Look of Silence takes debate on ‘60s slaughter in Indonesia to new level, says producer of One World winner

'The Act of Killing', photo: archive of One World festival

Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 film The Act of Killing is a portrait of now elderly members of mid-1960s Indonesian death squads who boast openly about their unspeakable actions in a killing spree that left an estimated half a million people dead. Nominated for an Oscar, it was also named one of the 50 best documentaries of all time by Sight and Sound magazine. A companion film, The Look of Silence, in which the brother of a victim meets his killers, has just taken the Best Film prize at Prague’s One World festival of human rights documentaries.

Signe Byrge Sorensen, photo: archive of One World festival
After a screening, I caught up with the producer of both films, Signe Byrge Sorensen, and began by asking her why she believed The Act of Killing had made such an impact.

“I think there are many different reasons, but I think first and foremost it was how Joshua Oppenheimer, the director, used a way of telling the story that combined form and content in a very beautiful way.”

What was the reaction to the film in Indonesia?

“It’s a long story. But at first we brought out the film and showed it to a lot of journalists, academics and writers, and they started writing about it.

“For example, there was a magazine called Tempo that wanted to check if Anwar Congo, the main character, was the only one talking like this, or whether there were many other people around the country who would use the same boastful way to talk about their victims, and so on.

“They sent journalists all around the country and they came back with stories exactly like this. They then published a 75-page edition of their magazine, about the film but also about all these other stories.

“That sort of got the whole wave of the Indonesia press going, so there was a lot of writing about both the film and this magazine.

“Then we started having screenings across the country. We have a team of Indonesians who are organising this, together with human rights organisations and student organisations, and so on.

“From 2012 to 2014, and still, they have been organising screenings across the country of The Act of Killing, and now since the summer of 2014 of The Look of Silence.

“The debate continues. The Act of Killing sparked off the debate and meant that the whole discourse about these events in Indonesia has changed.

“So when The Look of Silence came along the debate went into a new phase in which the survivors also had more space to talk about their side of the story.”

In The Look of Silence this guy Adi [Kukun] goes to speak to some of the people responsible for the killing of his older brother. What was his motivation for seeking to speak to these people?

'The Look of Silence', photo: archive of One World festival
“He states that very clearly. He wants to understand their reasons for doing what they did.

“He also wants to ask what they think today about what they did, and if they feel bad about it, in order to find out if there is any space for reconciliation in a way.

“But first of all he feels that he would be able to open up to reconciliation only if they would open up and admit that what they did was terrible. He’s trying to figure out if they would do that.”

Did the fact that Joshua Oppenheimer was known to some of these death squad members, and was in a way respected by them, help Adi to make contact with them?

“First of all, maybe I should explain that Joshua Oppenheimer actually knew Adi and his family before he knew any of these perpetrators.

“Originally he went to Indonesia to do a film called The Globalisation Tapes in 2003, on a plantation in north Sumatra.

“The whole idea was for plantation workers to make a film together with Josh and his co-director at that time, Christine Cynn, and to talk about what globalisation meant to them.

“That’s how Josh understood that these things had happened. Because a lot of the people on this plantation had lost family members in 1965, 1966, due to the fact that because they were union organisers they were considered potential threats; they were defined as communists and either imprisoned or killed.

“So Josh knew the victims’ stories first. And he actually attempted to tell that story together with some of the survivors after he finished The Globalisation Tapes.

“But it was very difficult at the time. The dictatorship in Indonesia ended in 1998, but in 2003, 2004, 2005 the military and police were still very much present in the countryside in that area and all over the country.

“That meant that people who were trying to film this side of the story at the time were intimidated by the police, and the crew was arrested at one point.

“So Josh sat down with these people and said, OK, it’s very, very difficult to tell this story – what do we do?

“And one of these guys suggested, Why don’t you talk to the perpetrators? They will tell you about it because you’re American and the Americans were basically supporting this thing when it happened. They will also tell you because they came into power…”

'The Act of Killing', photo: archive of One World festival
And they have impunity?

“They have impunity. They’re boastful about it and proud about it, because they’ve been celebrated as heroes ever since for having exterminated the communists.

“This was their main point: If you interview these guys, you will show the world the way they talk about this, but you will also somehow find out what exactly happened to our family members.

“Because very often this wasn’t known in precise details. People knew that their family members had been imprisoned on some date and then disappeared. And they knew that the rivers at the time were full of dead bodies.

