In 2012’s The Act of Killing, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer explored the mass genocide in Indonesia from 1965 to 1966, exposing the horrors of that regime. In this year’s The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer profiles Adi Rukun, a man born soon after the massacres, who confronts the perpetrators who killed his brother during that time.
We’re honored to share this interview with Oppenheimer and Rukun as they discuss the fears they faced to make this film. The Look of Silence is nominated for Best Documentary Feature. Read how the Indonesian government has reacted to the film.
The interview closes with a statement from Adi Rukun.
Awards Daily: OK, let’s get back to how you and Adi Rukun met.
Joshua Oppenheimer: In 2001, 2002, I was helping to teach a group of plantation workers on the same oil plantation where Adi’s family lived. I was teaching them how to make a film about how to organize a union in the aftermath of a military dictatorship under which unions were illegal.
It was a Belgian-owned company, where they made the women spray the pesticides and the herbicides because they said it was easy and the women didn’t have any protective clothing. Women in their forties were dying from liver failure. The workers had confronted the company to ask for protective clothing, and the company met those demands by hiring paramilitary to threaten and attack the workers who dropped their demand. They explained that there had been a mass killing in 1965 and their parents and grandparents had been killed by the same paramilitary. I realized what was killing these women was not just poison but also fear.
I returned and was immediately introduced to Adi’s family because his brother had been murdered and had become almost like a synonym for the genocide as a whole. Ramli’s murder was the one murder that had witnesses in the region. Thousands had been killed, and their families never told what happened, so they couldn’t say their loved ones had died, they would say, “Oh, they can’t come home yet.” However, they would talk about Ramli to express some of what had happened.
I was inevitably introduced to Ramli’s parents who then wanted me to meet Adi right away. They said to understand what they had lost, I needed to meet Adi. He looks, talks and acts like Ramli. He is almost a reincarnation of Ramli.
Adi was born after the killing and had no story of what had happened beyond the story of Ramli’s murder and beyond the lies taught in school celebrating the atrocities.
If you’ve seen the uncut version, the Director’s cut that includes the propaganda film that everybody had to watch in school. If you haven’t seen it, it’s by far the superior version of the film.
AD: I actually haven’t seen that version, but I will seek it out.
JO: In any case. Adi had seen that in school and felt there was a terrible injustice done to his brother’s murder. The pain of his mother had no place in this national narrative, and he dreamed of a way to make a film to counter that film.
When he met me, he felt there was this opportunity that was impossible to even hope for, and he decided he would grab hold of it.
Adi started grabbing survivors to tell me their stories and within three weeks, the army was threatening them not to participate in the film.
We had a midnight meeting in his parent’s home and told them not to give up, try to film the perpetrators. It astonished and frightened me, but I tried on their behalf.
Adi saw the material and said I must continue to film the perpetrators. I spent the next seven years making The Act of Killing. Adi watched everything I showed him. When I returned to shoot the film, it was very much everything I had set out to make.
Before The Act of Killing had its first screening, I knew I couldn’t return to Indonesia safely at all anymore, Adi said to me, “I need to confront the men who killed my brother.” I told him how dangerous it was. He said, “I’ve spent seven years watching this image with the perpetrators, I have to meet them and see if they can take responsibility for what they’ve done.” I told him there had never been a film where survivors confront perpetrators while the perps are still in power.
Adi explained why it was so important to him and so we realized that because no one had seen The Act of Killing yet, the men Adi wanted to confront would think I was close to their commanders and would be unlikely to detain us and attack us, so we found a way of doing it safely.
AD: It started in 2003 and you had all this material whilst you’re gathering all this information, what was that like, having it inside you for all that time?
JO: It was painful. At first I was filming perpetrators talking about monstrous things and in monstrous ways. It was emotionally frightening. I would hope to find evidence that they were monsters so that I could convince myself that maybe this is nothing to do with me, that I am above that. I never found monsters, I kept finding ordinary human beings. That forced me to explore, to treat these men as human beings if I were to understand them and understand what they’d been through, and that in turn forced me to naturally start to explore how human beings do this to each other, and what it means to live with this.
