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‘The Look of Silence’ Director Joshua Oppenheimer Discusses History, Politics

The Look of Silence Screening
Joshua L. Oppenheimer ’97 answered questions after a screening of his Oscar-nominated documentary, The Look of Silence, on Wednesday evening at the Carpenter Center.

Joshua L. Oppenheimer ’96, a Copenhagen-based documentary filmmaker and graduate of the Visual and Environmental Studies department, returned to the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts on Wednesday to present his new film, “The Look of Silence.” The event featured an introduction from University President Drew G. Faust and an audience question and answer session with Oppenheimer.

Nominated for this year’s Academy Award in the Best Documentary Feature category, “The Look of Silence” is a companion piece to Oppenheimer’s acclaimed directorial debut, “The Act of Killing.” Both films focus on the 1965-1966 Indonesian genocide, during which army-backed civilian militias killed between 500,000 and one million people, most of them accused of leftist political leanings. While “The Act of Killing” centers on the perpetrators, Oppenheimer’s new film follows the journey of Indonesian optician Adi Rukun as he confronts the men who killed his brother during the genocide.

In her opening remarks, Faust praised Oppenheimer’s works for their powerful use of the film medium to confront violence and tragedy. “I remember watching his 2012 documentary ‘The Act of Killing,’” she said. “The film was in many ways overwhelming and ineffable, a work of art as much felt as it is seen and heard.” Faust added that in her opinion “The Look of Silence” brought new depth to Oppenheimer’s work.

In his question and answer with the audience, Oppenheimer discussed the making of the film. “In many ways ‘The Look of Silence’ was the film I first set out to make,” he said. “The family at the center of the film was the family that I began my work with back in 2003, but they were threatened by the army not to participate three weeks into our work together.” According to Oppenheimer, governmental pressures on the genocide survivors forced him to turn his focus to the perpetrators, which led to “The Act of Killing.”

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Oppenheimer explained that upon finishing “The Act of Silence,” he found Rukun again and picked up the work that he had left behind. Making the second film, he said, involved significant risks. “[We had] a getaway car for Adi so that he could leave the houses of the perpetrators as soon as we were done,” said Oppenheimer. “[Rukun’s] family [would be] waiting at the airport with their backpacks, ready to get on the next flight out if anything went wrong.”

While “The Look of Silence” centers on Rukun’s personal struggle, the film also touches on the way the genocide is presented today in Indonesian history curricula, which according to Oppenheimer conceal the full scale of the violence and villainize Indonesian communists. During the question and answer session, he explained that he seeks to counter such distortions of history through his work. “I had this feeling that any sustainable evil depends on an immoral imagination that naturalizes it,” he said. “You can expose that evil, but you also need to expose the working of that lie. And I think usually [a lie] is effective not because people don’t know it’s a lie …. It’s because people don’t want to acknowledge the fear that prevents them from challenging the lie.” He said that he sees his own films as a means to begin that challenge. “From the very beginning of my time here, I am drawn to expose the working of hypocrisy so that it doesn’t work anymore,” he said.

According to Oppenheimer, this incomplete view of history persists not only in Indonesia but also in the United States. He alluded to the accumulating evidence that the United States government sponsored the militias and provided a list of thousands of suspected communists to the army. “Just yesterday we were in Washington at a meeting at the State Department about the urgency [for] the United States to declassify its files on the 1965 killing and to acknowledge its role in the crime, without hypocrisy, as a perpetrator,” he said.

Oppenheimer ended his talk with a call for concrete action from the audience. He urged his listeners to go to his film’s website, which includes a link to sign Senator Thomas Udall’s 2014 petition to the United States government to declassify its files on the 1965 genocide. “Sign it, then ask all your friends to sign it, and then ask all their friends to sign it,” he said.

—Staff writer Tianxing V. Lan can be reached at tianxing.lan@thecrimson.com.

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