Filmmakers and their Global Lens: Joshua Oppenheimer

A man from The Look fo Silence with red glasses on looking into the camera
The Look of Silence (2015).

Dana Knight speaks with Oscar-nominated director Joshua Oppenheimer about recording tragedy, and unsettling the audience.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s latest film, The Look of Silence, is a companion piece to the critically acclaimed The Act of Killing.  This latest release follows an optometrist who discovers how his brother was slain during the ‘65-’66 Indonesian genocide and the identity of the killers. In search of answers, he decides to confront each of his brother’s murderers. The Independent‘s staff writer Dana Knight spoke with Oppenheimer at SXSW.

Dana Knight: Im so impressed with your work, I think The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are two of the most extraordinary documentaries ever made, both in terms of concept and execution. They are very unsettling, also. On this note, in one of your interviews you say that the point of art is to be unsettling, could you talk about that?

Joshua Oppenheimer: I think The Act of Killing and also The Look of Silence are about the tragedy of escapism. There are many unknown mass killings and simply exposing them or bringing them to life is valuable but it is not in itself what makes these two films significant.

DK: Its also the way in which you made them come to life

Oppenheimer: Maybe. But neither film is about 1965 per se. Both films are about impunity. And although the context may be unknown to non-Indonesian viewers, the terrible corrupting consequences of impunity, of a society ruled by fear, of the experience of not being able to talk about something because you’re too afraid, the experience of not being able to address your most important issues in the society, either because you don’t have the power to do so or because the people in power are feared or because you’re simply too afraid to talk about it – these are things we’re all familiar with, even at the most intimate levels in our lives. Going back to what the purpose of film and art is, both films attempt to be a mirror in which we recognize something, we recognize ourselves. And recognition is always about seeing something we already know, and a flash of recognition is always about seeing something we already know but didn’t quite realize we knew. It’s the shock of the familiar. And both films are about today and not about 50 years ago.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer. Courtesy Joshua Oppenheimer.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer. Courtesy Joshua Oppenheimer.

DK: What is the latest on the Indonesian governments reaction to the film? I know some of the screenings have been cancelled

Oppenheimer: The government is itself torn. The National Human Rights Commission and the Jakarta Arts Council have sponsored our release in Indonesia, those are both government bodies. And other government bodies have also been supportive. The Act of Killing began its release in Indonesia in secret whereas The Look of Silence premiere was held by the Jakarta Arts Council at the largest International Human Rights Commission, at the largest theatre in Indonesia. They put up billboards around Jakarta announcing the premiere. Two thousand people came, the capacity was 1,000 at the cinema so they had to hold two showings. And then a month later they held 500 simultaneous screenings across the country. I think we had 2,500 screenings in total and probably about 30 screenings have been cancelled, which means 2,470 went off safely. The problem is that the cancellations have followed a consistent pattern across the country, it’s always the same: the army organizing groups of thugs who threaten to attack the screenings and then collaborating with the police to say “we will not protect the safety of people gathering to exercise their human right to assembly and freedom of expression to watch the film, we will protect the thugs.” And the police show up with the thugs and demand that the screenings get cancelled. So generally screening organizers have cancelled the screenings with that kind of pressure and the consistency of that pattern from the smallest village to the largest cities suggests a military intelligence operation directly targeting the film. We’ve also had reports of people involved with directly organizing screenings being pursued by intelligence officers of the army and soldiers and the police. The army then pressured the Film Censorship Board to ban the films for all public cinema screenings, for all commercial screenings. That turns out to be kind of okay for us because rather than risk provoking the ban, we instead used the infrastructure for community screenings that we set up for The Act of Killing to release The Look of Silence. This was so large an infrastructure, it reached into so many villages and remote rural communities, that far more people have been able to see the film this way… But when the Film Censorship Board banned the film for commercial cinema release and when they attack screenings, there’s always an outcry from progressive politicians, from progressive members of Parliament, from the National Human Rights Commission and from the media. There’s a kind of tug of war around the film at the moment.

DK: Are there also signs of hope that this situation will change soon?

Oppenheimer: Yes, there are. Two recent things happened that were extraordinary. An army commander ordered his soldiers to watch the film in central Java and I think several hundred soldiers came together in full uniform to watch the film. It’s surreal. And it’s not because they support the film, they said they wanted to understand both sides of the issue. But the film is emotionally affecting and I’m thrilled to be able to reach out to those soldiers and have them experience the movie. The other thing that happened is that for the first time the army and thugs tried to attack a screening, the students barricaded the campus and went ahead with the screening. That’s tremendous and it has been received as very positive news across the Indonesian media.

DK: But I suppose its still not safe for you to travel there to present the film?

Oppenheimer: I can’t safely go, no. It’s taking a lot of our resources to just ensure the safety of Adi and his family, so for that reason, my crew remains anonymous and I don’t go. Adi has not received death threats for being in the film whereas I receive death threats all the time, but I think primarily for making The Act of Killing, which offended some very powerful people.

