Academy award nominee answers students’ questions as part of The Look of Silence

In 1965, the government of Indonesia – under a military dictatorship at the time – took part in the mass genocide of millions of accused communists and leftists throughout the country. Currently, the people directly involved in these executions largely remain untouched in Indonesia while the tragedy of the victims and their families are suppressed by the government. 

However, the debate on these killings has been reignited in the past few years. This was mainly due to film director Joshua Oppenheimer’s efforts to reveal their reality through two widely renowned documentaries: The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence

This past Tuesday, the UBC history department organized a seminar event in the Chan Centre that focused on both of these works and the historical context behind them. The event included a screening of The Look of Silence, followed by a panel discussion from UBC professors of various related disciplines. More importantly, Oppenheimer himself was in attendance and the event culminated in an hour-long talk delivered by the director and a Q&A session. 

The Look of Silence revolves around an Indonesian man named Adi, whose older brother was killed during the 1965 purge years before Adi was born. The documentary covers his personal meetings with his brother’s executioners, attempting to achieve some form of reconciliation or acknowledgment from their behalf. The film itself is a companion piece to Oppenheimer’s previous documentary, The Act of Killing, which alternatively covers the perspective of other former executioners as they personally boast and re-enact the killings they delivered decades ago. Both films were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary with the former film among this year’s nominees. 

These accolades were the least of Oppenheimer’s concerns during his decade long process of making these films and their aftermath. During the event, he discussed the origins of both projects, how he encountered the victims and perpetrators, as well as the cultural environment of Indonesia that goes through great lengths to justify the killings.

He also discussed the numerous difficulties these elements entailed, whether the emotional burdens or the numerous legitimate threats to his and his associates’ well-being. One example Oppenheimer mentioned was that Adi’s family – in the event of the worst case scenario – was always stationed at the airport whenever he interacted with the perpetrators. 

For Oppenheimer, it was essential to deliver an unflinching truth and authenticity to the subject. A technique, he notes, is still lacking in mainstream documentaries or films that focus more on the expected “typical” than the unexpected “authentic.” 

“If the cinema is to be more than escapist fantasy, [we should strive to] immerse the viewers in the particulars [and] to become more intimate so that the experience could grow and become universal,” said Oppenheimer in his talk. “Therefore, [it's] much bigger than it would ever be if it was just an overview of a political or historical story.”

Most important of all for Oppenheimer is that such specificity and bluntness properly represents the harsh reality of the topic and individuals in his work. 

“If it’s to be an effective, meaningful and deep political film about the co-existence of powerful perpetrators and silenced survivors, it must deprive the viewer of reassuring fictions [such as whether] everything will work out,” said Oppenheimer. “That means making a backward looking film – a film composed in memoriam of all that’s been destroyed. [It's] not just for the dead, but for the lives broken from half a century of fear and silence.”