In 2013, Joshua Oppenheimer's extraordinary documentary The Act of Killing crashed onto the film scene, garnering an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary and more than 72 awards internationally. But it also did something much more important. The film lifted the veil of a victor's history off Indonesia's 1965 genocide -- a military coup, which led to more than a million government-sanctioned murders in less than a year, and forged a desperate injustice upheld to this day by the military dictatorship's regime of fear.
Oppenheimer achieved this by inviting the most vicious perpetrators of the 1965 genocide to reenact their crimes on film in whatever fashion they liked. In the process, he exposed the horrific bravado of men who were never forced to account for their actions, and opened an unprecedented line of communication for the Indonesian media and public to openly discuss and investigate the genocide and government corruption without fear. Following The Act of Killing's Oscar nomination, the Indonesian president's spokesman acknowledged the 1965 genocide as a crime against humanity -- a stunning moment of about-face for a government that consistently celebrated the killings as honorable and glorious acts for half a century.
With his follow up documentary, The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer returned to Indonesia to reapproach the issue, this time from the point-of-view of the victims, who spent the last 50 years in terrified silence. In a much more intimate story, Oppenheimer filmed his friend Adi Rukun -- born after the killings, and thus, unafraid to speak out and demand answers -- as he confronted the men who murdered his brother in the genocide, intent that the killers would abandon their rhetoric of heroism and glory, and apologize for their atrocities.
Q: With The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, you have touched a huge amount of people and literally changed lives. That's not an exaggeration. For just the basic question to get us going, can you talk about how these films complement each other and what the second provides to the first?
A: Sure. I feel like the two films are companion pieces to one another. If you say, if one says, The Look of Silence is a companion piece to The Act of Killing it feels now secondary. I would say in some ways, The Act of Killing is the companion piece to The Look of Silence. The two films complete one another and I hope form a single work, whose whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
I first realized I would make two films about the present day legacy of the 1965 killings back in January, 2004, when I filmed a scene that occurs several times, different pieces of it, throughout The Look of Silence. It's the scene where Amir Hassan and Enong take me down to the Snake River, where they helped the army to kill 10,500 people in one spot. And pretend -- I'd emphasize pretend -- to be proud of what they've done. That was the day where I first had the feeling that I'd wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power, if the rest of the world had celebrated the Holocaust while it took place.
I felt on that day, I also knew from the history, from my understanding of the history of the 20th century, that the massacres in Indonesia were not unique. In fact, there were many similar massacres, much more well-known, across the Global South. Where perpetrators have won and regimes of fear have kept people afraid. I started to think, what is this idea of the Nazis having won some surreal scenario from science fiction or some bizarre exception to the rule. What if this is the rule across the Global South, or most of it.
What if this kind of impunity is the story of our times? That very evening, very disturbed by what I filmed, with what I saw with these two men at the river. I saw they were, and I think what really disturbed me was the way they were reading from a shared script. The way the boasting, they had never met one another before. They were from neighboring villages, different death squads. Yet, they were talking about this as though they had performed the killings together. I realized, therefore, that the boasting was systemic. It was a symptom of impunity and I had to let go of whatever hope I might have still held that the perpetrators are crazy or monsters. I felt if there's insanity here, it's collective. If there's monstrosity here, it's political.
I realized that evening, recognizing this is not the exception to the rule, but maybe the rule itself. Maybe this is the story of our times, I decided I would spend as many years as it takes to address. I knew I would make two films. The first film is really, neither film I should say is about what happened in 1965. Both is about impunity today. The first one deals with the lies. The Act of Killing deals with the lies, the fantasies, the stories, even the persona that the perpetrators cling to and inhabit, so they can live with themselves and the terrible consequences of those lies, when imposed on the whole society. The corruption and the impunity, the fear, the thuggery and the fear that the perpetrators get away with, because everyone is afraid.
