To Live Afraid for 50 Years: An Interview with Joshua Oppenheimer

The Look of Silence and The Act of Killing director discusses the power of truth and the open wounds of the past


Director Joshua Oppenheimer spent 12 years in Indonesia and returned with two singularly powerful documentaries. The first, The Act of Killing, was an Academy Award-nominee for Best Documentary, profiling the perpetrators of the 1965 Indonesian genocide as they reenact their gruesome crimes without a trace of guilt or sorrow. Oppenheimer’s companion film, The Look of Silence, is now in theaters. It follows Adi Rukun, an optometrist in Indonesia and brother to Ramli Rukun, who was murdered in 1965 and is well-known for being killed in clear view of multiple witnesses.

In an ingenious and engrossing twist, Rukun bravely confronts several of the men directly and indirectly responsible for his brother’s death under the pretext of offering them eye exams. The results are surprising, running the gamut from flat-out denial to remorseful anger. The Look of Silence also follows Rukun’s mother, Rohani, and more generally profiles the everyday life of civilians forced to coexist with the people responsible for murdering their family and friends. There are no easy answers in this film, but it is a remarkable achievement from one of the rising stars of the documentary world.

Speaking with Consequence of Sound by phone, Oppenheimer discussed the moments that surprised him during the film-making process, the risks involved with undertaking the project, the humanity of those responsible for heinous crimes, and whether truth and reconciliation for the victims and survivors may someday be possible.

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When did you know that the stories from Indonesia that you wanted to tell would require you to make two films?

There’s actually a scene in The Look of Silence that plays in different pieces throughout the film, which led me to that. It’s a scene where two death squad leaders take turns playing victim and perpetrator. They bring me down to Snake River and demonstrate how they killed with horrific and surprising gusto. They describe how they helped the army kill 10,500 people in one spot and then ultimately reveal that they were involved in killing Ramli, whose family I was very close to.

I filmed this in January 2004. I’d already been filming the perpetrators for eight months. I’d always filmed them one on one, because it was dangerous to bring two together. One could always tell the other, “You shouldn’t talk about this.” Or word could spread about what I was doing in a bad way. So I had taken care to film people one on one. Eventually I realized I needed to bring two of them together, to see if they would speak with each other in the same boastful way that they spoke to me when it was just the two of us. I felt I needed to know: Is it something about me? Is it something about my camera that’s leading to this boasting, or is this how they talk normally to each other and in their society?

So I took the risk of bringing two perpetrators together, and when I did, I found that they were even worse. They were reading from a shared script. They were trying to outdo one another. I had to relinquish whatever fading hope I might have had that these men were insane, or that they were monsters. I had to acknowledge that whatever insanity or monstrosity that exists [in Indonesia] is political and collective, and therefore their boasting is a consequence of impunity.

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This thought occurred to me for the first time in a kind of memorable way. These two men are helping each other down this grassy slope, this embankment, in a very tender way — they’re holding hands in between bouts of horrific boasting. They very carefully helped each other down this slope, which they thought was slippery. It gave me a moment to think, and I thought to myself, my God, it’s as if I’ve wondered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust only to find the Nazis still in power, if the rest of the world had celebrated the Holocaust while it took place. That evening I went back and I decided I would stop everything else I was doing and make two films about this.

One would be about the lives, the fantasies, and the stories the perpetrators are telling themselves that underpins this or motivates this boasting and the terrible consequences of those lies when imposed upon a whole society. That, of course, is The Act of Killing. The second film would ask: What does it do to human beings to have to live in such a society? What does it do to people to have to live afraid for 50 years, particularly survivors who have rebuilt a life amidst the rubble, surrounded by the still-powerful men who killed their loved ones?

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There is an uncut version of The Act of Killing, which has been released in the United States on DVD and on Netflix as the “Director’s Cut,” but it’s not a director’s cut because director’s cuts are what’s made afterwards and out of regret, and the longer version is what came out everywhere else in the world in theaters. It’s 40 minutes longer, and in the director’s cut of The Act of Killing, every sequence culminates in an abrupt cut to silence. These are moments where the perspective of the film shifts from the perpetrators to the absent dead.

Making The Look of Silence, I’d edited the director’s cut of The Act of Killing, but we hadn’t yet screened the film. Still, I understood its form. I understood that in The Look of Silence I wanted to take the viewer into any one of those haunted silences that punctuate The Act of Killing and make you feel what it’s like to live there, what it’s like to have to live afraid for half a century.

