Joshua Oppenheimer received his first Oscar nomination for “The Act of Killing” (2013), a harrowing documentary in which former leaders of Indonesian death-squads reenacted their killings through the artifice of Hollywood filmmaking. His new companion film, “The Look of Silence,” is a riveting portrayal of Adi Rukun, who confronts those who killed his brother during the country’s mass genocide is also nominated for Best Documentary Feature. Both director and subject took part in a recent webcam chat (watch above), in which they spoke candidly about the risks involved in making this movie.
“This is really the film I originally set out to make,” reveals Oppenheimer. He explains how he originally got the idea for the film, which grew out of his experiences working with Indonesian plantation workers who were dying of herbicide exposure. After demanding protective clothing, “the company responded by hiring the paramilitary group in ‘The Act of Killing’ to threaten and attack the workers. The workers responded by dropping their demands.”
When Oppenheimer realized the workers were afraid because of the mass killings that had occurred at the hands of those same men, he decided to return and make a film about their fear. “I was right away introduced to Adi’s family,” he recalls. “Adi grabbed hold of my filmmaking as a way of trying to understand what had happened to his parents, to his family, to his brother, to his country, and started gathering survivors to tell their stories.”
The film was put on hold when those survivors began receiving threats from the army, at which point Oppenheimer decided to make “The Act of Killing.” “[The survivors] said, ‘please don’t give up, try and film the perpetrators.” He returned in 2012 after editing was finished to start filming “The Look of Silence,” but before “The Act of Killing” had premiered, “at which point I knew I couldn’t safely return to Indonesia at all.”
Oppenheimer was at first reluctant to make the film the way Rukun wanted to, saying, “there’s never before been a film where survivors confront perpetrators while they’re in power.” Ultimately, Rukun “convinced me as to the importance of this to him, and my crew pointed out that because no one had seen ‘The Act of Killing’ yet, I was believed across this region to be close to the most powerful people in the country, and that the men Adi wanted to confront wouldn’t dare attack us or even detain us because they’d be afraid of offending their superiors.
Still, filming was fraught with peril. “This was the most difficult experience of my life, honestly,” admits Rukun, “because I had to actually confront these killers who killed my own brother. So I had to hold in my feelings. I couldn’t show this tremendous pain and complicated, conflicting feelings I was having, because I had this one singular goal, which was to make it possible for these men not only to say what they’d done, so that the world would know, but to acknowledge the meaning of what they’d done, that it was wrong.”
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