That's The Act of Killing. If The Act of Killing is a kind of flamboyant fever dream of a film about escapism and guilt, it's cut through with these, at least in its director's cut, in the uncut version of the film, two hours and 40 minute version of the film. Just not what came out initially in theaters in the U.S., but was the main version outside the U.S. and it's the original version. It's cut through with these moments of abrupt, or it's cut abruptly through with these moments of silence, pure silence. Where you have these sort of haunted landscapes, where you see one figure surrounded by rubble or very cold, kind of cold, institutional spaces, often in shopping malls. Or just cityscapes and twilight.
These are moments where there is an abrupt shift in the perspective of the director's cut of The Act of Killing from the perpetrators to the absent dead, whom I hope haunt every frame of The Act of Killing, but are sort of banished by the perpetrators boasting.
In the second film, I felt that I wanted to take the viewer and immerse the viewer in any of these haunted silences that punctuate the director's cut of The Act of Killing and make you feel what would it be like to have to live as a survivor in this regime, in this silence, in this fear, surrounded by the still powerful perpetrators, the men who killed your loved ones. What does it do to a human being, to have to be afraid for 50 years? What does it do to a family? What does it do to a community?
Exploring that and trying to honor all that's destroyed by 50 years of silence, not just what was destroyed by the genocide, but what's destroyed by the silence. And which can never be redeemed, no matter what justice there is in the future, in part, maybe as a result of these films. I felt that I should make a film that honors all that's been destroyed by this silence and makes the viewer feel that silence and feel that fear. That, of course, is The Look of Silence.
Q: Both of these films have been appropriately described as powerful. That is a word that can be bandied about carelessly in film discourse. "What a powerful story." But this is powerful filmmaking not only in the sense that it affects every viewer emotionally, viscerally, deeply, but also as you indicated, it has actually helped facilitate that conversation in their nation, which they haven't been able to have in the past.
How do you perceive the power of filmmaking and how it’s used, or perhaps more often not used, in our society?
A: I think that cinema, at its best, what should cinema should strive to do, is to hold a mirror up to all of us. To invite us, seduce us, cajole us or sometimes force us to confront aspects of what it means to be human, that are either too painful to think about, too frightening to think about. Or simply too mysterious and wondrous for us to have already found or for us to already have put into words. Which is to say that not all cinema needs to be explicitly political. But I think by helping people find ways of thinking about and imagining aspects of the human experience that we can't normally -- we haven't been able to imagine before. Cinema is inherently political or should be inherently political, because it should inherently help us know ourselves more deeply, know our societies more deeply. And to know and find ways of addressing our problems that need to be addressed.
When we look in a mirror, if we're shocked, it's the shock of the familiar. It's not something new we see in the mirror. There's a kind of shock of recognition. Oh, yes, this is of course what we are. But I hadn't been able to find words or I hadn't wanted to see that. Or I hadn't realized that or I hadn't been able to find words for that or I tried to convince myself otherwise.
In that sense, I think cinema ideally should be like the child in The Emperor's New Clothes who doesn't say anything really new. He says exactly what everybody knew, but was too afraid to acknowledge. Something the people had tried to convince, everybody in The Emperor's New Clothes tries to convince themselves that the king is wearing a beautiful suit of clothes, because that's what we're supposed to think. But actually, when the little boy comes and says, "Look, the king is naked," it can no longer be denied. So cinema makes it not only possible, but necessary, to talk about problems that could not be addressed before, or cinema should make it possible and necessary for us to talk about problems that we could not address before.
That's different from activism, because the effort to address those problems is a long struggle and it's a big collective process. But it can open the way. Art in this way, cinema in this way, can and should open the way for activism because it makes obvious you cannot solve a problem that you're too afraid even to talk about. You cannot solve a problem that you're too afraid even to acknowledge.
Of course, very often, cinema performs exactly the opposite role. It reinforces lazy habits of thought and imagining. It takes a problem that we really should struggle to understand, offers a quick judgment and thereby creates the illusion of our having dealt with it, when in fact we've done precisely the opposite. For example, when we see perpetrators in films, usually their crimes are tallied, a judgment is issued and there's this illusion that we've dealt with that. But actually anybody should be able to see that the crimes of a perpetrator, of atrocity, for example, are wrong. It's not thinking at all to say hey, this person's done something terrible. He's guilty. It's deception to say he's a monster, because he's not. He's always human.
