VENICE (Reuters) - Joshua Oppenheimer, whose film about a 1960s massacre in Indonesia has caused a sensation at the Venice Film Festival, says he has no time for human rights documentaries that suggest everything will turn out fine.
“The Look of Silence”, premiered on Wednesday and a strong contender for the festival’s main Golden Lion prize next week, is a follow-on from the Texas-born filmmaker’s 2012 film “The Act of Killing”, which was nominated for an Oscar award.
Both deal with the aftermath of Indonesia’s ailed communist coup in 1965, after which death squads killed at least 500,000 people in a purge of communists and alleged sympathizers.
Oppenheimer’s first film focused on Anwar Congo, one of the most feared death squad leaders in the area around the city of Medan in Sumatra. He bragged on camera about how he choked people to death with steel wire twisted around the neck.
The second film focuses on Adi Rukun, an optometrist in his 40s, who gradually learns from Oppenheimer about how his brother Ramli was killed in the purge and who eventually confronts the family of his brother’s killers.
Oppenheimer said he feels his two films are helping Indonesia move toward a future when the wounds of the purge can be healed, but he does not want to suggest all will be well in the near term.
“I have no patience with conventional standard human rights documentaries that want to gloss over the mess to show us that everything will be okay,” he told Reuters on Thursday.
“I want to say, ‘Look at the mess’ because that’s why these things must be addressed.
“If these things weren’t terrible and difficult and rupturing, we wouldn’t have to worry about them occurring. The problem with these atrocities ... and with impunity is that the mess festers and gets worse and worse and so the film ends in a kind of mess, in a kind of horror, in a kind of instability.”
Oppenheimer said Rukun, who has moved away from his home to a different part of Indonesia for fears for his safety after the film’s release, did not realize the scale of the killings until the director showed him film clips of what had happened.
“Adi would watch all the footage we had time to show him. He would voraciously watch it with this kind of devastated silence, dignity, despair and outrage,” he said.
“I understood there was another film to be made that ‘The Act of Killing’ was the first part of a diptych, that there was another film exploring that silence, a kind of poem to that silence, and a poem to the trauma of breaking silence...
“When I understood there was another film to be made, I knew I would make it with Adi,” he said. “Then Adi suggested that he wanted to meet the perpetrators that he’d spent years watching and that’s how the film came to be.”
Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Tom Heneghan