‘The Look of Silence’ Interview: A conversation with director Joshua Oppenheimer and film subject Adi Rukun

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I was incredibly fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to interview Joshua Oppenheimer, director of the Oscar-nominated The Look of Silence, and his film protagonist Adi Rukun. Oppenheimer was nominated previously for his astounding film The Act of Killing, which documented perpetrators of the 1965-66 Indonesian massacres reenacting their murderous past as a means of catharsis and sobering self-reflection. Now with the companion piece, The Look of Silence, Joshua shifts focus by giving voice to the victims of this tragedy, forced to remain silent about the atrocity out of fear…until now. Joshua, Adi and the entire Rukun family are symbols of bravery, fighting against a decades-long oppression by confronting active participants in the genocide who continue to remain in power. Below you’ll continue to be blown away by the heroism of Joshua Oppenheimer and Adi Rukun, two men from two very different worlds who each share a devotion to social justice and unearthing truth at all costs. Check out what Joshua and Adi have to say about their experience working on “Best Documentary” favorite, The Look of Silence

Awardscircuit.com: First off, I want to say congratulations on the success of the film and the subsequent accolades for the movie, including your recent Oscar nomination. I would like to start off by asking how the idea to make The Look of Silence came about. Was it always the plan to tell the victim point-of-view as a companion piece or did it come to fruition during the filming of your first movie, The Act of Killing?

Joshua Oppenheimer: I always knew there would be two films from very early on. The Look of Silence is really the film that I initially set out to make when I started working with [Adi Rukun] and his family all the way back in 2003. Adi took on the position of being the center of the film and started gathering survivors to tell their stories. After three weeks, the [Indonesian] army threatened all of them, telling them not participate in the film and visiting them one by one. [The survivors] called me to Adi’s family’s home at midnight and encouraged me not to give up, saying, “You’re here; you speak the language – try to film the perpetrators.” I thought that was a frightening suggestion, a little crazy because the perpetrators would dismiss the survivors’ allegations, but they said, “Please, really try [to continue filming].” So I approached the perpetrators; Adi pointed out the first one and I found out they were immediately open [to talking about the past] and boastful. The survivors asked to see the [footage of the perpetrators], and upon seeing it they said [I] must continue to film the perpetrators because anyone who sees [the footage] will be forced to acknowledge the the terrible and important way that the [Indonesian] genocide hasn’t ended. The perpetrators are still in power and millions of survivors are still living in fear, and their lives are being diminished by fear.

From that point on, I felt entrusted to [continue filming] on behalf of the survivors and ultimately the whole human rights community in Indonesia. More and more people and organizations attached themselves to my work to do this work that Indonesians couldn’t do themselves, which is to film the perpetrators. I spent the first two years filming every perpetrator I could find. Anwar Congo was the forty-first perpetrator I met, the main character in my first film, The Act of Killing. I lingered on him because I felt his pain was close to the surface and that actually the [perpetrator] boasting that I spent two years filming was not really pride but the opposite: a defensive reaction to guilt, trauma and fear.

'The Look of Silence' director and 2016 Oscar nominee, Joshua Oppenheimer
‘The Look of Silence’ director and 2016 Oscar nominee, Joshua Oppenheimer

Six months into that two-year period, I filmed the scene where the [two perpetrators] took me down to the river, taking turns playing victim and perpetrator, and it was that day that I first had the thought, “Well they’re smelling flowers and helping each other gently down this slippery embankment…it’s like I wandered into Germany forty years after the Holocaust only to find that the Nazis are still in power…if the rest of the world had celebrated the Holocaust while it took place.” That evening, I went home and noted there should be two films: one about why the perpetrators are boasting in this way – I hadn’t yet met [Anwar Congo] so I hadn’t yet concluded [the behavior] was defensive. Why are [the perpetrators] not giving me sober testimony? Why is it so much like “performance”? Performance is always intended for an audience. Who’s their imagined audience? How do they want to be seen? How do they see themselves? But also, what is it like for survivors to live in such a society, surrounded by the men who killed their loved ones…afraid, boastful?

I continued filming the perpetrators all the way until 2010 and then went home to edit The Act of Killing. I gave Adi a small camera to use as a notebook to look for images that might inspire the second film, knowing I would return as soon as I could. As soon as I finished editing The Act of Killing but before it came out – at which point I knew I wouldn’t be able to return safely again to Indonesia for quite awhile – I came back to shoot The Look of Silence, and Adi said to me right away, “I spent seven years watching footage of the perpetrators – it’s changed me. I need to meet the man who killed my brother. I said, “Absolutely not, it’s too dangerous. There’s never before been a film about survivors confronting their perpetrators who are still in power.” Adi took out that camera I had given him and one tape, and apologized for not sending me this one tape and showed me the only scene in the film that he shot: the scene where his father was crawling through the house at the end, calling for help.