What we should try and do in cinema is to understand. Where I think the kind of cinema I'm talking about, the kind of cinema for which we strive, is not to be opposed to entertainment. I think actually film must be entertaining, because it must get us from the beginning to the end, in a state of absorption and focus. Because if a film is worth, is well-made, every moment is important. Every moment is pregnant with meaning. We have to be absorbed. If we're thinking about other things, the film is just washing over us. That means, so to grip us, it must entertain.
I'm not saying cinema should not be entertainment, but it should be entertaining, but it must not be or it ought not to be escapist. Cinema should force us or help us and invite us to look at the things that really matter. Things that we know, but have been too afraid to look at. This is also in contrast to journalism. I think that journalism also ought to lead to activism. But the role of the journalist, I think, is distinct from that of the artist. The role of the journalist is to find, is to uncover new information that is in the public interest to be uncovered, to try and contextualize it, so that the public can action on it. So that this information could be put to use on behalf of the public good.
In that sense, journalism should be much more like a window than a mirror. Cinema ought to be a mirror in which we reflect on things we already know about ourselves, but have been unable to talk about. Journalism actually should be about providing new information. Of course there's works like mine, that are presenting us with a context that perhaps we knew little about. But that does not make it journalism, because fundamentally, what viewers all over the world are seeing in my film is themselves. That why they've made the impact that they make. Even if they're also having their curiosity and interest piqued about a terrible situation far away about which they knew nothing before they saw my films. One last sentence. A journalistic film would look very different.
Q: There's a lot of things in there I want to address. I definitely think you're correct and I would say hopefully the film does, of course, lead to a certain amount of activism. But one of the most common responses, especially to the first film, is that the audience can't believe that they were empathizing at a certain point with Anwar, which is sort of a devastating conclusion to come to about yourself.
I tend to think of myself as a bit of a black and white moralist in a few areas -- when it comes to killing, specifically. That's the one thing that I'm like, "No, that's the line that you don't cross." But over the course of the film you develop an empathy for his situation. How is that for you, actually interacting with these men? How hard of a line is that to walk?
A: Well, I think you never, I never forget for a second -- there's a lot in your question, actually, that's worth addressing. I also think that this uncomfortable recognition when we see Anwar, or even when we see the very human responses of the perpetrators to Adi's visits in The Look of Silence, the uncomfortable feeling is that we recognize all of their reactions, all of their psychological, all of their feelings, all of their struggles, as profoundly human and familiar. I think even when we see, as we see, in the confrontations between Adi and the perpetrators, the shift from boasting to shame and fear and then fear of their own guilt and the defensiveness.
We recognize something that we all know about boasting. Which is -- I'm sure you boast sometimes, I boast sometimes. I'm probably not proud of it, but I'm sure we're not above it. We're human beings, yet we know that we always boast, not out of pride, but out of insecurity. We're compensating for something. Human beings boast because, like birds puff out their feathers to make themselves look bigger, because they know they're small. I think the perpetrators, I filmed every one of them, is haunted by horrific memories of what they've done. They're either living their life in manic flight from a kind of pall of terror that follows them around wherever they go. Or their nights are interrupted by unspeakable nightmares, or their sleep is interrupted every night by unspeakable nightmares.
Yet, because they have not been removed from power, they still have available to them a victor's history which celebrates what they've done. They therefore do what you or I would do, if we'd been at some point incited to participate in group behavior that we felt personally uncomfortable with. They try to convince themselves that the group knows better, that the group was probably right, that the authority that incited them is right when they say it's heroic. And so they try to sugarcoat these bitter, rotten memories that they try to sugarcoat, in this sweet language of the victor's history that celebrates what they've done as heroic.
