Oscar 2016: I've Never Seen a Film Quite Like This Before... The Look of Silence

THE LOOK OF SILENCE is the latest film by Joshua Oppenheimer. It's companion film; THE ACT OF KILLING was nominated for an Oscar in 2013. When I first saw these films I knew I was watching something that went beyond anything I'd seen in documentary filmmaking. I wasn't just moved by the story I was in awe of the filmmaking itself. I wanted to know the process the methodology. They were different and certainly confounding. They are also brilliant. I sat down with Joshua for about twenty minutes. He explained his thoughts and form. It's as if he already knew what I wanted to ask without me having to ask him. In 1965 there was a massive genocide in Indonesia. Over a million people were killed. This film is about it's survivors and the killers who are still in power today. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Molly: You're being nominated for an Oscar. Were you also nominated for a BAFTA?

Joshua: I wasn't, no. It's funny, because The Act of Killing won the BAFTA, and it won for its uncut version. I don't know if you know, but The Act of Killing is in two versions. There is the US theatrical version, which is about two hours long, and then there was the full version, which was the theatrical version everywhere else, two hours and 40 minutes long.

Molly: I saw it on Netflix.

Joshua: Oh, so then there were two versions, something called the director's cut and something called the theatrical cut.

Molly: So should I go back and see the director's cut?

Joshua: You should, if you haven't seen it. Werner Herzog and I just did a dialogue in Sundance, and he announced, "It's not 40 minutes longer, it's 15 miles deeper." That was his comment about it. I'm not even sure it's a documentary anymore, especially if you're interested in form. I think it's kind of a fever dream in a way that even the shorter version is not.

Molly: I am interested in form, what is your form?

Joshua: I think that one way of answering that is talking about method. I think what I do is I take these long journeys together with characters whom I feel are at sort of the epicenter of some enormous problem -- usually involving pretense, involving deception, involving lies that people tell to justify a situation which is intolerable. Together with these characters, I take a long and intimate journey where we actually create new realities that wouldn't exist before. We create situations that, in the case of ... I think both The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are in some ways historical, in the sense that there's never before been these confrontations between survivors and perpetrators in Indonesia, or indeed in film -while the perpetrators are still in power. I don't just try to show you the process from a distance. As a viewer, I try to immerse you in the space that's created. I think, in terms of form, what I'm trying to do is ... I don't think of myself as a storyteller. I think of myself ... I think that storytelling is a kind of somewhat inaccurate analogy, especially in what you called branded documentary, when we were chatting before. It's a kind of inaccurate analogy for the experience I have when I watch a movie that moves me ... That truly shakes me deeply, that shakes me to the core. What I try to create out of this material is a series of experiences, moments, spaces, in which you don't just perceive a physical space but you perceive the poetic truth of a space, the hidden. In the case of The Look of Silence, for example, the fear, the silence, the ghosts that would not be immediately visible if you walked into an Indonesian village. I try to create tones, and in succession, cumulatively, these constitute an experience for a viewer, and change the viewer. There's a reason that things are invisible, and it's usually that people are afraid or uncomfortable to talk about the things that need to be talked about. These realities inevitably push everybody -- viewer, filmmaker, and participant -- beyond their comfort zone, within the overall safe space of watching a film or making a film. I think it's in that sense that I try to create experiences where, in a sense, nothing quite feels safe, and where the experience is overwhelming; a little bit like a tsunami, where you get the sense that everyone involved -- the participants, the filmmakers, and the viewers -- are somehow overwhelmed by something that's unleashed, and yet that's very, very necessary.

Molly: Before you approached this story, did you know you were going to do it this way?