[Adi] said to me, “My dad has forgotten the son who was murdered that destroyed our family’s life but he cannot forget the fear…he’s going to die in a prison of fear. Millions of survivors will die in this prison of fear and I don’t want my children to inherit this prison of fear from my father, my mother and from me. As a parent, I owe it to [my children] to try and approach the perpetrators, showing them that I can forgive them if they admit what they’d done was wrong.” [Adi] thought the perpetrators would welcome [his confrontation] as a chance to stop their manic, defensive boasting and be forgiven by one the victims’ families. I was moved and said, “Let me think about this.” I talked to my crew and they pointed out that the shooting of The Act of Killing was well known across the region because I was filming with the most powerful man in the country, and yet no one had seen the film yet. The men Adi wanted to confront were only regionally – not nationally – powerful and would not dare even to detain us, let alone physically attack us, so we realized we could shoot these confrontations. I told Adi we were prepared to abandon [the filming] at any point if it’s too dangerous, and we had to make sure his family was fully comfortable with it before we take any meaningful risks. We have to be prepared never to release this film if we can’t find a way of doing it safely.

“If we succeed,” I said [to Adi], “I don’t think we’ll get the apology you’re hoping for. I think you coming as gentle and dignified as you are will make it harder, not easier, for the perpetrators [to admit their wrongdoing]. They’ll look at your gait; they’ll see you’re gentle. You’ll look at them as human beings; they’ll see you as a human being, then they’ll see [Adi’s murdered brother] Ramli as a human being, and they’ll ultimately see all their victims as human beings. That will make them panic because all the lies they’ve told themselves, justifying what they’ve done for all this time, is based on dehumanizing their victims, and in that moment [of confrontation] they’ll become defensive and angry. They’ll scramble for new lies to justify their actions.” I said, “If we can show why we failed, with empathy and precision, we can make visible the abyss of fear dividing everybody in this [Indonesian] society, and we can make anyone who sees [The Look of Silence] support truth, justice and reconciliation, and thereby succeed through the confrontations where we might otherwise have failed in the individual confrontations.”

Awardscircuit.com: Wow, that is quite a journey. I want to turn to Adi now and ask him a few questions. Adi, talk to me about how you come to the decision to become involved in The Look of Silence, to have your face and story be seen in such a public manner, knowing the risks that would come. Did you thoroughly discuss with your family beforehand before agreeing to star in Joshua’s film?

Adi Rukun: This is a huge issue for me and for my family — the history, the story of what happened in 1965, the [Indonesian] genocide – and it’s a huge issue for the whole country. One of the architects of the genocide boasted that he killed 3 million people [while confessing] on his deathbed. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people were made political prisoners for decades [since 1965]. This was an enormous humanitarian disaster and I felt it required bravery – I never thought, “Am I brave enough?” It just demanded whatever response I had. It never even felt like bravery to me because it was just the response required by this disaster and the way it had touched my family personally. I felt that the truth about what had happened and what it meant for this society had to be expressed because the killers were still in power all around us, and there was no other way of challenging that power apart from expressing its origins.

My family – and you have to understand personally why this felt so urgent to me – and millions of other survivors were living in stigma. We were stigmatized by the story taught [by government officials about communists] to even our own children in school. We had the feeling that families like ours had no right to exist, that families who were being accused of being communist had no right to live at all – that was the feeling we had as we would go about our lives.

Adi, human rights champion and film subject of 'The Look of Silence'
Adi Rukun, human rights champion and film subject of ‘The Look of Silence’

Joshua Oppenheimer: When [Adi] said that, it really struck me so similar to the feeling of my own family in Germany, in the early age of Nazism before they escaped at the…beginning of World War II. Imagine what it’s like where you have no right to exist at all…and that’s your home.

Adi Rukun: When I met Joshua, it felt like here was this opportunity to expose this historical wound and just do whatever we could together to make sure [a mass genocide] would never happen again. I decided I would use Joshua to do this work that my family and millions of other families needed done because as a foreigner, Joshua could take these risks. And I of course faced risks too being in [The Look of Silence]. North Sumatra, the region I come from, the perpetrators came from the ranks of gangsters and of course gangsters are violent. But in fact, the biggest risks were on Joshua in making this film. Joshua is someone brave and willing to take these risks to such an extent…that I went to apologize to him in public at a Q&A [for The Look of Silence] for exposing him to these risks, for encouraging him to film the perpetrators, and by encouraging him to join me on this journey of finding the perpetrators to make The Look of Silence. My family and millions of other survivors’ families are thankful because these stories have now been told to the world.

Yes, I discussed with my family before joining the film and before [its] release. And then we had a similar discussion when the film was made. When the film was nearly finished we all watched it, and before releasing the film [we discussed] whether it should be released and how it should be released in a way that would be safe for all of us.

Awardscircuit.com: Thank you for sharing that. Jumping off that question, I want to talk about one of the most effective and upsetting moments of the film, which is the scene where your son is getting “educated” in class about the “evils” of communism. Did you speak to your son about your brother and family’s past prior to filming? Will he follow in his father’s footsteps by educating his peers and other young children about the lies spread by the government regarding communism and the genocide cover-up?