That accounts for this surreal boasting. It accounts for why when they're confronted, the boasting quickly dissolves quickly into shame. It accounts for in The Act of Killing, why Anwar dramatizes again and again, and we see this really clearly in the uncut version of the film, what Drafthouse has released as the director's cut, is we see as he goes through one persona, one performance, one narrative. It may comfort him, offer him comfort, always in a different context, after another. We see that these lead him only closer to his pain. It's not surprising when you recognize what's motivating the boastful performance in the first place, is not monstrous evil, it's not pride, but guilt, but human morality.
You said something very perfect, when you said, killing is the line that should never be crossed. It really is a line that should never be crossed, because guilt prevents us from harming another. I couldn't kill someone because I know I'd be destroying myself. I would feel horrible about it. But we all have also experienced, because being incited to participate on a low level in group activities, whether it's low level bullying or a group dynamic, which we're not quite comfortable with. We've all been incited to join groups that do things we wouldn't want, we don't personally feel comfortable with.
If you can incite someone to suspend their individual morality, their private morality, the morality they probably have with their kids and their wives and their family, and cross that line that shouldn't be crossed, then guilt no longer protects human society from evil. And human morality that gives us guilt, the notion, the distinction between right and wrong that makes us feel guilty, actually can make things feel worse. Because if you have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who have committed, who've been incited to kill and feel terrible about it, then it creates a set of narratives, they create a culture, that create a victor's history celebrating what they've done. They've built a whole culture of impunity around that which justifies, even celebrates and certainly naturalizes things that should be unthinkable.
Then that demands further sacrifice. If you've incited me to kill one person, and I feel terrible about it, and I go to you every day for reassurance that it was the right thing to do. That you slap me on the back and you say, no, it was the right thing to do, Joshua. Then a week later, you say, now kill these five people, I have to do it, or else I'm admitting it was wrong the first time. So people, there's this downward spiral where we sacrifice our humanity, not because we're inhuman monsters, but because we're human, and because guilt is so tormenting.
Q: There was a line in The Look of Silence that I found so profound and terrifying glimpse at their nature. When he says, "If we didn't drink human blood, we'd go crazy." He's obviously speaking literally, about the past. But that's still their life now. They have to drink their victims' blood, so to speak, every day and lavish in what they've done to preserve their sanity.
A: That's right. You're drawing a parallel between the lies that they cling to and the drinking of blood at the time, yeah. It shows the fact that they knew that -- gosh, who knows where they got that idea from at the time, and I have no anthropological interest in finding out. I just, I'm a squeamish man just thinking about it. I don't like violent movies. This surprises people when I tell them that, but actually I faint every time I have to get a blood test. Hearing those things were really difficult for me.
I just felt, when I heard that, I felt like they knew they were crossing the threshold. They knew they were somehow going way beyond the pale when they were killing. That's the only way they could have possibly imagined that they needed to do that. That's not like wearing a raincoat when you go out in the rain. That's a very severe thing to do.
Q: Yeah. That's the next level.
A: And they know it.
Q: Impunity is an international condition. In both films, there is reference to how they were influenced by American culture. Of course, the cinema in the first film, and in this one, somebody says, I think, "We did this because America taught us to hate Communists."
I'm curious what your thoughts are on the idea of an international or a collective shared blame for these sort of things. Do you think that's just yet another defense mechanism of avoiding the responsibility themselves?
A: No, they have to take responsibility for their decisions and what they've done. That's what Adi is trying to get them to do. I'm not confident that any perpetrator, without being forced to do that, will have the courage to do that. Which is why probably it's the next generation where we will see change. We see it in Adi, who has the courage to step forward and try and break the silence through making this film. We see it in, for example, the daughter of one of the perpetrators. Her signs of humanity and the dignity to apologize on her father's behalf. Just pause on that, that's one of the most beautiful and delicate things I've ever seen. Here's this woman who finds out that her father is not the hero she's always believed him to be or perhaps only hoped him to be. Maybe she knew in her heart of hearts that mass murder couldn't be heroic. But when Adi reveals some of the details of what he's done, you just see her collapse and you just see her face fall. Instead of doing what I would do, I would think, just a panic and kick the film crew and Adi out of my house.
Q: Which is what those other sons did.