I resisted the urge to pretend that I dealt with this. That meant becoming very vulnerable to these people as human beings. It meant trying to bring an audience close to the perpetrators through my intimacy with them.
That was frightening, it was painful and it gave me nightmares. The Look of Silence was more physically frightening to shoot because we were confronting the perpetrators. We’d have a getaway car outside, ready to evacuate at the first sight of any danger.
It was emotionally healing because I felt we were creating a feel where the audience would feel a terrible injustice and also the beautiful dignity, love and even grace with which this family has lived for half a century.
AD: Did you or Adi receive threats other than the ones we see on film?
JO: We received only the threats you see in the film. I receive death threats still from who I presume are the henchmen of the powerful people in The Act Of Killing. That’s why I don’t return to Indonesia.
The film has been out in Indonesia for over a year and Adi hasn’t received any threats. He’s seen as a national hero by those who have seen the film and by the media who call the film, the film of the year.
Adi Rukun: Long before the film had its world premiere, we met to discuss how to release the film safely or even if we should release it at all. We decided that the film needed to come out now and that we would move out of the country or another part of Indonesia.
The team that released The Act of Killing said that we could move to just another part of Indonesia enabling our kids to continue schooling. We don’t speak English, so that was the better option. There haven’t been any threats in over a year. We’re in a good community, and not living in the shadow of the perpetrators who did this to our family.
My kids are in much better schools and we feel safer than we ever did. But we do maintain visas for them to come to Europe should that ever change.
AD: Adi, how did you approach this given all the risks and dangers that were out there.
AR: You have to understand that while the film making might appear dangerous, my family were always living in a condition of fear. We were always surrounded by the men who killed my brother. We were sent to school, and my teachers were members of the Death Squad, my parents knew this, so we lived with this all the time.
The feeling of fear had disappeared because we felt protected. The world knows and is angry. The Indonesian public is no longer intimidated into silence. If the government were to try anything, it would immediately provoke a backlash and outrage because people are no longer silent.
That makes the military and perpetrators reluctant to cause us danger.
AD: What else has changed since the documentary was released aside from giving people courage and not fearing the military?
JO: The Act of Killing had prompted this conversation about genocide as a crime against humanity and more importantly the criminal regime that’s been in power ever since. The Look of Silence entered that space this time distributed by the government of Indonesia. The National Human Rights Commission is part of the government reaching a much larger audience saying look how torn the fabric of our society is. Look how urgently we need truth, justice and reconciliation. Yet that national discussion has prompted a backlash from the military where you find the military hiring thugs and to threaten to attack screenings as an excuse to demand that screenings be cancelled.
Similarly, pressuring the film censorship board to ban the film from regular cinema screenings. So, we’re in this peculiar situation of Indonesia of having its first ever Oscar nomination, but it’s not really an Indonesian co-production. It’s distributed by the government of Indonesia, but it’s also banned by the government of Indonesia.
The country is very aware of it and keeping aware of what happens on February 28.
AD: So how did you do the filming of the two documentaries?
JO: The footage Adi was watching was from the first two years before I met Anwar Congo. He’s the first perpetrator I filmed. I focused entirely on The Act of Killing for five years after meeting Anwar. Adi would come and watch everything we had time to show every evening.
Then I returned to London and Denmark to edit The Act of Killing, knowing that as soon as I was done, I would return to shoot the film that I had initially set out to make – The Look of Silence.
They weren’t shot concurrently and there’s not a single person who appears in both films.
AD: There are so many messages we can take away from the film, the main one being: We are embodied by our past, no matter what. What’s the one thing you want the viewers to take away?