Adi Rukun: Long before Joshua shot the scene in my son’s school, [my son] had been participating in the film shoot because we were shooting at his grandparents’ home and he would be there with me…visiting, so he was hearing these stories [of the tragic past] for a long time and knew what happened to the family and what had happened to his country. My hope for my son’s future is that he will also join the struggle for human rights and human dignity.

Awardscircuit.com: That is wonderful to hear! I want to wrap up by discussing one last topic with you, Joshua. Specifically, I want to talk about one of the last scenes in the film where you are questioning the wife and sons of the one of the killers who contributed to that illustration book about Indonesia’s past that features Ramli’s murder. It was apparent that the family had zero interest in digging deep about their husband and father’s past. As a member of the audience, that scene was effectively uncomfortable. I want to know what motivated you to continue pressing the issue, and were you ever concerned you might go too far with your line of questioning?

Joshua Oppenheimer: Absolutely I was concerned! I’m somebody who normally avoids conflict. I’m not someone who enjoys making people uncomfortable at all, and this scene was unique in the film because all of the other perpetrators Adi confronts are people that — in that two-year period I mentioned earlier — I filmed for one day, two days, maybe three days as I was working my way up the chain of command. But this family, I spent three months with the [perpetrator] father and his wife and their two sons (and a daughter who’s actually not in the scene) to dramatize that…graphic novel. Amir Hasan is the name of the perpetrator…and during the killings was the art and drama teacher in school…in Adi’s own elementary school. As a prize for his role in the [Indonesian genocide] killings, he was promoted to be head of ministry of education and culture for the whole region, basically as a reward and payment for his participating in the killings. He continued to direct theater as a kind of amateur in his village, and when he met me and showed me the book (which you see in the film when he first presents his book) after taking me to the river, he said he could [reenact the killings] much better. And he was jealous that [perpetrator] Inong produces the the knife in the scene at the river. [Amir] thought, “I should have brought a machete…I should have brought my fellow death squad members to play the victims.”

After that [experience with Amir], I began a process that was similar to what I would go through with [The Act of Killing’s Anwar Congo], where for three months we worked to dramatize that [aforementioned illustrated book] in a kind of dry run for what I would do in The Act of Killing. [Amir Hasan] got with untreated diabetes and withdrew from the film after awhile, but because I worked with him for three months to dramatize the contents of that book, it never occurred to me that [Amir’s] family would deny knowing what the book was about and what the father had done because I would know that they’re lying. With this scene, the idea was that Adi would go and say, “You know who I am; I know who you are – it’s not your fault what your father did, what your husband did…we have to find a way of living together. What if one day my daughter wants to marry one of your grandsons or your sons? Wouldn’t it be terrible if we couldn’t come together for them as a family?!”

I was confident this was the one scene where we’d get the acknowledgment that Adi was hoping for because it wasn’t [the family’s] fault; there was no reason to accuse them and I liked the mother and sons. We were close from years ago. They had done nothing wrong; it wasn’t their fault what Amir Hasan had done. Yet, because they did know Adi, they panicked and they lied. They knew he was Ramli’s brother; they were shocked that I brought him, and they lied and pretended not to know anything. I was pushing them to look at these old clips that essentially prove that they’re lying, not because I’m trying to punish them or humiliate them, simply because I’m trying to get past the denial so we can begin to have a conversation for which [Adi and I] have come for. I was hoping that they would admit [to Amir’s crimes] and I could say, “Okay, it’s understandable that you may have not wanted to admit this. Maybe you were nervous and we could talk about why you were nervous, why you were afraid.” But we never got there. And I know it’s uncomfortable for the viewer when I’m pushing and I’m pushing and Adi’s willing to stop, for no other reason I think because it opens up a kind of gulf between us where, not that [Adi and I are] in disagreement, but that we come from different positions, and I think that you as a viewer are cast into that gulf and you’re suddenly in the middle of all this – you’re conflicted. You care for the mother, you care for the son, you care for Adi, you’re sympathetic with the desire to push because [The Look of Silence] has been about the need to push, and you’re suddenly cast in the middle of this unpleasant environment where you feel the horror of what happened, with human beings turning against each other. You’re cast into the very abyss of fear and guilt dividing everybody.

Then the scene ends…we were struggling over how to make [this footage] work, this unconventional split between filmmaker and protagonist, so close to the end of the movie when we’re trying to draw all the strings together. How can you let them all fly apart like that? The solution we found was this final shot in the scene where Adi looks right into the camera, knowing that someone is going to watch [The Look of Silence], knowing that you’re watching this, knowing that you know that he knows that you’re watching this. In that look, in that moment, whether when Adi looks at you for the first time in the film, whether you want to be in that room or not with all of us…we’re all together.

Awardscircuit.com: That’s true, you can’t hide from it. Thank you so much for talking with us today. This is surreal seeing you both in the flesh after watching your harrowing journey play out on film. Once more, thank you for making a huge global and cinematic impact with The Look of Silence.

The Look of Silence is one of the frontrunners in this year’s “Best Documentary” race at the 88th Academy Awards. The annual ceremony will be televised this Sunday, February 28th. Be sure to also check out The Look of Silence’s official Academy trailer.