DK: Im also impressed with the cinematic quality of The Look of Silence. If I hadnt known I was watching a documentary, I would have thought its a fiction film. The way people speak, their movement within the frame, but also the stillness. Did you give them any instructions on how to perform in front of the camera?

Oppenheimer: Well, yeah, but I don’t think that in order to create an authentic scene in non-fiction film, the camera should try to become a fly on the wall. I think that the best scenes in non-fiction films happen not despite the camera but because of the camera’s presence. So there’s no problem for me in looking at a room and saying, “Okay, this discussion is going to be best if you sit here and you sit there because we can light it and make it powerful.” I think the beauty and the grace of the film, at least I hope the film is beautiful and graceful, [comes from that]. I was very much inspired by Yasujiro Ozu and Robert Bresson in their creation of these very tense but quiet moments where the quietness is the result of a very delicate equilibrium of opposing forces that are at an impasse.

DK: Indeed, I found the emotional engagement of the film to be very powerful and I was totally blown away by its cinematic quality. And these formal qualities reflect the fact that the film is not a documentaryin the strict sense of the word. So much of it takes place on the level of imagination, how people imagine themselves, how they recreate the past in their imagination, how that affects the present. So can we still call it a documentary?

Oppenheimer: Maybe I should come up with a name for it! I prefer to talk of my work as non-fiction. Maybe because documentary has this connotation of journalism or of documenting a pre-existing reality. I feel that what I’m trying to do is to use the camera to provoke occasions within the overall safe space of making a film, where together with my participants we are placed in a context beyond our comfort zone and where things begin to spiral out of control. And if things are going to spiral out of control, it involves greater rigor in staging. Because you have to think, “How are things possibly going to get out of control and how can I be prepared to film that?”

Behind the camera of The Look of Silence. Courtesy Joshua Oppenheimer.
Behind the camera of The Look of Silence. Courtesy Joshua Oppenheimer.

In these confrontations where Adi goes and confronts the perpetrators, if we speak from the language of documentary, we don’t have a great language to understand what’s happening. We might say he’s interviewing the perpetrators. But of course he’s not. An interview is a way to understand someone’s opinion about something or to get information about something. He is confronting them because he has a real need to elicit an apology and to create the possibility of forgiveness. So it’s not an interview, it’s a scene. It’s a scene where we know full well that things could become dangerous. But above all, I anticipate as a filmmaker that he’s not going to succeed in getting the apology he so desperately wants. And what he will succeed in getting is anger, threats, and an impasse; he’ll hit a wall. And when he hits that wall the viewer will be able to perceive the wall that divides Indonesian from Indonesian, neighbor from neighbor, sometimes even relative form relative. And we’ll see exactly why there’s this terrified silence and we’ll feel how confining it is. So I’m assuming that’s the way that scenes will spiral out of control. As a filmmaker I have to very rigorously think, “How can I film this where I’m able to show that most powerfully?” So I recognize that I’m able to show that most powerfully not by focusing on the words that people say, but by their reactions to the words.

That’s why we’re very often looking at the reactions of the people and not to things that are being said off-camera. We’ll hear the beginning of a sentence off-camera and then we cut to the person listening. That I do wherever possible. The easiest way to do that is with two cameras, to get the complementary angle. And I decide to shoot two close-ups because I want the viewer to empathize with both Adi and the man he’s speaking to. But in three of the six confrontations that we filmed, it was too dangerous to use two cameras because it takes too long to break down, should we have to run away. So for those we would use one camera and then we’re shooting in a very specific way where we catch the beginning of a sentence and quickly pan to the other person so that we’re able to compress the dialogue just enough to cut out the pan and focus on the reaction. And that of course gives it the quality of fiction. Excepting musicals. In musicals, it’s usually dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. I’m thinking of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort by Jacques Demy. But if you’re looking at a well-edited fiction film, you’re not focusing on the person speaking, you’re focusing on the listener because that’s where the next emotion comes. And that’s very rare in documentary. But in our great documentaries, you have that.

DK: I suppose youre thinking of Rouch and his documentaries. Because I cant really think of a precedent for your films.

