Giving sight to those who refuse to see
Texas-born filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s horrifyingly beautiful 2012 documentary The Act of Killing made high art of the lowest human behaviour.
Unrepentant killers of as many as a million people following the 1965 military coup in Indonesia happily reenacted their brutal deeds. Many imitated classic Hollywood gangster movies and Bollywood dance numbers in the film, which earned an Oscar nomination for best documentary feature.
The perpetrators justified their macabre actions with boasts such as: “War crimes are defined by the winners.”
Long a resident of Indonesia, although he currently lives in Copenhagen, Oppenheimer, 40, revisits the country’s shame with The Look of Silence, opening Friday. Fifty years have passed since the genocide, but memories still sear — except for those who pretend not to remember at all.
The Star sat down with Oppenheimer during TIFF 2014, where The Look of
Silence had its Canadian premiere. The film adopts the point of view of survivors, in particular the family of an eye doctor named Adi Rukun, whose older brother perished in the post-coup bloodletting. You’re probing an event that is still a hot issue in Indonesia, with many of the genocidal killers and apologists still in positions of power. Has your personal safety been at risk?
I feel fairly safe, although I don’t return to Indonesia now. The core of this movie was actually shot in 2012, after I finished editing The Act of Killing, but before we released it. Because I knew that once we premiered The Act of Killing I could no longer safely return to Indonesia. Whatever window there was for filming had to be before that first film came out, for the survivors and for me. It was too dangerous for all of us. Confronting the past is a theme you’re exploring here, but on a tragic level. And some people don’t even know about the killings.
We’re all trapped by our pasts. How do you cope with it? Of course, the national official history doesn’t go into the details of the mass killings, why should it? But the people who actually did the killing need to somehow live with these very grisly details so they can try and candy-coat the rot with their soaring rhetoric. . . . You need to acknowledge the past before the past can ever be put away and you can move on to something like healing. There’s a strong sense from the perpetrators that they’re attempting
to dehumanize their victims, the way the Nazis did in the Holocaust.
Yes and there are many, many ways of doing that. Of course, you can do it through anti-Semitism or, in this case, anti-communist rhetoric. You can also do it through a performance and language, and acting. . . . Instead of while you’re killing somebody looking at the thing you’re doing and thinking, “Now I’m killing,” you can imagine yourself on some grave historical stage and look out at the audience of future generations, and smile and beam and do it thoughtlessly. You have interviews with people boasting about killing, while others seem to be in complete denial. Are some people unable to process it?
I think absolutely there’s a spectrum as to how people respond to traumatic events. But I don’t think any of the perpetrators we see in the movie deny what they did, because they’ve won. They’ve been allowed to continue insisting that it’s right. The title of The Look of Silence is so significant, because guilt is an emotion that is hard to hide behind your eyes. And you have an optometrist looking into people’s eyes.
And there’s the sense that somebody is trying to help people see, people who are wilfully blind. Adi is trying to help people see who don’t want to see. This interview was edited and condensed.