Jakarta. In 2012, the award-winning documentary “The Act of Killing” drew back the veil on the darkest chapter of Indonesia’s history, and now, says director Joshua Oppenheimer, there’s no stuffing the genie back into the bottle.
The military-led purge between 1965 and 1966 of suspected members and sympathizers of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) left up to half a million people dead, according to some estimates, and the government today continues to stonewall efforts to address the atrocity and bring the perpetrators to justice.
In an interview with the Jakarta Globe’s Jonathan G. Vit in October, before the release last month of his follow-up documentary, “The Look of Silence,” Oppenheimer spoke about what he hoped his earlier film had achieved, what he expects of the new film, and how the process of making the documentaries affected him.
Q: ‘The Act of Killing’ was up for a number of awards. You didn’t win the Oscar, but the nomination inspired a lot of discussion here in Indonesia. Where do you see the conversation going from here?
A: You can’t stuff the genie back in the bottle, you can’t. So I think that there is no stopping the process that “The Act of Killing” has helped to catalyze. It has lifted a conversation that brave human rights defenders and survivors and writers have been having for a long time.
But this is not the first effort in Indonesia to address the mass killings of 1965-66. How does your film, and its impact, differ from previous efforts, like the 2012 report by the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM)?
Well, it doesn’t. I mean, the Komnas HAM report from 2012 was extremely important, it remains extremely important but it was rejected by [the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono] administration.
Now I think things are changing, but what is going to change the government’s stance is not simply one film, it is going to be pressure. Yes, the pressure can come somewhat from outside, but fundamentally the pressure has to come from ordinary Indonesians and I think that for that to occur Indonesians will have to overcome a degree of fear and the apathy that stems from fear.
That apathy, that reluctance is, of course, a manifestation of fear and there will not be a profound change in Indonesia until ordinary Indonesians come together collectively to overcome that fear. “The Act of Killing” was produced not to change the country, but as antidote to that fear, to open a space so that Indonesians can change the country.
I think that “The Act of Killing” is not fundamentally about addressing the crimes of 1965, it is about showing how the crimes of 1965, unresolved as they are, underpin an ongoing regime of fear and a system of fear that allows the political leaders in Indonesia to get away with crimes today, corruption today, crimes in Papua today, crimes in the recent past like the pogroms against the ethnic Chinese in 1998, like the violence in East Timor in 1999, like the ongoing violence in Papua and the sectarian violence that continues to occur.
You just touched on something there, that, at least in Indonesia, is one of the larger criticisms of your film: that it isn’t an accurate representation of the nation today. But here you are saying the film isn’t even entirely about 1965, so what is your view on how this relates to modern-day Indonesia?
If you look at “The Act of Killing” it doesn’t claim to be a sociological portrait of an entire nation of 250 million people. It is about Anwar Congo, it is about the political leaders in North Sumatra, the paramilitary leaders around him in one city. But I think the thuggery, the gangsterism, the insane way that the past is discussed is irrefutable, if only because of what the film shows.
Look at the talk show that is produced in the film that was broadcast, what more is there to say? Indonesia’s state television broadcast a talk show where, not too long ago, it was 2008, the host of the talk show says, “Lets give Anwar Congo a round of applause because he developed a new more humane more efficient way of exterminating communists,” but he also just wiped them out.
Now what else is there to say? This is not a claim that TVRI Jakarta would produce exactly the same show, no, but it shows that the situation in one region in Indonesia and if that were unique to North Sumatra we would see people getting arrested and losing their jobs in North Sumatra because it is so out of step with the rest of the country.
The reason that those efforts are not being made to address the situation in North Sumatra is because everyone knows that is actually the situation in many regions in this country.
After decades of propaganda painting the New Order-era government as heroes for wiping out the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), how can the country move past these ideas and begin to plot a path toward reconciliation?
I think Indonesians have to have this discussion and say, “We deserve better; our government should not be lying to our children every day in school. We do not want our children to be going into school to be lied to, to be taught a false history to justify mass murder. That is not the kind of school I want to send my children to.”
Indonesians are going to have to come together and [demand] change. The film is an intervention; it is not an authoritative report about every aspect [of 1965]. The film was made as a wake-up call like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” The film was made so that the Indonesians would see a stark image of their country in the mirror and recognize its authenticity, which I think they have despite efforts from government and some of the film’s more conservative critics to say that it is not representative of the country, and then wait and respond with righteous outrage and say that this has to change, this is unacceptable, this is not good enough.
Fifty years is long enough. A genocide is a genocide and I think what makes Indonesia look bad is not the acknowledgement of the crimes of the past, it is not even the acknowledgement of present-day ongoing crimes that makes Indonesia look bad. It is the desperate and pathetic attempts to whitewash everything that it does that’s evil, to use a simple word.
Does the next film, ‘The Look of Silence,’ tread similar territory? You filmed it at the same time as ‘The Act of Killing,’ right?
No, I filmed it actually after. I filmed some of it before I met Anwar and I filmed the core of it after we finished editing “The Act of Killing,” before we released it and it was no longer safe for me to return. It focuses on a family of survivors who confront the men who killed their son.
And this is also in North Sumatra?
It is also in North Sumatra, by and large. I think there are moments in “The Act of Killing” where you can feel in your gut the tense and unbearable co-existence between survivor and perpetrator. One of them is where Anwar’s neighbor Suryono told the story of his stepfather being killed to Anwar and his friends and as he tells the story you can see that he is afraid and he is laughing so that they don’t respond with anger and maybe violence.
