Interview at Tuschinsky Theatre, Amsterdam, 23 Nov. 2014
The Act of Killing, my first film helped open, you could say helped to catalyse a transformation on how Indonesia talks about its past. The public, the media and ultimately the government even talking about the genocide as a crime against humanity and as something that needs to ultimately be addressed. And more importantly to me, talking about the present day legacy of impunity in the present, which is what the film is really what about, what happens in the present to a society where the perpetrator of atrocity remained in power for decades and decades.
The first film ultimately began …..
The Look of Silence is more about the victims than your first film. Were there always two films in your head?
Yeah, there is a scene in The Look of Silence; which is really the origin of both films; it’s the two men going down to the river taking in turns acting the role of victim and perpetrator. I did something when I shot that scene that was shot in January 2004. I did something that I never really have done before which was to bring two perpetrators together from neighbouring villages, the two were talking to one another, they were on the same dead squad, but were leaders of neighbouring dead squads. I hadn’t done this before because it was dangerous, they could easily criticise the way the other’s talking to me and then go up the chain of command and have us kicked out or arrested.
So I took the risk there and I found to my horror that those things that I recorded in private was happening in public. It was as though they were reading from a shared script. It was as though this was all systemic. And that was really when I had this feeling it was as though the Nazis had won World War II when it went 40 years later.
At that point I knew I would stop everything else what I was doing, I had a number of other projects, and spend as many years of my life as it would take to address this situation. I knew that there would be two films, one about the lies we tell to justify our actions, the horrible effect of those lies. One of it treats the moral vacuum that a victor’s history leads to. And a film about fantasy, escapism and guilt, a fever dream of a film, that’s The Act of Killing.
But I knew that there was equally urgent and contemporary film to make about what it is do to a human being, to a mother, to a family, to live for 50 years in fear and in silence.
Is it possible to make a third film, now there’s no silence anymore?
You know, a trilogy is more common than a diptych but a diptych is more open-ended. And I feel like the first chapter open the space for the second chapter to do its work to show ordinary Indonesians how urgently truth and reconciliation is needed. And through Adi’s dignified and emphatic loving example and then through the example also of the daughter who finds the humanity and grace to apologize on her father’s behalves, the second film comes and shows how truth and reconciliation is possible, within our grasp, for at least the younger generations. And I think the third chapter belongs to the people of Indonesia. (Audience applauded).
How is Adi now?
One of the great ironies of this film is, may be I’ll indulge in a little tension here. Adi was the one who like… we shot this film in 2012 after we had shot and edited The Act of Killing but before we released it. But when I went back to shoot with Adi, Adi had been my friend from the very beginning and had been watching everything we had time to show him throughout the production of The Act of Killing. And that really transformed him.
When I came back to Indonesia in 2012 I asked how should we begin, and he said that he needs to meet the perpetrators, because “I think if they meet me they will acknowledge that what they did was wrong, then I will be able to forgive them. And then we can live together as human beings and build a community, and lift my family out of the trap of fear that my parents are in. I don’t want my children to inherit that prison of fear that my parents are in”. First I said absolutely not, we can’t meet the perpetrators, it’s too dangerous. I’ve never seen a film where survivors confront perpetrators while they’re still in power. I don’t think it’s ever been done before this in the history of documentary film, these confrontations, while the perpetrators remain in power. So I said no.
But Adi explained why he wanted to do it, and I thought it was so noble that I thought in any way it’s possible, we’d found a way to do it safely. But the great irony is that, although Adi goes to these men to try at least to create conditions for forgiveness, he actually was treated like a fugitive, and he and his family, we had to put them over the past year, to help them relocate to a saver place in Indonesia, out from under the shadow of the men who did this to his family, to get the children into far better schools, to surround the family with a community of filmmakers, human rights activists, critical journalists who can support and honour the work they have done.
Of course we have a Plan B, and a Plan C in which they can evacuate from Indonesia, but after the wonderful response in the media to the film in Indonesia I doubt that it’s necessary. But it’s a plain tragedy, and a sign about how far Indonesia still has to go before it’s a genuine democracy with the rule of law applies to the most powerful, just as much as it applies to the weakest, which is the real test of the democracy.
The fact that they had to move and relocate and leave their home is a sign of just how far the country still has to go before we can dignify it with the word democracy.
What is your relation with Indonesia after these two films?
These two films I actually see as one work, because in a way they’re one journey for me. I think that I’ve learned a great deal about forgiveness from Adi. I’ve learned a great deal about the importance of never making the leap from seeing somebody who has done something monstrous to saying that somebody is a monster because every human soul, even of those the most frightening perpetrators you’ve seen, is as fragile as that of a small bird. We’re all so fragile. I hope these films encourage you to look after each other. This is my love letter to Indonesia; it’s my Indonesian crew’s love letter to Indonesia. (Audience applauded).