Oppenheimer: Yes, Jean Rouch is one of my influences. Rouch coined the term cinéma vérité and I think it has been appropriated in the English-speaking world a little bit incorrectly. What we mean by it in the English-speaking world is direct cinema. I think the word had been taken out of context for a technological reason because Rouch was using portable 16mm cameras and Nagra sound, and when Americans started to also use that, they were talking about that mobility and the ability to document the way that Rouch was also doing with his cinéma vérité. But what Rouch meant by cinéma vérité is not what we’re thinking of in America. He meant inviting people to perform, inviting people to act out their fantasies, playing that back to people to reflect upon what they are seeing. I think the best works of American direct cinema also used the camera in that way. For instance in Grey Gardens, or Titicut Follies, not sure the filmmakers would say this, but what I think is happening is that the camera is eliciting these moments. In Grey Gardens you see the two women fighting for the attention of the camera. And in Titicut Follies the camera has a similar effect on the patients. I think you see it in all of the real masterpieces of the so-called “fly-on-the-wall documentary.” It’s actually precisely because of the camera not despite it, as I said earlier, that certain things are happening. But Rouch went a step further and said, “I can see something true through the camera that is not immediately visible. If I start from you and your expectation as a participant of what cinema should be, you will start staging yourself, you’ll start acting out an idealized image of yourself, you’ll start acting out the fantasies that you hold of yourself. And I’ll be able to know how you dream of yourself, how you imagine the world. And that’s also how I tried to use the camera, especially in The Act of Killing. And I think that’s the state of nature for the non-fiction camera. If I put a camera on anybody, they start to perform. And from that performance we can see how people want to be seen. And we can infer how they really see themselves. In short, we can see the role of fiction storytelling and fantasy in constituting our apparently factual reality.

DK: Exactly. Because all those things are part of the truth, there is no objective truth as such, its all subjective truth.

Oppenheimer: That’s right. For instance, you put on this recording device because you have a story about it, you know how it works. Or if I take out a $10 bill and spit chewing gum on it and throw it away you’d be surprised. Because we have a shared story about that piece of paper. And if I asked you what is that shared story, it will probably take you a very long time to explain it, if you could at all. Why that $10 bill can control a human being’s labor for a whole day in China. Or why it can buy two cups of coffee at an expensive cafe here. Why? You’d have a lot of trouble explaining that. So even something as concrete and basic and seemingly devoid of fantasy as our material economy, as money, is actually entirely rooted in collective fantasy. It’s because we can invest that paper with a collective fantasy that it functions as it does. Everything around us is a product of collective fantasy. And we know ourselves and we talk to ourselves through collective fantasy.

My legacy as a filmmaker, whether good or bad, is recording moments from reality that I construct and provoke with my participants, assembling them in certain ways, assembling sound in certain ways. “Creating a vision through,” as Robert Bresson would put it, “the gap between my two most disparate images,” showing that to people I don’t know and affecting the way they see the world. The whole process of making cinema is about fantasy! And so, what an opportunity to use the camera to reveal the fantasies that make our apparently factual world what it is. Our facts are grounded in fantasy. And that’s what Rouch was talking about when he said, “A cinema of truth is a cinema that can reveal that deeper nature of reality.” And that’s why I don’t see myself as a documentary-maker, and I don’t think Rouch saw himself as a documentary-maker. He saw himself as a filmmaker. Another reason I don’t see myself as a documentary-maker is because I hope to be documenting the human imagination and the way we see ourselves.

DK: Talking about the power of fantasy and imagination, and the power of fiction to reveal the truth, would you be interested in venturing into fiction-filmmaking in the future?

Oppenheimer: Not at the moment, I don’t think. I think non-fiction is an under-explored area and one I’m still very fascinated by and excited to continue exploring: how a non-fiction cinema that is trying to document deeper and previously invisible aspects of our reality demands a set of techniques that are still not yet sufficiently developed for creating the conditions for that deeper insight, for staging moments, for setting up encounters. Not because I’m trying to move away from documentary, but because I’m trying to make documentary even more insightful than it has been. And our greatest documentaries are insightful in that way.

DK: By the way, have you seen the Steve Jobs documentary that premiered here at SXSW?

Oppenheimer: I haven’t yet but I’d love to.

DK: Id be curious to know how you would have made that documentary

Oppenheimer: I don’t know, I haven’t seen the film yet and I don’t know enough about Steve Jobs. But Alex [Gibney] is first of all an admirably productive filmmaker and his every film is riveting. I spent 10 years and made two films, Alex would have made 30 films!

DK: But your techniques are totally different.

Oppenheimer: We have a different view and a different vision. I think that interview-driven documentaries and Alex’s films are driven by interviews, are one fairly direct, simple and obvious way of intervening in the world. But by listening to the stories that people tell us, we can easily perceive how people are imagining themselves. I’d have to watch more of Alex’s films to be certain this is true of his films, but certainly Errol Morris in his interviews leaves real space for pause and for doubt and moments when you perceive that you’re being told one thing but really what you’re witnessing is the character lying to themselves or trying to lie to you. So the interview is a very simple, obvious and direct way of intervening in the world but the interview wouldn’t happen if you don’t film it. So it’s also a way of intervening in the world to make something visible that wouldn’t be visible otherwise.

Texas-born, Denmark-based Joshua Oppenheimer has worked for over a decade with militias, death squads, and their victims to explore the relationship between political violence and the public imagination. A 2014 inductee to the MacArthur Fellows Program, his award-winning body of work includes the Academy Award-nominated documentary The Act Of Killing.

About :

Dana Knight is a former writer for The Independent.