“But they didn’t know exactly who had killed their relatives and what had happened and so on.

“So Josh started this. Of course he was very nervous the first time he had to go and approach someone and ask about the events in 1965. But indeed he found that they were totally ready to boast in the way you see in The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, and to tell their stories.

“Then he sort of met all the perpetrators in this area, trying to figure out what was the hierarchy, what was the chain of command.

“This led him to the nearest big town, where the higher command was located, Medan, and that’s where he met Anwar, who became the main character in The Act of Killing later on.

“But by that time he had actually more than 40 perpetrators. And some of the perpetrators that you now see in The Look of Silence are some of the ones that he met in that period, when he was trying to figure out what had actually happened.”

The Look of Silence is then essentially a follow-up to The Act of Killing only in terms of chronology of release – they were made simultaneously?

“The old material you see in The Look of Silence was made before 2005. We also filmed with the family along the way, but not so much.

“And then after The Act of Killing was edited but before it came out we filmed the main shoots, the conversations, in The Look of Silence.”

How would you compare the two films in terms of style? I must say that for me personally I liked The Look of Silence more, partly because there were people in the film I could identify with.

“The two films are very different. That’s how we, and of course mainly Josh because he’s the main director, feel that they should be. Because the way the form is expressed is also mirroring or reflecting the way the characters are.

Joshua Oppenheimer, photo: Funkystar, CC BY-SA 3.0
“The Act of Killing is much more flamboyant, much more colourful, much wilder, much more boastful, and The Look of Silence is much more subdued.

“In many ways we are trying to also tell in film language what it feels like to be a survivor who has been suppressed in this society for so many years and has been persecuted and not able to speak out about the atrocities that happened.”

How much personal risk was Adi taking in being in the film? As you say, some of these death squad members are now in power in Indonesia.

“The perpetrators you see in The Look of Silence are regional politicians, whereas some of the perpetrators you see in The Act of Killing have power at national level.

“Adi was taking a risk, as were his family, and they have moved away from that area now.

“The main thing was that while we were doing it… and I have to say we only did it because this is what Adi wanted to do, we wouldn’t have suggested doing it if it hadn’t come from him.

“But the risk for him was mainly that we didn’t know how they would react when we were going into it.

“What we could do was to do the order of the conversations in terms of hierarchy. So we didn’t go to the most powerful first, and so on. We also monitored from incident to incident what was happening.

“But because Adi is such a dignified person, so quiet and intense, and he knows what he wants to ask but he’s doing it in a very, very respectful manner, none of the interview situations were problematic in that sense.

“But sometimes when we went into a situation we didn’t known how it would develop.”

I was reading that there were plans in place to quickly remove him and his family from that situation if things turned hairy.

“That’s true, yes. We have an Indonesian crew, they’ve worked on both films, and they are the reason this could have been done.

“But when we did some of the more difficult interviews a Danish crew, Joshua Oppenheimer and Adi went in. Because we didn’t want the Indonesians to risk anything in that situation.”

And that’s why some of the credits are to “anonymous”?

“Yes, in both films we decided with the Indonesian crews that that would be the safest thing.

“We were mainly, especially with The Act of Killing, worried about the paramilitary organisations. They have a known history of being very angry and attacking both films and exhibitions and stuff like that, if they don’t like the contents.

“So of course we didn’t want to put anyone at risk in this situation – both the people involved in making the films and the people now involved in distributing them in Indonesia.”

What has been the reaction to The Look of Silence in Indonesia?

“It’s been very amazing and very beautiful. This time we had a sort of open opening of the film in Jakarta, together with the Jakarta Arts Council and the National Human Rights Commission.

“It was an 800-seat cinema and we had to do two screenings, because it sold out so quickly.

“Adi was there and took part in Q&As. People were openly interviewed in the streets about the film.

“There’s been enormous press coverage in Indonesia. I think our team there has counted more than 700 articles so far. We are way beyond 1,200 screenings of the film since Human Rights Day on December 12, 2014, and it’s still going.

“The debate is running and has continued and added this perspective of the survivors. We hope that it will continue, because it’s a debate that sort of has to take place in every little community and every family and across Indonesia.

“Of course we know that Indonesia is huge. It’s 250 million people and we are not reaching everyone yet. We know that. But we are trying.”