JO: That’s a most beautiful one, and the most important. Again and again in The Look of Silence, we hear survivors say, “Let the past be past.” Survivors always say that out of fear, and perpetrators always say it as a threat which means the past is never past. It’s right there, an open wound, keeping survivors afraid and empowering perpetrators to threaten and intimidate. It’s a weapon that perpetrators use to keep survivors afraid and silent.
The past will never be past until we find the courage to stop collectively, turn around 180 degrees, look at what we’ve done to each other, acknowledge the terrible consequences, and find a way where we can move forward together in such a way that we never do this to each other again.
As you put it, we are our past, it is the past that brings us to this moment. To deny the past is to deny ourselves and to not know ourselves. That’s why I think Indonesians have responded to the film as intensely as they have because it’s shown them the terrible cost of denying themselves of not knowing who they are. Imagine if you’re not able to tell your story. Around the world, the film is making us think about impunity in all of our countries. How every country and community is founded on acts of violence for which there is never any justice or rarely acknowledgment.
AD: Adi, what insights did you gain from making the film?
AR: I had so many painful and intense experiences making this film. Of course, I was hoping for an acknowledgement from the perpetrators and was frustrated by their inability to acknowledge, but I came to understand that they couldn’t do that.
I also realized in this journey, that this is a film that had enormous consequences, not just for my family but millions of other families and will continue to do so. This is something we never dared to hope for. It only happened because of this extraordinary coincidence that this man, Joshua turned up that we were able to do this.
JO: I wanted to add to that, to insist that I see the humanity in genocide. Not in the cliche side, but understanding in how human beings do this to each other. What it does to us. Also acknowledging and looking at what made them kill, and what self deception they need to tell themselves in order to live with what they’ve done, and encountering those emotions. And it was frightening.
What we have to worry about is ordinary people among us and how we’re made to do these things to each other. I decided I would do everything I could to bring viewers close enough to these men and the families, that we could feel what it’s like to be them and recognize ourselves in them. It meant getting close to very painful situations. While it was frightening, it was healing and strengthening because it required overcoming the most crippling fear of all which is the fear of looking.
Statement from Adi Rukun
“As an optometrist, I spend my days helping people to see better. I hope to do the same thing through this film. I hope to help many people see more clearly what happened during the 1965 Indonesian genocide — a crime often lied about, or buried in silence. We, the families of the victims, have been stigmatized. We have been called “secret communists,” a “latent danger haunting society,” a spectre to be feared, a pestilence to be exterminated. We are none of those things.
“I decided to make this film with Joshua because I knew it would make a difference — not only for my own family, but also, I hope, for millions of other victims’ families across Indonesia. I even hoped it would be meaningful to people around the world.
“I wanted my image to be photographed, and my voice recorded, because images and sounds are harder to fabricate than text. Also, it would be impossible for me to meet every possible viewer, one by one, but images of me can reach people wherever they are. Even long after I’m gone.
“I knew the risks I might face, and I thought about them deeply. I took these risks not because I am brave, but because I have been living in fear for too long. I do not want my children or, one day, my grandchildren to inherit this fear from me and my family.
“Unlike the perpetrators, I do not ask that my older brother, my parents, or the millions of victims be treated as heroes, even though some deserve to be.
“I just want my family to no longer be described as traitors in the school books. We never committed any crime. And yet my relatives and millions of others were tortured, disappeared, or slaughtered in 1965.
“When I visited the perpetrators for the film, I had no desire for revenge. I came to listen. I hoped they would look into my eyes, realize that I am a human being, and acknowledge what they did was wrong. It was up to them to take responsibility for what they did to my family. It was up to them to ask forgiveness. If, instead, they choose to justify their crimes, adding to the noisy lies, we as a nation, living together in this same land, will have difficulty living together as neighbors in peace and in harmony.
“Through The Look of Silence, I only wanted to show that we know what the perpetrators did. We know the truth behind their lies. And one day, the lies will be exposed.
Because we are no longer silent.”
– Adi Rukun