If you were to drop the audience into that conversation between Suryono and Anwar, that is what “The Look of Silence” will do; it is like spending 90 minutes in that terrified and frightened and tense co-existence, that is what it’s like.
It is really about making palpable the unbearable cost of denial and impunity by showing how it destroys not only one family but the relationship between the people in Indonesia, the relationship particularly between neighbor and neighbor, survivor and perpetrator, bystander and perpetrator, survivor and bystander.
The ‘Act of Killing’ was full of scenes that were very difficult to watch, but that scene where the neighbor confronts Anwar Congo was, for me, one of the more difficult parts of the film because you could sense how scared and upset he was. If that’s the entire tone of this film I have to ask, will this one be harder to watch?
I think what fundamentally makes “The Act of Killing” really uncomfortable and what makes that scene really uncomfortable is that our protagonist is somehow Anwar.
When the neighbor is telling that story we feel afraid for him and we feel is he in danger, but we also feel conflicted. Of course we empathize in that moment with him as someone who is obviously afraid and is a victim of what happened in 1965, yet we know that our main character, the one who is going to take us through the journey at that point, is the perpetrator.
I think that puts the viewer in a very uncomfortable position where they have to think of who they are identifying with and why — even if only unconsciously.
In this film the character we identify with is a survivor, but it is still not easy to watch. It is not uplifting, it will not be any more hopeful except for the fact that the courage, the dignity and even the love shown by the main character and also at least one of the perpetrator’s children is genuinely hopeful.
Do you think ‘The Look of Silence’ will garner the same amount of attention?
I think “The Act of Killing” is a kind of a special film and I think we released it first for a reason; because we knew it is shocking in so many ways, formally, methodologically the fact that it asks you to identify with a perpetrator as a main character, we knew that that shock would be a blast in the face.
For the second film, I don’t think it will get the same reception. I think it will get a lot of attention, maybe a lot of attention in Indonesia because it is a more potent and moving indictment of what is wrong.
It is more recognizable; you know the quiet tableaus, the haunted tableaus, the landscape shots that punctuate “The Act of Killing”? For example, after the talk show we see a sort of derelict alleyway and we see a little girl, a very poor little girl just poking in the dirt. These kinds of haunted spaces with which ordinary Indonesians live, with which anyone who has spent time in Indonesia is familiar with — “The Look of Silence,” drops the viewers in the midst of these spaces and says, “Look at this space, look at the fear that engendered this disquiet.”
So I think the way that it is immediately recognizable means that the impact in Indonesia may be greater, but I think that it will not be, it is not as provocatively shocking as “The Act of Killing,” and that is why we released “The Act of Killing” first. We knew that the shock that it would engender would wake people up and that it would blast open the space needed for the emotions that the second film, that I believe the second film will trigger.
Considering your views on the culture of impunity in Indonesia and the reluctance to address 1965, how could a film like this have a resolution?
Well, it is just like “The Act of Killing”; there will be no resolution for the impunity that gives birth to the drama until there is an end to the impunity that gives birth to the drama.
I mean, there can’t be an honest resolution for a film. You’ll have to see the film, I won’t quite give away the ending, but it has an ending. It isn’t just a series of confrontations between survivor and perpetrator, it has an ending, it has a strong arc as a work of cinema, but what resolution can there honestly be until ordinary Indonesians come together to make the change that will actually resolve this situation.
Are you hopeful that will actually happen?
It has to happen. Until that happens Indonesia will simply be a kind of object lesson in what happens when there is no justice.
It will simply be a warning to other nations and that, of course, will not be helpful for Indonesia’s image going forward. It has to happen also because I think Indonesia deserves much, much better and I trust that there is enough space, there is enough political freedom now that Indonesians will come together and demand that.
You know you can’t make a film as bleak as “The Act of Killing” without being an optimist. That may sound paradoxical, but at some point if you weren’t an optimist you would just give up in cynicism. I made it because I believe that it has the power to help trigger that outrage the sense of injustice that will lead to change and that is why my entire Indonesian crew made it, that is why my anonymous co-director made it, that is why all of the human rights survivors organizations that supported us made it, that is why we made this film, so of course I am optimistic.
We have talked a lot about the impact that this film has had on the viewers and the impact that it has had on the people in the film. How did it impact you to spend so much time with someone like Anwar?
It was very painful, but it I was also a great privilege. You know, those five years of shooting with him and then the two and a half years of editing and excavating the meat of the material that we shot together was the defining experience of my life. It has given me insights that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. It has made me, in many ways, who I am.
It has made me more forgiving of individual people. At the same time I am utterly intolerant for any mealy-mouth excuses for atrocity; I strongly believe that you have to separate the crime from the individual.
Has any of the stuff that he told you, the re-enactment of the scenes, has any of it haunted you at all?
Absolutely. The single most horrible scene for me is the one where he butchered the teddy bear, which, if you have seen the full-length film you, will be familiar with. And when I was shooting that scene I was about a meter and a half from him and I heard his microphone rubbing through my headphones and I had to call cut for a moment and adjust his microphone. Anwar noticed that I was crying in that moment. It was the only time in my life I ever found myself crying without realizing it, and he said, “Josh you are crying,” and I said, “So I am,” or something like that, and he said, “What should we do,” and I said, “We should continue.”
I remember going home that evening feeling terribly tainted by the horrors I was filming and I think that is what the audience was feeling too when they watch that scene. And that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me [and] led to months of nightmares and insomnia, and I got through it because of the support and the love of my wonderful Indonesian collaborators and also from my family.
I wouldn’t give up that experience for all the world. It has taught me so much.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.