A: Yeah, which is also very understandable. I think that's much closer to what I would do, although I wish it's not the case. If I know I have to live with my father for the rest of my life, I have to look after him, I have to clean him and wash him and feed him, I might not be able to take that. But she does it. She becomes very quiet. She goes very still. She goes into herself and she does something remarkable that should be much more common than it is. She listens to her own conscience and she apologizes. That is remarkable.
I think it's a crucial seed because it's showing Indonesians that of the hundreds, of maybe 300,000 Indonesians that we estimate have seen the film so far, and that number will jump into the millions and tens of millions, once we put the film online. But that has shown Indonesians that even from perpetrators' families, that actually even if you're from a perpetrator's family, somehow truth and reconciliation would be good for everybody.
But in terms of the question of responsibility that you asked, I think people have to take responsibility for their actions all the way up the chain of command. The United States, without doubt, provided equipment, radios, specifically provided so the Indonesian Army could coordinate the killings across its vast archipelago of 17,000 islands. They provided weapons. They provided money. They provided training. They provided incitement in the form of radio broadcasts, hate radio broadcasts, encouraging Indonesians to kill everyone and persecute everyone.
By encouraging Indonesians to treat all ethnic Chinese as Communists, although this is only 16 years after China had become Communist and the Chinese community in Indonesia had been there for hundreds of years. It was pure scapegoating and 50,000 Chinese were killed as a result, just because of that. It was a geopolitical calculation that they wanted to drive a wedge between the new Indonesian government and Peking, because there was already a split between Peking and Moscow. Even if a new government was anti-Soviet, it could still be allied with China.
Then one man I interviewed, Robert Martins, who was from the State Department, who worked in the embassy in Jakarta, compiled lists of thousands of names of public figures, including journalists, artists, intellectuals, university professors, trade union leaders, women's rights activists. They compiled lists, he compiled lists of thousands of names, gave them to the army and said, "Take off these names as you kill them. We want these people dead." The army obliged. They crossed the names and gave the lists back.
When I spoke to Robert Martins, he said he thought he was doing some kind of profound intelligence work on behalf of the army. But I was sort of astonished he could think that, because these were public figures and the army was deployed in every village, every neighborhood. They would know if there's a public figure who's critical of the new regime. What I really think this was, was incitement, in saying kill everybody, go after every potential opponent because we want this new regime to last.
The United States and everybody involved with that policy, who is still alive, needs to take responsibility for their own decisions. Something we see that's very disturbing in The Look of Silence is an NBC documentary where we learn that reported on the American television, we learn that Goodyear Tire & Rubber, one of the world's largest tire and rubber corporations and American multinational company, is using slave labor drawn from death camps, just 20 years after German corporations were doing the same thing in Auschwitz. This is unlike the use of slave labor at Auschwitz, this is being reported on American television openly and as a victory for freedom and democracy. That should have us think.
It's in that sense that the American premier of the film, in Telluride, Colorado at the Telluride Film Festival, a woman came up to me afterwards crying because she said her father was a Goodyear executive. She said, "What does this say about who we are and what we think we are?" It's in that sense that this film holds a mirror up to all of us and it does inspire activism in the sense that lawmakers who've seen the film, particularly Senator Tom Udall from New Mexico, saw the film. He saw The Act of Killing and introduced a resolution into the Senate, saying we need to declassify all of the documents, detailing our role in the 1965 genocide. We need to take responsibility for it. We need to apologize.
There's a similar resolution that will be introduced in the House. We're working, and actually people reading this, can go to www.thelookofsilence.com and under participate, there's a little place where you can participate. There's a whole letter writing campaign around this, where people can get their Congressmen and Senators to actually sign up to this resolution. But it will be a struggle. Because there's real forces that depend for their legitimacy on the existing narrative, especially in Indonesia.
Q: I definitely want to touch on the family at the heart of this story, and on Adi in particular, who was so courageous and composed, and showed such integrity and strength. Talk about your experience working with him. How were you guys able to pull this off?
