An Obstinate Memory: The Documentaries of Joshua Oppenheimer

July 29, 2015   •   By Will Di Novi

IN THE FILMS of Joshua Oppenheimer, the body never lies. His Oscar-nominated documentary, The Act of Killing, was a sweat-soaked portrait of the paramilitary groups who carried out the Indonesian genocide in 1965. As these self-described “gangsters” staged surreal, self-aggrandizing reenactments of their crimes, their aging bodies unraveled before our eyes, slowly succumbing to the guilt and terror they had long suppressed before their families and their neighbors. When the militant leader Anwar Congo began to dry-heave at the scene of his crimes, the convulsions of his gut carried the force of a moral reckoning.

Oppenheimer’s new film, The Look of Silence, revisits the Indonesian massacres from the perspective of the victims’ families. His protagonist, Adi, is an optometrist in rural Aceh, a man on a courageous, and potentially reckless, quest to confront his brother’s killers. Using free eye exams as a ruse, he insinuates himself into the homes of the men responsible for the region’s infamous Snake River massacres.

Out of these riveting, and increasingly unpredictable, encounters, Oppenheimer crafts another fiercely corporeal portrait of a country haunted by its past. “When your brother died, your dad’s teeth fell out one by one,” Adi’s mother remembers, describing the bitter months after the village purges. In a later scene, a former militia leader recalls the “salty and sweet” taste of his victims’ blood, a ritual libation meant to stave off the evil spirits he had awakened. As much as the films of David Cronenberg or Guillermo del Toro, Oppenheimer’s documentaries are works of “body horror,” achieving an x-ray vision of a society still infected by its violent history.

But this is a reality more gruesome than any horror movie. Adi inhabits a society in which the violence of the genocide is celebrated rather than denied, a subject openly discussed in folk songs, children’s books, and politicians’ biographies. His brother’s killers are happy to boast about the crimes they have committed, but unwilling to acknowledge the humanity of their victims — the union members, landless farmers, and intellectuals they rounded up on the pretext that they were “communists.” Even after providing the truculent graybeards with new pairs of glasses, Adi can never truly make them see the horror for which they are responsible.

This is not a film that yields a moral resolution. Where award-winning documentaries like The Last Days, Shake Hands With the Devil, and Watchers of the Sky treat the commemoration of historical atrocities as a kind of symbolic victory, The Look of Silence challenges us to contemplate the sorrowful distinction between historical memory and historical accountability. And where so many films observe the perpetrators of such crimes from a sepia-tinted remove, Oppenheimer has made another disturbingly intimate film, bringing us face to face with men whose cruelty is both monstrous and recognizably human. Those brief flickers of recognition between victim and perpetrator, subject and viewer, are what lend The Look of Silence its disconcerting power.

They also make the film a fascinating companion to The Act of Killing and other important documentaries about the violence of the 20th century. The Look of Silence is one of the most original documentaries in recent years, but it also builds on a half-century’s worth of memory-obsessed cinema. Like a long line of great directors before him, Oppenheimer is asking us to look into the present and see the past; he is challenging us to stare into the eyes of killers and see our own reflection.


Joshua Oppenheimer was born in Texas in 1974. While completing his undergraduate degree at Harvard, he began to make a series of imaginative films that laid the groundwork for his Indonesian documentaries. These Places We’ve Learned to Call Home and The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase focused on characters nearly as volatile as the paramilitaries in his recent films; they were stories about religious fundamentalists, antigovernment militiamen, and science fiction fanatics, told through incisive interviews and fantastical images. It was while making The Globalization Tapes, a film about the exploitation of plantation workers in Sumatra, that he got the idea to apply the fever-dream aesthetic of his early films to the stories of men like Anwar Congo. With the help of a Javanese collaborator, who, like many of his crew members, has chosen to remain anonymous, he spent the next 10 years making The Act of Killing.

But the origins of his Indonesian films can be traced back even further, to a series of memory-obsessed documentaries that emerged in the decades after World War II. Films like Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of A Summer, Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai, and Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity employed a circular, free-associative approach to recent European history, illustrating the ways in which the past is always present in a society. The interviews were playful, the narration elliptical, the editing fluid and impressionistic. Rather than simply documenting the lives of their war-haunted countrymen, the filmmakers collaborated with them to create the conditions in which they could best express their hopes, fears, and memories of the past.

In the 1970s, Claude Lanzmann enlarged and expanded upon these techniques in his monumental Shoah, the first film to address the Holocaust in all its terrifying magnitude. Instead of using newsreel footage to dramatize the annihilation of the Eastern European Jews, Lanzmann grounded his film in the present-day, and questioned his subjects about concrete details like the schedules of the deportations and the layout of the gas chambers. Like no other movie before it or since, this nine-hour epic lent urgency and immediacy to the seemingly unthinkable murder of more than six million people. In Lanzmann’s hands, the documentary form was no longer just a vehicle for reportage or ethnography; it was a mind-expanding portal to the past.

