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Joshua Oppenheimer on ‘The Look of Silence,’ Benefits of Digital Filmmaking, and More

Written by on July 16, 2015 


With The Act of Killing, director Joshua Oppenheimer instantly became one of the most important names in documentary cinema, his film proving one of the most acclaimed, discussed, and, sometimes, sharply criticized releases of 2013. Oppenheimer recorded the perpetrators responsible for the deaths of over half a million Indonesians in 1965-1966, a genocide veiled as an anti-communist purge that, because of its roots in politics endorsed by the West, is still relatively little-known. It was both a light into our world’s underwritten history and a bold new step for the form, but his follow-up, The Look of Silence, is even better. This time around, Oppenheimer documents the confrontation that Adi, the brother of a victim of the genocide, has with the various perpetrators. Resolving his first film’s formal uncertainties and provoking even more disgust amidst quiet strains of optimism, The Look of Silence is hands-down one of the year’s highlights.

After a screening at last year’s New York Film Festival, we were lucky enough to sit down with the director. Oppenheimer talked in eloquent monologues about everything from performativity in documentaries, the essence of nonfiction filmmaking, the origin of his latest feature, and, of course, the film itself. Looking back on it, I only wish I had requested more time, as the interview ended when there was clearly much more to say. Luckily, Oppenheimer will likely be a name that lasts, and we can only hope that more opportunities arise as he continues to shine a light on one of the 20th century’s darkest chapters, the repercussions of which are still felt in modern-day Indonesia.

To start, congratulations: you’re officially a genius, as per MacArthur. Did they just call you one morning and say, “You win”?

Yes, they do, they do, and, in fact, at first I thought it was like a journalist or someone I was supposed to meet and I failed to make an appointment, and I just jumped out of bed. It was a total surprise.

The Act of Killing was tied at #19 on the Sight & Sound list of greatest documentaries. There were a lot of newer films on that, e.g. Leviathan, Man on Wire, Los Angeles Plays Itself, and The Gleaners and I. Does that indicate anything about the state of documentary?

No. [Laughs] It doesn’t. It doesn’t indicate anything about it to me.

It’s a lot of different kinds of films. All of those films, and Act of Killing, are doing different things, but there is a lot of talk right now about “hybrids,” which has been done for a while, and obviously the availability of digital equipment has a big effect. Was any of that on your mind during either The Act of Killing or The Look of Silence?

the_look_of_silence_oppenheimerSo certainly — and there I have something to say — what I did in Act of Killing wouldn’t have been possible in the days of celluloid. To go through a filmmaking process where you get sort of sucked into catalyzing and allowing to flourish a project that takes on an absolute life of its own, namely these former death squad leaders, dramatizing the fantasies by which they live with themselves and justify their actions, and creating elaborate, increasingly elaborate, ever more elaborate fiction scenes… staging those fantasies generated 1,200 hours of footage. That would be an airplane hangar filled with celluloid. And that would be impossible for any filmmaker to edit, to review, to cut, to work with the multiple cameras, to sync them up. There was no way in the days of celluloid to sync up cameras on the same event…and then layers of reflection as the characters would watch the footage and comment on it. It just wasn’t possible. So that’s certainly something I’ve thought about.

And, more to the point, I’m not sure I really see a trend toward embracing what I feel is the state of nature in documentary cinema, which is that whenever you point a camera at anybody, they start acting, they start performing, and they start acting out the scripts by which they imagine would be coming to them. They start acting in the way they want to be seen. And from there you can infer how they really see themselves. And you can ask questions then for what are they compensating. Why do they want to be seen a certain way? But when you acknowledge that, that whenever you point a camera at somebody they start acting, they start staging themselves, then you’re in this space of performance. And you’re saying whatever you get in a non-fiction film is a form of performance. That’s a kind of axiom of mine that you see in the work of Ulrich Seidl, Michael Glawogger — you see it more in Europe; you see it, in some small extent, in other people’s work — but I don’t know if that’s enough to call it a trend, given that I think it is in fact the state of nature of the whole medium.

And it’s still the case that the vast majority of people calling themselves documentarians are trying to get past that state of self-consciousness as quickly as possible. And most of the time they don’t, but they try to hide it. That is to say, they simulate a reality with the people they film in which they pretend they’re not affecting it. Whereas, in fact, any time you film anybody, you’re creating a reality with the people you film, whether it’s a fiction film or a nonfiction film. But I don’t see a trend, but I think the attempt to hide that that’s what’s going on, and the way we try to talk about doc as a transparent window on reality obscures what really happens when you point a camera at someone and therefore leads filmmakers to miss the opportunity that the awareness of that self-staging invariably presents. And I think that’s an enormous shame.

Albert Maysles acknowledged that when you point a camera, people start acting, so you need to point the camera at them long enough until they can’t keep up the façade.

Well, I would argue that this is a very good example — and I love their work — but I would argue this is a good example of not speaking in a productive way or an insightful way about documentary. If you look at their masterpiece, Grey Gardens, the longer they point their camera, the more the women start to cleverly and manipulatively use the camera, perform for it, compete with each other for its attention. So the film becomes more and more performative, not less and less. And I think that if we recognize that as a basic thing that’s not just happening, not just generating fabulous performances that make that film, but actually the key to its emotional development as the women become more and more shrill in their competition for the attention of the filmmakers, then we start to have the opportunity to understand what that film is really doing and why it’s a great film and how its drama works. But if we simply say, “Oh, the filmmakers hang around long enough until they forget the camera,” then we’re lying to ourselves and we’re lying to any young filmmaker who is trying to think, “how does documentary work and what are we doing when we make it?”


The Look of Silence features many scenes where there’s a confrontation between Adi and somebody else and they get very angry, telling him “the past is the past” and telling you to turn off the camera. Is this sort of the opposite, where you film a short conversation and they’re closer to being themselves because they haven’t learned how to manipulate the camera yet?

[Oppenheimer pauses]

Was there a lot of footage filmed and edited in each of those individual conversations, or are we seeing most of what was recorded?

I’m trying to think… it’s an interesting question and I don’t think I’ve thought about it that way. It’s interesting because not only could those conversations not exist without a camera — Adi couldn’t know who those men were without my old footage, without watching that old footage.

Which old footage do you mean?

I met Adi in 2003 when I was just starting this work on the 1965 genocide and was working with survivors, and Adi came in a plantation village where I had helped the plantation workers make a film called The Globalization Tapes, which is not really my film but a film they made with me and my colleague Christine Cynn’s facilitating. Then we started in 2003. It turned out the plantation workers were all survivors of this genocide and the film was made to document their struggle organizing a union. And it turned out their biggest obstacle was fear, because their parents and grandparents had been killed for being in a union in 1965. They said, after we made that film, “Come back and let’s make another film about what it’s like for us to live with perpetrators all around us and still in power.”

And I came back in early 2003 to start that work, and we started, of course, working with the survivors with whom we worked to make The Globalization Tapes. But they said there was one victim in particular whose name was synonymous with the genocide across that region, and his name was Romley. Because Romley’s murder had witnesses. People saw Romley die, unlike the tens of thousands of people who had been brought to river banks, decapitated and thrown into the river. People saw Romley die, so to speak about Romley for the survivors was to insist that these events, which the government had threatened them into pretending never had occurred, it was to insist even to themselves and to each other really had occurred. It was like pinching yourself to remind yourself and to retain a link, a connection, to the source of their fear and trauma, which, once severed, deprives you of any opportunity to ever heal from that trauma because you can’t recall what the original trauma is.

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