A: In 2012, I'd been working with Adi and his family from the very beginning, two years before I started making The Act of Killing. I started working with his family to make a film about the experience of the survivors and why they're still afraid today. The army threatened Adi and his family not to participate in the film a mere three weeks after we began.
It was Adi who encouraged me not to give up, not to go home, and to film the perpetrators. As he put it yesterday in Berlin, he said, "I always dreamed of making a film that would reach a lot of people, that would tell the true history. But it was just a dream. It was totally impossible that I would have access to a film. When Joshua came, I was determined to not miss this opportunity. That it was like a dream for me and to use him, to make sure this story comes out. When we were threatened not to participate, there was no way that I was going to let him go home. I said, try to film the perpetrators. Don't give up."
I spent seven years filming with the perpetrators. Of course, that culminated in The Act of Killing. But all through that period, Adi would watch what I was filming and responded. Then 2012, I went back to make the second film, before it had had its world premiere, at which point, I knew I couldn't safely return to Indonesia. I remember. In early 2010, as I had finished shooting The Act of Killing, I gave Adi a small video camera to use as a kind of visual notebook to look for images that might inspire the action in the second film.
He'd been sending me tapes throughout the editing of The Act of Killing and when I got back in 2012, I didn't yet know that Adi would be the main character. But I did know he would be my main collaborator. I said to him, "Adi, what do you think, what are your thoughts for the second film?" He said, "You know, I spent seven years watching your material with the perpetrators and it's changed me. I need to confront them. I need to confront the men, especially, who were involved with killing my brother." I said, "Absolutely not. It's too dangerous. There's never been a documentary film or a nonfiction film where survivors confront perpetrators while the perpetrators are still in power."
Adi said, "Let me tell you why this is so important to me." He went and he got the camera that I had given him and he got one tape. He said, "I never sent you this tape, because it's very meaningful for me. But I think it'll explain, if you see it, you'll understand why this matters." Trembling, he took the tape, he immediately started to tremble, visibly. And put the tape in the camera, pressed play. As soon as the image came on the screen, he started to cry. He showed me the one scene in the film that Adi shot in The Look of Silence. It's a scene where his father is crawling through the house at the very end of the film. Lost, calling for help.
He said, "This was the first day my father couldn't remember me, my brothers and sisters or my mother. He was confused and lost all day. We were trying to comfort him. But we couldn't, because we were strangers to him and it was unbearable for me to just sit and not be able to help him. Eventually, not knowing what else to do, wanting to be close to him, I started to film." He said, "I couldn't comfort him. I couldn't touch him, because he'd get afraid, but because he can't see, I could be close to him.
"The moment I picked up the camera and I knew why I was filming," he said, "because this is the moment, from now on, it's too late for my father. It's too late for him to heal, because he's forgotten the son whose murder destroyed our family's life. But he hasn't forgotten the fear. He'll never forget the fear, because he will never be able to work through it anymore. He'll never be able to remember what happened, work through it and grieve and mourn and heal." So he's like a man, he said, "Dad's become like a man trapped, locked in a room, who can't even find the door, let alone the key. And I don't want my children to inherit this prison of fear from my father and from me.
"I think if I go and visit the perpetrators, gently, with understanding, trying to, showing that I'm willing to forgive, if they can accept responsibility for what they've done, they will greet that as kind of long hoped for opportunity, unconsciously hoped for opportunity. In which to find peace with their neighbors, to be forgiven by the families of their victims. By the family of one of their victims. And to find some reconciliation. To get this, and to stop the manic boasting and acknowledge what they're running away from, which is their guilt and find some acceptance."
I was very moved. I said, "Let me think about this." I went home and talked to my crew and they said, "You know, Joshua, you are famous across north Sumatra for making The Act of Killing." The production of The Act of Killing was famous. You see in The Act of Killing, Indonesian State Television produced a talk show celebrating the production while we were still shooting. It was well-known in that region that I was working with the most powerful perpetrators in the country.
