Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Act of Killing and this month’s The Look of Silence, speaks to us about guilt, forgiveness and healing in the latest edition of the Exberliner Podcast, sponsored by the Met Film School Berlin.
While The Act of Killing focused on the story of the perpetrators of the brutal 1965 Indonesian mass murders, The Look of Silence turns its focus to the victims, and specifically follows Adi, whose older brother Ramli was killed in the purge. Adi uses his work as an optometrist as a means by which to speak to the elderly community members who were responsible for the death of his brothers and countless others.
There’s a scene in this film that you’ve said was the genesis for both The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. Can you describe what happened? The scene I shot in January 2004 was filmed with two death squad leaders who didn’t know each other before. As they led me down a path to a spot where they helped the Indonesian army kill 10,500 people, they took turns playing victim and perpetrator, demonstrating how they killed and pretending to be proud of it. I had spent eight months filming with the perpetrators separately, and I found, to my horror, that they were even worse when they were together. They were reading from a shared script. And I had to let go of whatever comforting hope I might have had that these men were just monsters. This was clearly political and systemic. I realised that this is like coming to Germany 40 years after the Holocaust only to find the Nazis still in power. And so I decided I would stop everything I was doing and spend as many years as it would take to address this situation.
The patience and gentleness of Adi, the main character, as he confronts the perpetrators is remarkable. Would you have been able to do this film if it hadn’t been with someone so abnormally forgiving? No, I wouldn’t have. It simply would have been too dangerous. One of the reasons we were able to do this safely was because I understood that Adi was going there not out of revenge. As Adi put it: If I go to them trying to understand, showing that I’m willing to forgive them, it will be an opportunity that they have long hoped for where they can acknowledge that what they did was wrong and make peace with the victims’ families.
Do you think that all the perpetrators feel guilty? It’s tricky. I think they’re all living their lives in avoidance of guilt. And I think some of them do so by dissociating from themselves and their past. I think the perpetrators are either haunted by rotten memories or doing everything they can psychologically to avoid those memories, and they do what you and I would do in that situation, which is to cling for dear life to the official line, saying it was heroic. And that of course accounts for why they’re always boasting about the worst details of what they’ve done, because those are the things that haunt them.
What about the people who condoned it at the international level, politicians in the US who were friends with Suharto for years? Do they have the same feelings of guilt? I think they do. Philosophically, I have to believe that there’s a price. Even for people in the White House. We become the stories we tell ourselves, the many persona that we inhabit, the fantasies that we cling to to justify the lives we’ve lived. And you could say that there’s no price if you can go through life without feeling haunted, but I would say that living a life clinging to fantasy is in itself a huge price even if you don’t have nightmares at night.
Is there any healing if the perpetrators don’t feel remorse? The healing has to come from the next generation. That’s sort of what The Look of Silence shows, that Adi and the daughter of a perpetrator find the courage and humanity to reach across the chasm that divides them and actually embrace. That’s where healing could come for society. Fundamentally, I think that the real healing that’s possible will come with a national acknowledgement that what happened was wrong: no buts, no excuses.
The Look of Silence | Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer (USA 2014) documentary. Starts October 1