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10 June 2015updated 27 Sep 2015 3:52am

Joshua Oppenheimer: “Non-fiction cinema is doing what journalism should be doing”

The US director is continuing to expose the stories of Indonesia's past atrocities, and sees film as a conduit to subjects investigative journalism no longer has the resources to reach.

By Yohann Koshy

Joshua Oppenheimer pinches the fabric of his t-shirt. “This is an H&M t-shirt that was made in Bangladesh”, he says. “I’ve had it a few years. The people who made this shirt may be under a pile of rubble now – I don’t know. I have an intimate relationship with these people and yet I’m not practising the empathy I need to feel with them”.

The capitalist ontology of a cotton t-shirt may seem like an odd topic for the US film director to arrive at, but it provides a useful analogy for The Look of Silence – Oppenheimer’s companion piece to The Act of Killing, a film about the Indonesian killings of 1965-66 – as it covers the secrets that exist within objects, bodies and societies.

Most of these secrets are historical. From 1965-66, the Indonesian military, with British and American support, directed a series of anti-communist purges, killing at least 1m unionists, landless farmers, intellectuals and “communists”. The perpetrators and champions of this genocide are still in power. The film shows that school textbooks and talkshows deem the atrocity a glorious necessity and reveals that, for 50 years, the ruling class has terrorised the victims’ families into silence.

“It’s something everybody knows but doesn’t talk about”, Oppenheimer says. “It divides Indonesians from each other and from themselves”. During The Look of Silence, people acknowledge these secrets but hope they remain unexamined.

“The oligarchs and military generals say, ‘Let the past be past’, because their political position and massive wealth rests on a particular version of the past in which the slaughter was heroic,” Oppenheimer adds. “The survivors say it too, but out of fear”.

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His film attempts to interrupt this stasis.

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While The Act Of Killing uses re-enactment to exorcise guilt from a perpetrator, The Look of Silence’s method is different. Adi is an optician whose brother was dismembered by the death squads before he was born. Adi visits patients in the community to test their eyesight, but the appointments disguise a careful inquiry. He asks them about the past, looking for memories of the genocide. Much of the film’s moral work is done through Adi’s eyes: there is an empathetic quality to his observation – his “look” – that proves disarming. Soon he is speaking to thuggish politicians, complicit gangsters, and the family of his brother’s killer.

The tension, and even danger, during these conversations is palpable. One politician, in a not-so-coded threat, demands Adi stop his questioning because, if he doesn’t, history will repeat itself. It is terrifying, but also revealing: under Adi’s gaze, the powerful retreat to contradictions.

“The fact that they threaten us as much as they do indicates how afraid they were – not of Adi or me but fundamentally of themselves”, says Oppenheimer, acknowledging the scene was “a frightening moment”. These dialogues, however, do not culminate in a triumphalist mood. That would undermine the purpose of his art, which is not to produce resolution, “but to seduce us into confronting our most painful truths, like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes. It’s about provoking a confrontation with the shockingly familiar”.

But Oppenheimer’s accomplishments are more than abstract. After The Act of Killing received an Academy Award nomination, the Indonesian President’s spokesperson acknowledged that the killings were “a crime against humanity” – an admission that represented an “about-face for the government”, as Oppenheimer describes it.

So, in terms of its consequences, is his work a form of investigative journalism? “I don’t think of myself as a journalist; I have no training in journalism,” he responds. “I think one of the problems is that genuine investigative journalism has been so eviscerated, so underfunded, that non-fiction filmmakers volunteer to fill in that space. And that’s one of the biggest threats to non-fiction cinema as an art. Some of our greatest talents are making great works that are fundamentally what journalism should be doing”.

And journalism receives the appropriate treatment in The Look Of Silence. The only archival footage is from a 1967 NBC News report and it shows the profession at its most subservient: a reporter cheerleads the Goodyear Company’s exploits in Indonesia where it used political prisoners as slave labour.

“What we learn is not only that the American media was presenting the atrocities as good news but that, in a direct and sunny way, it was describing American corporations as using labour from death camps – effectively doing what German corporations did on the periphery of Auschwitz,” says Oppenheimer. 

American ideology haunts The Look Of Silence, but, as with The Act Of Killing, it is an allusion rather than a subject. In fact, Oppenheimer is amazed “by how many people criticise [him] for not making a historical primer about US involvement in Cold War atrocities”. His task is more demanding; he is involved with the social realities of the present.

We return to jumping beans, common to Indonesia, as a visual metaphor throughout the film. “I gave Adi’s daughter those jumping beans and felt there was something magical I couldn’t put to words in the way she was playing with them,” Oppenheimer reflects. 

The symbolism of these images – and that of Adi’s profession as an optician – is never overwrought. How does he endow these objects with meaning? “When you see elements in reality, you harvest, plant and grow them as metaphors. Then they have to outstay their narrative welcome and force a question: why is this image still on screen?” But the visual articulacy of Oppenheimer’s films aren’t his primary concern – that’s “just instinctual”, he insists.

Oppenheimer can’t go back to the country where he spent ten years working; he hasn’t officially been banned, but believes it’s no longer safe for him to return. But he remains in close contact with Adi, whose family has moved to a different part of the country and devised a “plan B” should it need to evacuate.

As for Indonesia itself, its mainstream media for the first time is “talking about the present day legacy” of the killings. This means, according to Oppenheimer, that “despite whatever efforts there may be to cling to the old lies, there’s now a struggle over history”.

Yohann Koshy is the editor of Whitey On The Moon magazine.