Joshua: Methodologically, it emerges as you go along. You have a sense of metaphor that guides you like a pole star. The perpetrator who actually we don't ever see in The Act of Killing but we see in The Look of Silence, who presents me with that illustrated memoir, after he took me down to the river and showed how he killed, he said to me at the end of the day, "Oh, I could have done this so much better. I'm a theater director, an amateur theater director. Why don't I make a play of this book?" And I thought, "My god." This metaphor of a death squad that makes a musical was maybe a metaphor that guided the creation of The Act of Killing, but I never at that point imagined that Anwar Congo, whom I hadn't met yet and wouldn't meet for another year and a half and his friends would want to propose dramatizing what they'd done, and their feelings about what they'd done, in the styles of their favorite Hollywood movies. If you choose a metaphor correctly, that gets at the essential moral and poetic truth of a situation, invariably, if you dig gently, it seems like things come round to that metaphor by themselves, because the metaphor was well chosen.

Similarly, with The Look of Silence, I had the idea of Adi doing the eye exams. Adi was the one who wanted to confront the perpetrators, and at first I said no, it would be too dangerous. Adi convinced me to try, and we found a way of doing it safely. Actually, it would serve a series of simple practical purposes: one, it would build an instant intimacy -- physical intimacy -- between Adi and the perpetrators, where it was clear to the perpetrators that Adi saw them as human beings, which was essential if Adi was going to have any chance getting the reconciliation for which he was hoping. And then all the questions of editing grammar, and where you leave space, and where you allow awkward pauses to linger, and where commentary comes in, and where I interrupt with questions from behind the camera; whether there should be music, when there should be this ... And there's almost no music in my films, no score. I was inspired by Bresson's point, "Don't use a score. Let the sounds be the score."

Molly: Let the sounds be the score. It felt like I was there in a way.

Joshua: I want to just say one more thing about those choices about sound and so on, just to tie it into your question. It was that those are choices you make as you go, and when you get that wrong -- and I don't think you can ... You can learn by studying film and studying the grammar of film, and being rigorous in your study of film, and thinking what's working and what's not working, but always in that study you have to guide yourself from what feels wrong. When I make a wrong choice in the editing room, which I do when I'm trying things, it feels like a dagger to the heart. It feels like, "Oh no, that's awful." It's like the tiniest detail, and my editor will say, "Oh, that's just ... It's okay, we can deal with it later," and I'm like, "No, we have to fix it now because I can't watch it. It's sort of sickening." I think one thing I'm particularly allergic to is sentimentality. Sentimentality exists to basically ... To reassure the viewer. Kundera described sentimentality as a second tear. He says you cry a first tear when something's sad; you cry the second tear because you know the whole world is crying the first tear with you. That's sentimental. It's kitsch. It's escapism, because you escape from the pain of the first tear in the fellowship of the second tear. It's a tear of self-pity.

Molly: Music can manipulate the audience, and it can -

Joshua: Music isn't always sentimental. It can open up whole new layers of meaning that are -But these feelings are there in the editing. With this film, music felt wrong because it becomes a layer of comment from a filmmaker, from a storyteller, that even at its most effective somehow distances you from the raw immersion in the moment.

Molly: You're a great filmmaker.

Joshua: Oh, thank you.

Molly: A man in the film says, "We deserve a trip to America, because the Americans taught us to hate Communists." What does that mean?

Joshua: The Americans did arm the death squads, fund the death squads, train the death squads. The details of that lie in the archives of the CIA, and the Defense Department, and the Defense Attaché documents, and the CIA job documents from the period. All of those remain classified, even though fifty years has gone by. Despite numerous Freedom of Information Act requests, they are still classified. Historians -- and I've been party to some of these appeals -- have appealed those denials of our FOIA requests. They still ... Appeals get denied. We participated in this genocide. It's American history. We see also in the film, maybe just as powerfully as that, that Goodyear was using ... We see this reported almost admiringly on an NBC documentary that Adi Rukun is watching in the film. We see that Goodyear was harvesting the rubber that went into its tires using slaves drawn from a death camp. This is of course what German corporations -- in fact, IG Farben was doing on the periphery of Auschwitz only twenty years earlier to make synthetic rubber. This is a pretty profound stain on America's record as a force for freedom and democracy in the post-war world, and should give us pause, leading us to wonder to what extent ideological anti-communism was the real motivation for American participation in the 1965 killings -- or in so many other Cold War interventions -- or to what extent was that an excuse, so that American perpetrators could do what they had to do or wanted to do on behalf of their corporate clients in just the same way that Indonesian perpetrators we see in my films have their excuses that they cling to, but which also might be self-deception.

