Looking into the Silence: Director Joshua Oppenheimer and Adi Rukun on facing the Indonesian genocide in "The Look of Silence"

Joshua Oppenheimer and Indonesian collaborator Adi Rukun discussed their new, powerful expose of the perpetrators of the Indonesia genocide - the documentary The Look of Silence - at a recent Q&A at Sheffield Doc Fest. You can read the Smoke Screen review here, and what follows is an edited version of the Q&A the collaborating duo took part in with the audience. This was the film's UK premiere. The Look of Silence is playing wide in cinemas across the UK now, having already scooped a haul of awards on the festival circuit including a Grand Jury prize at Venice.

The film serves as a companion piece to Oppenheimer's 2012 film The Act of Killing, and was filmed before its release. Within it, Joshua Oppenheimer further explores the terrible legacy of the Indonesian genocide fifty years ago, this time through the lens of one family. Adi was born in 1968, two years after his brother Ramli was slaughtered in front of many eyewitnesses. Now an optometrist, Adi lives with his elderly parents and his children. Inspired by his work with Oppenheimer on the Act of Killing film, where he assisted Oppenheimer in gathering material, Adi decided to confront some of the murderers himself. The film tracks his journey.

How did this sequel come about, following your work exploring the Indonesian genocide in The Act of Killing?

JO: I began working on the 1965 Indonesian killings, and more precisely on the present day legacy of fear, impunity, corruption and violence back in 2003 in collaboration with Adi and his family. This was more than two years before I met Anwar Kongo, the main ‘character’ in The Act of Killing.  When we started that work, Adi was particularly central to bringing together survivors from his community, so they could tell their stories. 

After three weeks, the army threatened all the survivors, but they said to Adi: “Don’t give up, try to film the perpetrators, see if they will tell you what they did”. I was afraid to approach the perpetrators myself, but when I did, I was horrified to find that they were boastful. In fact the first perpetrator you see in the film just at the very opening was the very first one I met, it was a neighbour in Adi’s village. When I approached him I found him boastful, and he introduced me to others, who were the same.

Adi wanted to see the footage, and when I showed it to him and members of the Indonesia Human Rights community, they all said: “you must continue”. So I spent two years filming every perpetrator I could find. Anwar Kongo from The Act of Killing was in fact the 41st one filmed.The first time I brought two together was the terrible afternoon of January 2004, where two men took me down to the river playing victim and perpetrator, explaining how they helped kill 10,500 people at just that one spot. Including, they ultimately revealed, Adi’s brother Ramli. 

At the time I had no idea I was filming the killer of my friend’s brother, and they were posing for photographs as if it was a happy day out. For me it was one of the worst days of my life, they were boasting, but reading as if from a shared script. I had to accept that this boasting was not a sign that these men were psychotic, because it was systemic. It was political. It was then that I started feeling as if I was in Nazi Germany, 40 years after the holocaust, but with the Nazis still in power. This was not the exception to the rule, a surreal freak occurrence. This was the rule. This impunity we are seeing is the story of our times.

I knew that day I would drop everything I was doing and make two films, and I would spend as long as it took to tell the story. One film would be about the perpetrators and the stories they tell; that of course is The Act of Killing; a flamboyant fever dream of a film,a film about escapism and guilt. 

I knew also that I would make a second film about what this does to human beings, to a family, to memory. To not be able to mourn or work through this, to be stuck in trauma because you are surrounded by the powerful men who killed your loved ones, who kept you living in fear for half century. So this film would be a backwards-looking poem composed for all those destroyed by this silence. That is The Look of Silence.

How did you work with Adi? And how has Adi’s life been affected by this experience, after bravely confronting all these perpetrators?

JO: We shot the film in 2012 after we started editing The Act of Killing but before that first film had had it’s first screenings. After that, we could no longer safely return to Indonesia. So we had a window.  I wasn’t sure exactly what we would do when we started, but I knew Adi would be my main collaborator, though not necessarily my main character. (Speaking to Adi) but you said you personally wanted to confront the perpetrators.

Adi Rukun(translated): I wanted to do this because it had been so many decades spent living in this silence and fear, not just my family, but millions of other families.  My children were being brainwashed at school, taught lies, and stigmatised. Even after 50 years. This wasn't ending.

I am not a brave man, I am easily fearful. But, somehow this has to end. Somebody had to open the way to end this silence. 

My family worked with the film team for a long time on ensuring our safety, and we moved to another location in Indonesia, far from where we had been living so we can rebuild.

JO: I think that what I learned making The Act of Killing was that nobody has the courage to demonstrate remorse. In 2009-2010 when we had finished shooting that film, I had given Adi a videocamera to use as kind of visual notebook, to look for metaphors to help with the second film. Ari would send me tapes as I was editing, and I would watch them as I could. In 2012 when I arrived back in the country I asked him what he thought we should do for the second film, and he said that after seven years of watching the footage I had been shooting: “it’s changed me. I am a different person after watching how the perpetrators speak. I now need to meet them, meet the men who killed my brother and see if they can talk openly with me about what it means morally”. 

I immediately said: “absolutely not; it’s too dangerous”. There has never been a non-fiction film made as far as I know where survivors confront perpetrators while the perpetrators retain a monopoly in power. Certainly this has never happened in Indonesia. But Adi took out the camera I had given him and showed me one tape. Trembling, he put it in the camera and pressed play. He showed me the section of film that he shot; the scene where Adi’s father is crawling through the house lost. And Adi said, crying, that this was the first day where his father couldn't remember anyone in his family. 

Adi told me that he became angry at himself, asking why he was filming this if he couldn’t help. But then he said to me that he realised in that moment why: “This was the moment where it became too late for my father, because he had forgotten the son who’s murder destroyed our family’s life, and his life. It is too late for him to heal, he cant remember or work through it. But he hadn't forgotten the fear. Dad became like a man locked in a room, who can’t even find the door, let alone the key. I don't want my children to inherit this prison of fear from my mother, father and me.”

Did you find anyone who expressed remorse from that generation

JO: Adi told me: “I think that if I meet the perpetrators, they will welcome the chance, unconsciously they've been waiting for a chance, to somehow acknowledge that what they did was wrong.”

Adi had said to me, looking at the footage of one of the perpetrators demonstrating killing that you see in The Act of Killing: “It is clear he feels very guilty here.” And it doesn’t look like guilt to us, but it looks like guilt to you [to Adi] because I think you are remarkably empathic. In that moment you [Adi] thought that you would go to them, they would apologise, see that you were not there for revenge, and they would seize the opportunity to get this off their chest. You could separate the killer from the crime, forgive the person, and live with your neighbours in peace finally, not in fear as killer and victim. 

There is an insight there I think. I think all of the perpetrators are torn to shreds by what they’ve done, and the boasting is a sign of that. It is not pride; if you think about it, boasting is never a sign of pride. They are boasting because they are insecure and are compensating for that. I felt that we were unlikely to find that the perpetrators would have the courage to apologise in that way, and I told you [to Adi] so. But I felt that we could show why we fail: it is not a fear of Adi, it is a fear of themselves. A fear of their own conscience; a fear that leads to anger and threats, that stops everything. If we can show that, we can show how torn Indonesian society is; something every Indonesian knows, but doesn’t wasn't to think about. If we can make that something that they have to think about, the through the film perhaps we can succeed in a greater way than we could have succeeded through individual confrontations.

The Look of Silence is in cinemas now. 


Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.