The men Adi would want to confront would think, therefore, that I'm close to their highest ranking superiors and they wouldn't dare attack us. They wouldn't dare threaten us. I guess they did threaten us. They wouldn't dare detain us. They wouldn't dare have us arrested, because they wouldn't want to offend their bosses. Maybe this could be done safely. I then thought about it and I realized, okay, if we take many other safety precautions, perhaps we could do this safely.
But I thought two things. First of all, I thought and I told this to Adi, I do not think we will get that acknowledgement of guilt, that Adi's hoping for. I spent five years working with Anwar and at the end, he's feeling his pain, but he's actually choking on it. Even then, we see in the uncut version of the film, in the director's cut of the film, we hear him saying while he's choking, "My conscience told me they had to be killed." He's still clinging to the lies. He's still justifying it.
Even then, after five years while choking on his guilt, he can't acknowledge it. I thought an hour and a half with Adi, these men will not be able to acknowledge their guilt. Although maybe, just maybe, I'm wrong, because they will want to be forgiven by the family of their victim. That might mean something to them. Adi's a remarkable man, I also knew. He's very gentle. I thought that might help, too. But I told Adi, I don't think we'll get that apology, but if I do my job well, if I can capture the rich human reactions that are inevitable when someone goes into someone's house and says, "You killed my brother. Can you take responsibility for that, please? Because I want to make peace with you."
If I can film the rich human reactions, the fear, the shame, the guilt, the fear of guilt, if I can film all of that, and then of course the defensive anger. If I can film all of that, maybe I can show how torn this society is, how urgently truth, reconciliation and some form of justice is needed. Through the film, any Indonesian who sees that, ought not to be able to reject the idea of truth and reconciliation. Any Indonesian who sees it, has to support truth and reconciliation, because we're showing how torn to shreds the social fabric of this country is, how afraid. We're making everybody feel the prison of fear in which they know they're living, but don't want to think about. They know they're raising their children in that fear. I said if we could show that, then maybe through the film, we can succeed in a bigger way, where we fail in the individual confrontations.
I also realized in that moment that this would have to be a film about memory and oblivion. Not just a film about impunity and powerful perpetrators and of frightened survivors. This has to be about memory, because for Adi's father, this whole film should be made in memoriam for Adi's father, for whom it's too late. Whatever comes as a result of the film, nothing will make whole the lives broken by fear. In a terrible way, until there is change, the genocide continues because fear and trauma continue to wreck lives. I felt that the litmus test as to whether I succeed or fail would somehow be whether I could end the film with the scene that Adi shot.
In terms of how we approached people would be simple. I would go to them, of course, sometimes people see the film and they get the feeling that Adi's eye tests were the way we got access. Of course that's not true. I would go. They knew me, so I would say I'm back after seven or eight years. This time, I don't want you to act out what you've done in whatever way you vision. I've already done that with your superiors. I would say that to remind them, to protect our safety, to remind them I was close to their bosses, in case they might not remember it. Just in case they didn't know.
I'd say, here I am. This time I brought a friend. I'm back this time with a friend who has a personal relationship to these issues, but maybe a different perspective. I'm curious this time how the two of you discuss this. So I want to document your conversation. As a thank you, Adi will test your eyes and you can tell him a bit about what you did while he tests your eyes. If you need glasses, he'll give you as many pairs of glasses as you wish.
That was how we would open the scenes. Then we took various safety precautions. We filmed one confrontation first with Enong, whom we knew posed us no threat because he's not powerful. He had a terror, we knew that his commanders hated him, so he would have no one to complain to. Adi also doesn't tell him, if you see the film, you'll notice Adi doesn't tell Enong who he is. Then Adi tells his mother and his wife, so they can hear what he's doing. Then we showed that footage and then they reacted, you see, in the film. They get worried, they get afraid. But then we showed the scene with Enong, so they could think about it. They both felt this is very important. This is very meaningful.
Then of course had a lot of questions about safety. We made a plan so that we could shoot the film safely with a getaway vehicle so we could escape, if necessary, with our embassies aware of what was happening. They would come and help us if anything went wrong, with Adi's family at the airport, ready to evacuate, if anything went wrong while we were shooting the most important confrontations. We filmed the five remaining confrontations in a very short time, over five days. Working our way up the chain of command, so in fact the last three confrontations were sort of the first three that we filmed in the sense that they're not chronological in the film. They actually tend towards greater intimacy. The most powerful men were the last, because they're the ones we filmed and we knew that it would be dangerous to continue.