Molly: You didn't focus on that. That could be -

Joshua: A whole other film.

Molly: I wonder if there's something that you want to say that you haven't been able to say because no one's asked you.

Joshua: If there's something I want to say, I'm pretty good at working it into my thoughts. What's best in an interview is when I try to just be present and come across new ideas as I go, and that happens. Even ... I think it happened once in this interview, although I don't remember what it was.

Molly: The death squad leaders descriptions of how they killed people are very graphic. How can you help me understand the psychology of this culture? It's so a matter of fact no emotion no remorse.

Joshua: The psychology of his graphic boasting?

Molly: It's so graphic, they did heinous things to people, and yet they are...

Joshua: I think it's this -

Molly: But they're not serial killers, but yet ... That's the part I need to understand.

Joshua: I think, first of all, politically, even if they were Machiavellian James Bond villains they would have found that going around boasting about their crimes would effectively shore up their power, because it would make everyone afraid of them. Inong, the first man who talks about drinking blood in the film, tells the story of drinking blood with these red test lenses on his face, looking really like he's dangling this awful truth in front of the audience. Then Adi asks him very calmly, "Are people afraid of you?" And he says, "Yes, everyone around here is afraid of me." You realize in that moment, they're afraid of him not because of what he did, but because of the way he's been talking about it ever since. First of all, the boasting about atrocities is a weapon of terror. It serves to ... A tool of intimidation. It keeps everybody afraid, and builds the power of the perpetrators. Now, part of that threat is, "Don't challenge our version of these events, because if you challenge our claim that this was right ..." First of all it would undermine the legitimacy of their power, but also, how would they live with themselves? That comes to a seemingly opposed account of the explanation of the boasting of the perpetrators, which I think is actually indistinguishable from what I've just said. I think every perpetrator I filmed lives their life in kind of a manic flight from a cloud of guilt and shame that follows them everywhere they go, and they probably outrun it by day. Some of them may have successfully kind of killed off their own conscience -- numbed themselves, as Adi says about one of the perpetrators in The Look of Silence -- so that they can live with themselves. But most of them, at night, when they stop to sleep, this cloud of guilt and shame catches up with them and insinuates itself into their dreams and gives them terrible nightmares. Yet, because they've never been removed from power, they still have available to them a victor's history that justifies what they've done, and so they do the human thing. They cling to that victor's history. They try to take these bitter, rotten memories of atrocity and sugarcoat them in the sweet language of heroism, the sweet language of this victor's history that justifies what they've done. That accounts for the boasting. That accounts for why they don't merely say, "We eliminated the Communists and it was heroic," but they have to go into the grisly details. How else can you account for the need to go into the unseemly, grisly details, apart from the fact that those are the most bitter memories for them to swallow. Those are the ones they need to somehow make okay, by first of all declaiming them, dissociating themselves, almost, from ... Recounting them not in the kind of mode of remembrance, but rather in the mode of performance, which can be a kind of mask, but also to frame them in this heroic language so they can sugar-coat these most painful memories so they can live with themselves.

Molly: Can you forgive them like Adi hopes? Or it's not about that...

Joshua: It's not about that, for me. I think that they have escaped justice. Some of them, at least; Anwar Congo, I do not think has escaped punishment. Even ones who are not racked by guilt I think have escaped punishment, because in order to live with what they've done they've had to hollow themselves out, and what kind of life is that? It was Socrates who said the unexamined life is not worth living. Well, these men are either tormented or completely hollow, and don't think it's my place to forgive people who haven't taken responsibility. I think that if they could acknowledge what they've done was wrong, and sincerely and consistently said, "This was wrong," I would understand the survivors like Adi being ready to forgive.

The Look of Silence is nominated for an Oscar for 2016. It goes with out saying that I hope it wins based on it's merit and moreover gives voice to a problem that I think a lot of Americans don't know anything about. It's important that we know about these stories. And the moral culpability of genocide. Go the www.thelookofsilence.com and participate.