Watching the footage that Adi watches in The Look of Silence and much of the footage that makes up The Act of Killing, many people have commented on the truly unreal experience of seeing men who have committed horrible crimes strolling around and describing what they did, even laughing and smiling as the camera rolls. In some sense, are these men just engaging in the timeless act of telling war stories, even if in our context they’ve done reprehensible things?

You’re approaching an understanding there. I think it’s an opinion you see in the United States, where you saw a shorter cut of the film. The longer cut is more intimate, and gentler. It’s sort of a deeper and more profound film. You have a feeling for the psychology of the perpetrators that’s more nuanced and more complicated. I would also note that it’s important to say that these are not war stories, in that there was no war. Unlike the Holocaust and the Khmer Rouge genocide and the Rwandan genocide, and certainly the genocide in Bosnia, these killings did not take place in the context of war. This was simply the mass killing of unarmed civilians.

I think every perpetrator I’ve filmed lives their life in a manic flight from the pall of guilt and shame that follows them everywhere they go. Perhaps they run away from it or stay a step ahead of it in their waking hours, but when they stop to sleep, it catches up with them. It insinuates itself into their dreams and gives them horrific nightmares. Yet these men have never been removed from power, have never been forced to admit what they did was wrong. On the contrary, they still have available to them this victor’s history that justifies what they’ve done, even claims that it was heroic. And so they do the human thing — they take these bitter, rotten memories of atrocity and they sugarcoat them in the sweet language of the victor’s history that celebrates what they’ve done.

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This is why they boast about the most unseemly details of what they’ve done, these grisly aspects of the killing that we can’t imagine anyone boasting about, because these are the bitterest memories for them to swallow. Those are the memories that they have to talk about because they’re haunted by them. They need to find a way to describe them without being emotionally present in the description and certainly without admitting any culpability. I think the boasting and guilt are ultimately two sides of the same coin. That’s why in The Look of Silence, when Adi visits them and confronts them with his humanizing gaze, it makes it so much more difficult for them.

When Adi comes and says, essentially, “If you can just acknowledge what you did was wrong, I can forgive you,” they’re forced to see that Adi is looking at them as human beings. Then they have to look at Adi as a human being in response, and they therefore see that Ramli was a human being and by extension, all of their victims were human, and the lies they’ve been telling themselves to form this kind of protective armor, well, it all comes shattering down. You see them respond with panic, with anger, with threats, with defensiveness, because they are trying to protect themselves with a new kind of armor. You see them also scrambling to tell new lies, denying responsibilities, for example, when just minutes earlier you saw them declaiming their responsibility.

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I remember one example where Adi is asking a killer about the belief that you should only cut someone once, which the person he’s speaking with strongly agrees with, but then seconds later the man is describing how he cut off a woman’s breast before slicing her throat. Adi mentions this contradiction only to have the killer dismiss it by claiming his victims “weren’t good people.”

That’s an interesting confrontation. It’s probably the most horrific moment in the film in terms of what they talk about. The reason, though, that those terrible details are there is that they ultimately form the basis on which Adi confronts him and leads him to realize he’s contradicting himself. This leads him to grow defensive and angry. He’s declaiming these awful things, and then when Adi questions him about them, he suddenly sees that everybody else sees them as awful, and he starts desperately backpedaling.

You’ve talked about how going into these confrontations with Ramli’s killers, you knew Adi was unlikely to receive the expressions of remorse or apologies you feared he was hoping would be the outcome of the conversations. Did you expect what ultimately transpired on screen, or did the killers’ various reactions surprise you as well?

The confrontations were shot working our way from the lowest-ranking perpetrator, Inong, up the chain of command to the highest-ranking, so that word would be less likely to spread, preventing us from continuing. We shot one confrontation a day because we had to work quickly, so as to prevent word from spreading. So the order was just about expedience, and that’s not the order that they come in the film. I think there’s a reason why they follow the order they do. They actually move from the political to the intimate. The last three confrontations completely defied my expectations. That’s probably why they’re so revelatory.

The fourth of the six confrontations is Adi meeting his uncle. We had no idea when we went to film Adi’s uncle that he was involved in the killings in any way. Adi had promised to test his uncle’s eyes, and we knew he was living in the area, that he knew Ramli, and that he had been close to Ramli. We wanted him to talk about Ramli while Adi tested his eyes, thinking this might be an interesting scene for very early in the film. At that point, where it comes in the film, the viewer expects Adi is going to meet a perpetrator because he’s walking up to the house, but then there’s this loving relationship with everyone in the house, and we have this sense of relief — oh, he must be visiting someone he loves or family, certainly someone he knows well. He hugs his uncle, and you can see real affection between them. But then, astonishingly, when Adi asks about Ramli, his uncle reveals that he was involved in guarding Ramli and was involved with dispatching the prisoners out to be killed, essentially revealing this abyss dividing the perpetrators from the survivors cuts across even a family, dividing Rohani from her brother.

