents: his frail 100-yearold fa­ther, who has lost most of his sight and hear­ing, and his mother, who is the old man’s care­taker and also the chief mourner for Ramli. Rukun, who is rais­ing his own chil­dren, has col­lab­o­rated with Op­pen­heimer since 2004, when he be­gan meet­ing and film­ing par­tic­i­pants in the geno­cide.

As the film­maker dis­cov­ered as he met dozens of per­pe­tra­tors liv­ing freely with no reper­cus­sions, In­done­sia was some­thing like Ger­many af­ter World War II, but with the Third Re­ich still in power. “‘ What if Nazis had won?’ may not be the ex­cep­tion to the rule, it may be the rule it­self,” he said, speak­ing in an ear­lier con­ver­sa­tion. “I knew I’d make a sec­ond film about what it’s like for sur­vivors to have to live in such a regime.”

When Op­pen­heimer re­turned to In­done­sia in 2012, he knew the clock was run­ning. Once “The Act of Killing” was re­leased, it could en­dan­ger him. The win­dow was briefly open to make “The Look of Si­lence.” Rukun, who be­comes the film’s per­sis­tent, if gen­tle, cru­sader for truth and jus­tice, in­sisted that he be given a risky op­por­tu­nity. “He said, ‘I need to con­front the men who killed my brother,’ ” Op­pen­heimer re­called. Step by step, that’s what hap­pens.

The risks were cal­cu­lated. Each shoot was con­ducted with two cars wait­ing out­side. Prepa­ra­tions were made to whisk Rukun’s fam­ily to a safe lo­ca­tion if the need arose. Op­pen­heimer banked on the per­cep­tion of his close as­so­ci­a­tion with paramil­i­tary lead­ers and cab­i­net min­is­ters who played a role in the yet-un­seen “The Act of Killing.” And in an in­ci­den­tal stroke of luck that also pro­vides a sym­bolic im­age for the film, Rukun’s pro­fes­sion as a door-to-door vi­sion spe­cial­ist meant that all the in­ter­views in­cluded an eye exam.

“He’s talk­ing to peo­ple who are will­fully blind to the moral mean­ing of what they’re say­ing,” Op­pen­heimer said. In an early scene that is nearly in­com­pre­hen­si­ble, an op­er­a­tive in the geno­cide dis­cusses in grue­some de­tail the ne­ces­sity for the killers to drink the blood of their vic­tims — or else risk in­san­ity. Rukun re­places a lens in his op­to­met­ric rig and asks, “Is this more clear?” And, in­deed, as the sub­jects grad­u­ally be­come aware of what Rukun is af­ter, they be­come an­gry and threat­en­ing. But the point has been made. “You ask deeper ques­tions than Joshua,” one such sub­ject tells Rukun, and then in­vites him to leave.

“The eye test was con­ceived to make it safer,” Op­pen­heimer said. “When you’re hav­ing your eyes tested, you’re dis­armed. And if you’re asked ques­tions, you’re likely to an­swer hon­estly.”

The tool works as a metaphor in a film suf­fused with lyri­cal im­agery and sound. Op­pen­heimer con­ceived of the sound­track’s lay­ered record­ings of crick­ets as a ghost cho­rus, while soli­tary glimpses of a grassy land­scape or birds flock­ing across the night sky pro­vide re­flec­tive in­ter­ludes be­tween stom­ach-knot­ting en­coun­ters and the in­tense emo­tions evoked by Rukun’s fam­ily.

“Ev­ery sin­gle one of those beau­ti­ful shots speaks po­et­i­cally and di­rectly to his ideas,” said David Wil­son, co­founder of the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Mo., which cel­e­brated “The Look of Si­lence” by giv­ing Rukun a $35,000 “True Life” prize to open his own brick-and-mor­tar op­tom­e­try shop in the town where he re­lo­cated af­ter the film was shot. Although a vo­cal ad­vo­cate for the non­fic­tion avant-garde, Wil­son praised Op­pen­heimer for match­ing a cre­ative vi­sion to a sub­ject of geopo­lit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance. “You don’t get to go any­where you want to go. You have to bring a cer­tain rigor.”

Anony­mous, a co-pro­ducer and as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of the film — and one of many on the In­done­sian crew whose real names do not ap­pear in the cred­its — de­scribes Op­pen­heimer as “very spir­ited . . . pas­sion­ate, and also he has lots of pa­tience,” he said. “You need to wait for the mo­ment, to make it hap­pen, and get the right ma­te­rial — not only the ma­te­rial for the film, but also the truth, the real thing that we want to cap­ture.”

The key scene in the film comes from a se­ries of videos that Rukun made with a cam­era that Op­pen­heimer gave him. It oc­curs near the end of “The Look of Si­lence,” and it is the most heart­break­ing mo­ment in a story packed with tragedy. Rukun’s fa­ther has for­got­ten where he is and crawls through a court­yard, deaf and blind, ter­ri­fied that he is among strangers. It was the im­age that con­jured the rest of the movie.

“Adi told me, ‘ This is the day that it be­comes too late formy dad,’ ” Op­pen­heimer said. “He’s for­got­ten Ramli. He’s for­got­ten the son whose mur­der de­stroyed his fam­ily’s life. But he hasn’t for­got­ten his fear.” At that point, the film­maker said he de­cided that the film shouldn’t be about the ner­vous co-ex­is­tence of sur­vivors and per­pe­tra­tors, but rather “a kind of poem about mem­ory and obliv­ion,” with Rukun and his fam­ily as its in­ti­mate fo­cus.

“It’s not a win­dow into some far-off place with peo­ple you know lit­tle about,” he said, “but a mir­ror in which we see our­selves.”

“The Look of Si­lence” opens in Washington on Fri­day at the E Street Cin­ema. Joshua Op­pen­heimer will be on hand Fri­day for a Q&A af­ter the 7:15 p.m. screen­ing and to in­tro­duce the 10 p.m. screen­ing.


A still shot from “The Look of Si­lence,” a film by Joshua Op­pen­heimer that will open Fri­day in­Wash­ing­ton.

Op­pen­heimer’s new film tells the story of the Rukun fam­ily, which has suf­fered in the af­ter­math of the geno­cide. Adi Rukun, the pro­tag­o­nist, is an op­tometrist who per­formed eye ex­ams while in­ter­view­ing sub­jects.

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