The Making of the Most Powerful Documentary Of The Year

The Look Of Silence, the follow-up to The Act of Killing, was perhaps this year’s riskiest documentary — an investigation into the perpetrators of genocide filmed in a country that is still run by many of those persons. The efforts have been rewarded. As the first Oscar-nominated Indonesian production, the film has made history, but the airing of the story is likely the more profound feat. To get it, director Joshua Oppenheimer followed Adi Rukun, a middle-aged Indonesian optometrist whose brother was brutally murdered in the 1965 genocide. On camera, Rukun confronts the men specifically involved with murdering the sibling he never got to know. Through Oppenheimer’s skilled lens, Rukun’s brother’s story — and a country’s dark secrets — come to light. 

As for its Academy Award nomination, its safe to say all eyes are on it — especially those abroad. “It’s a surreal situation because it’s distributed by one branch of the government, while other parts are trying to shut it down because of the implications it makes about how they came into power,” says Oppenheimer. “I think it’s safe to say that the entire country of Indonesia will be watching the Oscars this year.” 

How did you find this story?
In 2001 I was asked to help teach a group of plantation workers how to make a documentary about their own struggle to form a union under a dictatorship where unions were illegal. When I got there I found out that the Belgian plantation owners were making the women spray pesticides without any protective clothing. The women were dying at the age of 40. So their first act as a union was to demand the correct clothing for what they were doing, and the company’s response was to hire a paramilitary group to threaten and beat the workers until they backed down. 

I couldn’t understand why they would back down; some of the women had skin that was already yellowing with jaundice. But they explained, with tears in their eyes, they were too afraid to go any further because in 1965 there was a mass killing by the dictatorship in power and their parents and grandparents were killed simply for being in their own union. It was the same paramilitary group that was threatening them, and they were more powerful than ever. I knew I had to come back and do another film on what had happened there years ago. 

How did you find Adi Rukun?
Adi’s brother Ramli was synonymous with the genocide. About 10,500 people were killed at Snake River, and tens of thousands more in the surrounding area, but most of the bodies would drift out to sea and never be seen again. Most of the families didn’t get a chance to bury their loved ones. Ramli’s murder was one of the few that had witnesses, and his body ended up floating up on a plantation, so people who had suffered through that time used his name to express what had happened there without really having to say anything.

I met Ramli’s parents, and they wanted me to meet Adi right away. He grabbed onto my filmmaking as a way to understand what happened in his village and what happened to his brother. He had a dream of making a movie that would counter the propaganda films he had been subjected to. He helped me gather survivors who wanted to tell their stories, but after three weeks the army came and threatened them not to participate in the film. 

(Director Joshua Oppenheimer, left, and Adi Rukun) 

How did you continue with the project under threat?
A few days later he called me to his parents’ home at midnight and he had gathered all the survivors together, many of them were still scared about the threats to stay away from me. They asked me not to give up, to try to talk to the perpetrators. Initially I was horrified at the idea, but they were so passionate, so I said I would give it a try. They pointed at a perpetrator for me to approach. At first contact I said I was interested in the history of the whole region, but they immediately started boasting about the killings. They were incredibly proud of what they had done. The very first time I was told about the killings, it was an older man telling me right in front of his 10-year-old granddaughter, who seemed bored to being hearing the story again. I asked him to introduce me to others, and I spent the next two years interviewing perpetrators of the act, working my way up the chain of command.

I knew immediately that it had to be two films. One on what it is like to live amongst the killers of your friends and family, and another about what the killers told themselves that made what they did okay in their mind. The Look Of Silence was the film I initially wanted to make, but I wouldn’t have been able to make it without The Act Of Killing because that first movie gave me recognition and political cover of being close to the most powerful men in the country.

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Whose idea was it to confront these men with Adi?
When I returned in 2012, Adi said that he wanted to confront the perpetrators, as he had watched them brag about their acts for the past seven years. He said, “It changed me.” I interrupted him, saying it was far too dangerous; there had never been a film where survivors confronted perpetrators of violence while they are still in power. But nobody had seen the final result of The Act Of Killing yet, so I knew we could get away with confronting these people for the time being. The people who Adi wanted to talk to were regionally powerful, and they were under the impression that I was close with more powerful people in Indonesia, so it was less likely that they would try anything, because they wouldn’t want to offend their commanders. 

What was it like to be talking with the murderers in the very place where they killed thousands of people?
I was horrified. I remember the first day that I brought two perpetrators down to Snake River together, and they were taking turns playing killer and victim. They were helping each other down this grassy slope, but tenderly, and you see them as old men for a moment. I couldn’t help but make the comparison to Nazi Germany — if those criminals had never been taken out of power — and even worse, if the United States had stood idly by and celebrated the atrocities they committed. It was pure horror.

I’m a squeamish person, and when they were telling the worst of the stories, the details of drinking their victim’s blood to prevent them from going insane — I couldn’t really listen. I would focus on the angle of the camera, or think about the technical aspects of the filming. Because I didn’t want to faint while they were talking. 

The perpetrators were obviously more vocal about their acts of violence when Adi wasn’t there. What was it like for him to see that footage for the first time?
Adi was watching the footage from the very beginning. He and the other survivors wanted to see what the perpetrators were saying. Back when we were filming The Act Of Killing, he would come every night to the house and watch everything that I had time to show him. If I didn’t have time, then I did my best to make sure that someone from the crew would show him the footage. I could see that watching the footage was starting to change him; he was not the same person as when we first started this process. Later I found out that he had started to seek out older patients in his work as an optometrist just so that he could ask them what they knew about 1965. He wanted to ask their memories.

How did you keep Adi safe?
We were constantly worried about safety. When those bigger confrontations were happenings, we had Adi’s family at the airport ready to leave, we had a system where a signal would go to them that we were okay from our office in Denmark. If they didn’t get it, they were prepared to fly. We had a getaway car staged nearby so that we could speed away if it became contentious. But I didn’t want to make a call like that too early. I wanted to help facilitate the conversation that Adi was looking for.

When I first approached these people, I said I wanted to introduce a new person into the conversation who has his own perspective on history. I said that Adi was an optometrist who could help them with their eyes, and give them glasses if they needed any. He was helping them. In addition, if at any point in the interaction he started to get nervous, he could focus on his professional abilities.

As the release of the movie approached, was there worry about Adi staying in the country?
Shortly after The Act Of Killing had been nominated for an Oscar, it prompted the Indonesian government to finally acknowledge what had happened. It was the first time the government publicly made mention of the wrong that had happened. We put the film online in Indonesia for free, and it was seen by tens of millions of people. There was finally a national conversation about the crimes that were committed by those in power. During all of this attention, we decided to all meet in Thailand and discuss what we should do with The Look of Silence. Adi’s family moved temporarily to Denmark, where I’m based, and everyone agreed that the film should come out then using the momentum that had already been built.

They were happy to move to Denmark permanently if that was what was required. But the team that put out The Act Of Killing believed that there had already been so much change in the country that Adi and his family could stay in Indonesia. They put together a team to monitor their safety. They wanted him to be the face of a movement for change. His story has helped lead to a national dialogue about the need for truth, justice, and reconciliation. The first screening in Indonesia was with the national Human Rights Commission, in cooperation with the government — incredible for a production that had to start in secret.

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