Then, when Adi, completely shocked like me, asks if there was anything his uncle could’ve done to defend Ramli, he becomes defensive. He feels guilty. You see Adi’s uncle questioning himself — is there something I could’ve done? You see the guilt flood into his mind, and he becomes angry and falls back on the anti-Communist propaganda justifying the killing and in so doing, says essentially, “My nephew — your brother — deserved to be killed, and if you keep going with this, you might also deserve to be killed.” So this relationship that starts as loving, over the course of a few minutes, is completely broken, and the two of them are divided by silence, fear, anger, and shame. For me, it was the most painful scene in the film and the most upsetting.

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In the next confrontation, we went to meet Samsir, a man who killed busloads of women night after night. When we arrived, Samsir had aged since I’d filmed him years earlier, and his daughter was now taking care of him and said she should be there to help to make sure her father could hear our questions because he was now hard of hearing. Suddenly, the scene became about her. The scene opened in this sort of unbelievable way, where she said she knew her father was an “exterminator of communists,” as she put it, and for that she was always proud of him.

We see her face collapse as Samsir starts revealing these horrific details of what he’s done in a boastful way, laughing about them, and we see her realize her father is not the hero she’s always tried to make herself believe that he is. We see her realize that she’ll have to spend the rest of his life looking after a man who in some fundamental way is now a stranger to her. Instead of doing what I think I would do in such a moment, which is to panic and kick the film crew out, she becomes very still, listens to her conscience, and meets Adi’s very gentle gaze. Adi says it’s not her fault, what her father did, and she realizes the need to reach across this abyss that divides them, and she apologizes. Adi suddenly has to take on the responsibility to forgive, and for her sake, to reach back across the abyss and hug her father, who’s just talked about these unspeakable things. That was one of the most beautiful and delicate things I’ve ever seen.

The final confrontation also completely defied my expectations. I’d spent three months with the widow of Amir Hasan and with her two sons and with Hasan when he was still alive in 2004, essentially dramatizing Hasan’s book, the memoirs that Adi is showing to the family. It never occurred to me that Hasan’s sons, that the family would deny knowing what their father had done, because I would know that they were lying. The idea was that Adi would say, “Look, I know who you are. You know that I’m Ramli’s brother. We have to live together. It’s not your fault, what Amir Hasan did. My daughter, what if she one day wants to marry one of your sons? Wouldn’t it be a tragedy if we couldn’t come together for them as a family? How shall we live together?” We couldn’t have that conversation because the family was shocked that I came with Ramli’s brother, panicked, and lied. They pretended they didn’t know what Amir Hasan had done.

In the scene, I’m pushing them to look at this old footage, not because I’m trying to humiliate them or catch them in a lie, but simply because I’m trying to get beyond this absurd lie so we can begin to have the conversation for which we’d come. I never could do it. They clung to their lie and continued lying, and in the end, the older of the sons was calling the police, and we had to make a quick getaway. Leaving, I felt terrible. I felt I’d upset this mother, who I liked, and I’d upset these sons, who I also liked. We had come to build bridges, not to burn them, and we’d failed utterly. Only when I looked at the footage, when I returned home to Denmark, did I realize this scene shows through its failure the abyss of fear and guilt that’s dividing everybody in this society. It should make everyone who sees it recognize the urgency of taking that step that the daughter in the previous scene takes by bridging that divide, by actually acknowledging what happened was wrong and saying the next sentence that would get people out of the impasse in which all of the other confrontations end.

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A lot of the people you worked with in this film, presumably many of them Indonesian citizens, are listed as “Anonymous” in the end credits. Is it difficult for them not to share in the overwhelming positive reaction Adi has received from his countrymen for his role in this film?

They do. They do share it publicly. For example, the Jakarta Globe had a reader’s poll last year where they vote on “Person of the Year.” The first “Person of the Year” was the new president, who is sort of seen as an Indonesian Obama, someone who came to power with a hope that he would bring real change. He’s the first president not to be connected in any way to the military dictatorship. The second-place person was the governor of Jakarta, the founder of a progressive political movement. Third, by a long margin, was the anonymous crew of The Look of Silence. The problem is that the anonymous crew of The Look of Silence is the same as the anonymous crew of The Act of Killing.