Then, of course, Adi, we also agreed that when we have a rough cut of the film, the family would look at it, decide whether we should bring the film out now or whether we should wait. The family saw the film in April, 2014, six months or so before it came out. Or March, 2014, so five or six months before it had its world premiere. About nine months before it came out in Indonesia. They said this should come out as quickly as possible because of the momentum for The Act of Killing. In early 2014, when the The Act of Killing was nominated for an Academy Award, the government of Indonesia finally acknowledged that the 1965 genocide was a crime against humanity and that there should be reconciliation. They stopped short of endorsing the film, but it was the first time they'd ever acknowledged that this was wrong.
The family didn't want to lose that momentum, so we put in place, with a team of 25 people working on this, way of moving the family to a safer part of Indonesia, but where Adi could still play the leading role that he wanted to play in the release of the film and in the movement for truth and reconciliation.
Q: Man, I can't tell you how good it makes me feel to hear all that. I was very afraid for him and his family.
A: Yeah, the family's moved. They're doing really well, actually. First of all, everyone left the village in 2013, when we were editing. In the summer of 2013, Adi's father died. At that point, Adi's mother to live with her children, who are all in the city. She would spend, she continues to spend like three months with one and then wants to move onto the next, because she misses them. She doesn't like to just stay with one. She just was spending four months with Adi and I was skyping with her almost every day. I've never seen her better. At least not in many years.
She was, first of all, and I felt it, but Adi confirmed it when I saw him when we met in Japan, just about the beginning of his trip. We'd been in Japan, the U.K., Germany, now France on this one trip. He said, "My mom used to always talk morning, noon, night about Ramli. She just would tell the same story of Ramli's death." What you feel in the film, too, it's like an echo in her head that never fades. He said once she found out the impact that this film is making, that it's after it was the film of the year across the Indonesian media, when it screened on the first day, 500 times publicly across the country on the first day, and now it's over 3,500 times it's screened. She just seems to feel at peace about it.
I've seen her younger, because I knew her 12 years ago and before Rakun was sick. But for many years, she was a full-time for Rakun, Adi's father. That took a lot out of her, of course. He really wanted to stay in the village and she wanted that for him. So they were kind of isolated and it was hard. She's put on weight. She's witty as ever. Her hearing even seems better. She's focused. She's teasing me on Skype every day. She's sort of enjoying an Indian summer. She's over a hundred years old and you would never know it.
Adi's children are in much better schools. With the True Falls Film Festival, they gave a prize to Adi, it was the only film prize that I know of that's for the subject of a film. Together with money, with foundation support we've raised, that will allow him to open a brick and mortar optometry shop, which will secure the family's future. We've raised money for the kids' higher education. The family is doing really well.
Adi has not been threatened since the film's come out. I continue to receive death threats, I believe from the henchmen of the men in The Act of Killing. I cannot go back safely. My crew remains anonymous because the crew on The Look of Silence is the same as the crew on The Act of Killing. If we put their names on The Look of Silence, it would be equivalent to revealing who made The Act of Killing and that would endanger them.
Of course The Act of Killing is more dangerous because we humiliated some of the most powerful perpetrators in the country. Whereas this film is dealing with regionally, but not nationally powerful people. Adi, of course, there's a plan B, should Adi face any threats. They all have visas to come to Denmark and they'll come for as long as necessary. But so far, it's already been seven months since the premier. Although there's been screenings threatened with attack and there's been pressure to have the film banned from public cinema distribution by the army, and they succeeded actually in getting it banned, although that's being appealed by the distributor, the National Human Rights Commission.
It's amazing, I should say, that the film is distributed by the government. The Act of Killing, that could have never have happened. It's because of the work The Act of Killing did that that's happening. But despite all that, Adi hasn't been threatened thus far.