Josh Oppenheimer Wants to Reinvent the Human Rights Film

by Patricia Aufderheide

thelookofsilenceAt the Based on a True Story conference associated with the True/False Film Fest, filmmaker Josh Oppenheimer explained why his latest film, The Look of Silence, is not about past genocide but about current trauma.

The maker’s earlier Oscar-nominated work, The Act of Killing, followed Indonesian gangsters who are still congratulating themselves on their work in the mid-1960s murdering workers who were accused of being Communists. In The Look of Silence, he follows a survivor—the younger brother of a man whose murder was, unusually, witnessed. The survivor begins a process of confronting murderers who are still supported by the most powerful political forces in the society.

The second film actually was the first one Oppenheimer conceived, he explained. It turned out to be too dangerous for the subjects of the film—the survivors and relatives of victims—to expose themselves. They encouraged him to make a film instead about the perpetrators. Eventually, releasing The Act of Killing paved the way for them to undertake the challenge of telling their story.

Oppenheimer early on started realizing that not only were perpetrators proud of their work, but that their storytelling had a shared theatrical quality; they were re-enacting their lives.

I followed two perpetrators who showed me how they killed people at a river’s edge. And I heard them boasting in very similar ways. And I thought, It’s as though I’m in Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, but the Nazis are still in power. Not only are they boasting, but they are reading from a shared script.  But not only that–here was an atrocity that was similar in pattern to other atrocities I had heard about, in sub-Saharan Africa, in Vietnam, in Central and South America. Not only is it like the Nazis have won, but it’s not a nightmarish science fiction scenario. This impunity is not an exception but the rule. It’s the story of our times.

Then I realized I would make two films, one of them would be about the stories, the fantasies, the lies perpetrators tell themselves to live with themselves. A film about escapism, fantasy and guilt, a flamboyant fever dream of a film. But I knew I would make another, about what it means for human beings to live with genocide and unresolved trauma, and a trauma never ends because the perpetrators stay in power.


Many critics have commented on techniques of re-enactment in both of Oppenheimer’s films. But he insisted on the word “dramatization.” “What we’re seeing is dramatization of the present day fantasies, scripts, stories the perpetrators are telling themselves so that they can live with themselves.“

Oppenheimer also dismissed the notion that dramatizations besmirch documentary, noting that an observational, fly-on-the-wall cinema is impossible. “There’s a claim that the camera is a window on to a preexisting reality. But really the director and subjects are collaborating to simulate a reality in which they pretend that the camera is not present.

The people who would have us believe that the masterpieces of direct cinema are made through a film crew that becomes like a fly on the wall would have us believe that if the crew is there long enough, the family will behave as if they are not there. That’s idiocy. It’s absurd. No one could possibly confuse the state of being alone with your mother with that of the same convo with a film crew. Once you recognize that, all docs us are performance. People are playing themselves.

The present, not the past

Oppenheimer’s goal in these films was to create empathy, and immerse viewers in the experience that has been submerged for so long. “Far too many documentaries dealing with atrocity approach the atrocity either through a campaigner or a hero that is fighting the good fight on our behalf. It’s a way of creating a less overwhelming position for the viewer. It makes it easier for the viewer to believe, the future is in good hands. And maybe you can donate or sign a petition and get on with your life. But it doesn’t serve any understanding of the atrocity.”

Although both films uncover long-buried history, Oppenheimer understands them as about the present. “In genocide, nothing can put right. Not only were lives taken, but nothing can make whole the lives that have been destroyed by fear and silence. I thought the whole film should be a poem in memorial to all that has been destroyed, in the face of impunity. Until we recognize that terrible toll taken by impunity, there can be no optimistic ending, nothing can restore all that’s been lost in the last 50 years.

“We should pause, and listen, and strain to listen to all that’s been destroyed.”

Silence as sound

If you think you saw The Act of Killing already, Oppenheimer said, think again. The version shown in the U.S. was trimmed for a more commercial release in U.S. theaters. And it’s lacking the aesthetic constructions that allow the full impact of the film to register.

“Every intense sequence in The Act of Killing in the directors’ cut ends wth an abrupt cut and silence and cut to a derelict landscape, a hard sound cut into these landscape shots. The film is shifting its perspectives from the outraged distance with which we watch the perpetrators to the absent data that I hope haunts every frame of The Act of Killing.

There’s almost no music in either of the films. In The Look of Silence, “most of the film exists in this quiet landscape. There’s the sound of crickets—which we crafted. There are four layers of crickets, depending on how intimate we are to the action. “

Fear divides

One scene in the film was the experience that for Oppenheimer ended up structuring the whole film. His main character Adi’s aged father has fallen into dementia, and cannot recognize his own family. This leads him to creep and crawl in fear through his house, reliving the terror of former days, unable to find a safe place.

Adi told Oppenheimer, “To me, my father is trapped in a prison of fear. It’s like he’s in a prison cell and can’t even find the door.”

That made Adi want to proceed with the film, and to confront perpetrators. “I don’t want my children to inherit this prison.” He hoped that confrontation would lead not only to public awareness but ultimately to reconciliation. It was a wildly idealistic hope, but Oppenheimer thought that at least he could make the trauma of living the suppressed violence visible.


Confronting the perpetrators was dangerous, though.  Officials had already warned them off the project. But with the family firm in its conviction, they proceeded. “We had a getaway car ready. We came with mobile phones with only the number of the Danish embassy. Adi would come without ID so they couldn’t figure things out before we got to an embassy. But we never were detained because it was so unprecedented, because Adi is so gentle, because no one expected it. “

Adi’s family pushed to continue despite the danger. “After we showed the family the first footage of confrontation, everyone said this is really important. We agreed not to release the film unless we could secure the family’s safety. And we did. The family moved to a different part of Indonesia. It is tragic that those who try for reconciliation have to be treated as fugitives. But Adi has traveled with the film in Indonesia and received standing ovations from Indonesians who are impressed with his courage.”

The Act of Killing opened a space for this work, Oppenheimer said. The editor of the leading magazine in Indonesia saw it at a secret screening, and, Oppenheimer recalled, “called me up to say he’d been censoring stories about the killings as long as he’d been in his job. He said, ‘I don’t want to do it any more, because I don’t want to grow old like Anwar.’“ The magazine sent 60 journalists to get boastful perpetrator testimony from all over the country, including  from places no one even knew killings had taken place. Their double-issue sold out three editions, and then became a book.

In the first two weeks in Indonesia of release, 120,000 people in Indonesia have seen The Look of Silence—about three times as many as saw The Act of Killing in the U.S.  Oppenheimer plans to provide a free online version in Indonesia of The Look of Silence, as he did with The Act of Killing. The film is on the film festival circuit in the U.S., and will be released in theaters in the summer, before appearing on the public TV series POV.


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