Werner Herzog nailed the phenomenal impact of The Look of Silence when he told its director, Joshua Oppenheimer, that art can never make a difference. “Until,” the legendary filmmaker added, “it does.”
In 2012, Oppenheimer (with Herzog and Errol Morris as his executive producers) released The Act of Killing, an extraordinary, surreal, seemingly impossible film in which the perpetrators of Indonesia’s savage genocide in 1965 of over a million “communists” were invited to reenact their crimes on-screen. It didn’t take much coaxing. Indonesia’s gangsters still enjoy celebrity status, protected by a culture of mute fear that’s persisted for half a century.
Unbelievably, The Look of Silence, which Oppenheimer shot in concert with the first film, and which depicts a series of intense confrontations between a small-town optometrist and his brother’s killers, has changed all that.
“The government introduced a Truth and Reconciliation bill, I think in response to the debate that the film helped catalyze,” reports Oppenheimer, calling the Straight from L.A. shortly before the film’s opening on Friday (July 24). “And now the president has just said that he’ll apologize to the victims and the survivors in his next state of the union address.” Oppenheimer also adds that the bill “is woefully inadequate; it’s almost insulting in its present form,” but he sees it as the basis for the public to demand improvements—an unfathomable idea even 12 months ago. Equally remarkable is the response from Indonesia’s media.
“There’s an openness in the press about there having been a genocide, whereas before, with very few exceptions, the mainstream media was either silent or celebratory of the killings as a heroic extermination of the Indonesian left,” Oppenheimer says. Mercifully, this has afforded Adi Rukun, the subject of The Look of Silence, with some protection.
Not so much for his director.
“What’s difficult is that there still is a shadow state that operates with impunity that I think is behind the death threats that I continue to receive,” he says, adding that “it was a great sadness” that he consequently couldn’t attend the film’s premiere in Jakarta, which ended with a 15-minute standing ovation for Adi. In this light it’s easy to forget the risk that Adi initially took.
“I think he is brave to the point of folly,” says Oppenheimer. “And it was me who first told him, ‘Look, there’s no way we’ll shoot these confrontations.’ At first. Then he explained to me why it mattered, and then my crew and I discussed it, and we realized that it might be possible to shoot them because I had made The Act of Killing, but not yet released it, and so I was believed to be close across that region to the highest ranking perpetrators in the area and some of the most powerful Indonesians in the country.”
Even then, Oppenheimer describes a shoot that was fraught with terror, much of it palpably (if quietly) invading the screen. Yet we also see the infectious consequences of Adi’s grace, courage, and dignity. The Look of Silence is loaded with moments of intense revelation, but it’s one of the subtlest that Oppenheimer finds himself most attached to, when a woman is exposed to the depravity practised by her father.
“And instead of panicking and kicking us out of the house,” he begins, “which is what I think I’d do in a situation like that if I was her, she becomes very still, and responds to the ethical demands made by Adi’s so kind and empathic gaze, and listens to her conscience, and apologizes. And it’s fleeting, it’s faltering even—I think a minority of viewers miss it—but for me it was one of the most beautiful and delicate things I’ve ever seen in my life.”