It’s hard to believe we’re going to have to dim the light on Joshua Oppenheimer’s epic dual tale of the 1960s Indonesian genocide, as told through his films The Act of Killing (POV 2014) and The Look of Silence (upcoming 2016 broadcast on POV). The films, which came out in 2012 and 2015, respectively, are now getting a last hurrah with Silence’s underdog run for an Oscar. Voting ends on Tuesday night and the awards ceremony will be on February 28th—a win, I’d say, is unlikely—and then, after that, the films will be placed by many, including me, in the canon of two of the greatest documentaries of all time.
While he has the spotlight, Oppenheimer is still stomping the pavement, hoping to ignite indignation over the injustice of the genocide. I sat down with Oppenheimer and Adi Rukun, the main subject of Silence, to talk about what change they hope can come to Indonesia.
Despite being a civilian, Rukun hasn’t felt that his responsibility has been a burden. Through an interpreter, he says that the films “have been the voice for reconciliation” in his country, and that they have been the best tool for eliciting an apology statement from the government for the atrocities committed by people aligned with the status quo, some of whom are still in power. Although they have been unsuccessful—there was a push to get a statement of apology at the Hague this past fall—Rukun still has hope.
Oppenheimer is more openly critical of the current situation, railing against the U.S. government’s unwillingness to push Indonesia to own up to its wrongdoings. “The United States has been terrible,” Oppenheimer says, pointing out that it has resisted attempts to release CIA documents that might further illuminate the ways U.S. interests collaborated with the perpetrators. The connections, according to Oppenheimer, are disturbingly direct, including Mobil Oil loaning out equipment to be used to dig mass graves.
And this isn’t all just something in the past. The stigma and abuse of supposed (and actual) communists continues today. But Indonesia, as the world’s largest Muslim country, and one that is of vital military and commercial importance considering its proximity to China, is a vital US ally. It also is a significant source of palm oil, which has been the reason for massive destruction of its rainforests by palm oil plantations. So the United States has been tentative in pushing too hard. Oppenheimer says that one of the few international supporters speaking out to help move Indonesia in the right direction has been actor Harrison Ford, who took part in an episode from the National Geographic documentary series, Years of Living Dangerously, in which he confronts an Indonesia minister with its depletion of the rain forests.
Oppenheimer says being on the Oscar campaign trail takes its toll. “What keeps me grounded is working,” he adds, referring to research he’s been doing on his next project. He’s coy on the subject but, later, when we get into a conversation about musicals he says that his next film will have something to do with them. Interesting. But we shouldn’t put it on our calendars yet.
“These two films took ten years to make, so make your self comfortable,” he says. “Settle in.”
Ok. I can wait. And as much as this is the end of putting an intense focus on Indonesia for Oppenheimer, it is, of course, just another chapter in the reconciliation process for Rukun and the Indonesian people. An Oscar win would certainly be a step in that direction.