I still receive very regular death threats from the henchmen of the most powerful men angered and exposed by The Act of Killing, especially the national leader of the paramilitary organization, Pancasila Youth. I think that the anonymous crew, if their identities were revealed, would face the same threats. Adi has not been threatened since the film’s release in Indonesia in November. We still have a team in place of five people working full-time and another 20 people working part-time or on a voluntary basis to monitor the family’s safety and to protect them, to make sure there are no credible threats against them. It would be difficult to do that with the 60 anonymous people involved with making The Act of Killing.


All of this speaks to something that the release of The Look of Silence in Indonesia has exposed, which is a fundamental rift within the state. There is the official state, parts of which are progressive and have supported The Look of Silence. For example, the National Human Rights Commission and the Jakarta Arts Council are two government bodies, and they are the official distributors of the film. At the same time, there is a shadow state around the military, which is legally above the law, in the sense that a military commander who orders the massacre of an entire village cannot be put on trial in civilian court. The only way they can be tried is if the military itself chose to convene a military tribunal, or if parliament convened a human rights tribunal, which has never happened because many of Indonesia’s parliamentarians are oligarchs who’ve obtained their wealth through their own role as perpetrators or their own connections to powerful perpetrators.

Fundamentally, the military is above the law, even though it’s no longer a military dictatorship. Around the military, there’s a whole range of intelligence organizations, intelligence agencies, and paramilitary groups that carry out the dirty work for the military with complete impunity. This shadow state has been violently opposed to The Look of Silence. They’ve paid thugs to threaten to attack screenings and then used that as a basis to demand that screenings be cancelled. And although that’s stopped due to media outrage at those tactics and screenings continue now undisturbed, the fact is there is this shadow state that poses a real risk to my anonymous crew and poses a real risk to me. That’s why I don’t return to Indonesia and why my crew remains anonymous. I’m relieved that not only has Adi not been threatened, but no one in my crew has received threats since The Act of Killing came out in 2012 in Indonesia.

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The idea of choosing to forget is a central argument offered by many of the perpetrators Adi speaks with. They tell him to “stop bringing up the past” and so forth. How important is it that Indonesia come to terms with its past instead of willfully repressing it?

It’s important because the past isn’t past. As William Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” In the film, we hear people say again and again, “Let the past be the past.” The survivors always say it out of fear, and perpetrators always say it as a threat, which means the past isn’t the past. It’s keeping the survivors afraid. It’s empowering the perpetrators to threaten — it’s an open wound dividing everybody. You cannot have community when people are afraid of one another, and you cannot have democracy without community. For Indonesia to become the democracy that she claims to be, and that our government pretends that she is, there needs to be an acknowledgement of what happens, and the same is true for us.

I think as Americans, it’s comforting to see the genocide in Indonesia as another country’s past, perhaps as an allegory for impunity in our past: impunity around the history of race in this country, impunity for apartheid and slavery and ongoing economic apartheid, but the fact is that this is our history, too. The Indonesian genocide is but one of many atrocities that the United States government supported and perhaps even masterminded that took place around the Global South, opening access to cheap labor and natural resources for American companies. These kinds of atrocities are the dark underbelly of our consumer economy. Not acknowledging this divides us from ourselves.

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I think we all know that everything we buy, every article of clothing we put on every morning is produced and created for us by workers forced to accept sweatshop conditions because they’re intimidated into silence. We profit from that. The same is true of the gas we pump into our cars and the minerals in our phones and virtually everything we buy. We profit from that economically, but I think we’re harmed from not acknowledging it. I think it harms us to live lives predicated on the suffering of others. We can encourage Indonesia to acknowledge the genocide only if we also acknowledge the genocide. For Americans, that means acknowledging our role in it.

There was a Senate resolution introduced by Senator Tom Udall after he saw The Act of Killing demanding that the US government declassify all of the documents that would reveal and detail our role in the genocide. It says that 50 years is too long for us not to acknowledge a crime against humanity as a crime against humanity and that if we want Indonesia to have truth and reconciliation and some form of justice, we had better acknowledge our own role in these crimes. Otherwise, we’re hypocrites. If the West can’t acknowledge its role in crimes against humanity, then the whole discourse of human rights, the whole concept of crimes against humanity becomes meaningless and is simply a smokescreen to hide our participation. I hope everyone reading this will support that resolution by going to There’s a prominent button that says “Break the Silence,” and there you can sign a petition urging all American lawmakers to support this resolution that would acknowledge the Indonesian genocide and acknowledge the US’s role in it.