In recent decades, documentarians across the globe have continued to explore the intersection of violence, memory, and 20th century history. The Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán has been crafting intricate film essays about his country’s former military dictatorship; in films like The Pinochet Case and Nostalgia for the Light, he explores the challenges of building a collective memory in a society grappling with amnesia and post-traumatic stress. The French-Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh has been telling haunting stories about the Cambodian genocide and its aftermath. In the Oscar-nominated Missing Picture, from 2014, he employs an innovative blend of archival footage and stop-motion animation to reveal his own experiences as a survivor of a Khmer Rouge re-education camp. Here in the United States, Oppenheimer’s mentor and executive producer Errol Morris has been a one-man memory machine. In films like The Fog of War, Standard Operating Procedure, and The Unknown Known, he probes the recollections and self-deceptions of the government officials responsible for our recent wars.

There are many similarities between Oppenheimer’s films and these landmark documentaries. They bring a contemporary perspective to historical atrocities. They use penetrating interviews and richly textured images to take us inside the minds of victims and perpetrators alike. Above all, they display what Patricio Guzmán refers to, in the title of a 1997 film, as an “obstinate memory”: a belief in using the most granular details of the historical record to pick away at the myths and deceits of violent regimes. When Oppenheimer pushes his subjects to reveal the precise angle at which they struck their victims, or the exact tree under which they buried the bodies, you can almost hear the voices of his documentary forefathers in the background, growling their support for his cinematic inquisitions.

Despite his rich filmmaking lineage, Oppenheimer remains an unusual figure within the cinematic landscape of his home country. Both the settings and aesthetics of his Indonesian films are a world apart from recent trends in American documentaries. Where most politically engaged documentarians now adopt the bombastic editing and aggressive sermonizing of Michael Moore, Oppenheimer makes bracingly ambiguous films, wonderfully alive to the eccentricities and ethical complexities of the people and places on screen. Where Ken Burns and his adherents weave the violence of the past into comforting narratives of progress and assimilation, Oppenheimer draws out the living strands of grief and hatred that still divide his subjects.

And there is nothing comforting about these films. Like one of Adi’s patients, struggling to adjust to a new pair of glasses, we often find ourselves disoriented before acclimating to Oppenheimer’s narrative rhythms. Who is the American-accented man shouting questions in Acehnese behind the camera? Why do the violent men on screen seem so relaxed, and even jovial, as they recount their bloody crimes? The Look of Silence is a leaner, less stylized documentary than The Act of Killing, but Adi’s story is told through the same dreamlike juxtaposition of beauty and violence, past and present. It is an equally haunting film.

In one scene, we watch as Adi’s family grieves at his brother’s bone-white grave; minutes later, they recount fart jokes and bawdy stories around the family hearth. In another scene, a militia member sings a sentimental love song to his grandchildren; shortly afterwards, he demonstrates how he used to disembowel his victims. These abrupt shifts in mood and tone underscore both the strangeness and the familiarity of the people on screen. They force us to confront inhuman acts and their all-too-human perpetrators, the inhabitants of a world with the same quotient of beauty and horror as our own. For a brief, troubling moment, the imaginative barriers that separate us from men like Anwar Congo are dissolved.

As Adi passes through the homes of his brother’s killers’, he exposes a network of guilt that extends from the local schoolteacher and the village mayor all the way back to the United States. The Indonesian genocide was a byproduct of a US-backed insurgency; as Tim Weiner notes in Legacy of Ashes, his Pulitzer Prize–winning history of the CIA, American intelligence agents funneled cash and communications equipment to the same anti-communist shock troops that were dragging villagers to the Snake River killing pits. The Look of Silence brings new perspective to the international dimension of these massacres. “We did this because America taught us to hate Communists,” explains Amir Siahaan, the regional commander who authorized the murder of Adi’s brother. “Because this is an international issue … we should be rewarded with a trip to America.”

It’s a disturbing revelation, both for its bitter humor and the way it forces us to reexamine how we process and remember the traumas of the past. When Western governments refuse to acknowledge their crimes against humanity, the soaring rhetoric of human rights is rendered worthless, and it falls to people like Oppenheimer to bridge the gap between hyperbole and history, Americans and Indonesians. When men like Amir have no interest in denying their crimes, the old rallying cry of “Never Forget” is rendered obsolete, and it falls to people like Adi to bridge the gap between myth and reality, perpetrator and victim. In his bid to understand his brother’s killers, and perhaps one day forgive them, Adi offers a quietly heroic rebuke to the constant refrain, from people on all sides of the country’s history of violence, that “the past is past” and must be “left to God.” As it celebrates the grace and vitality that lurk within the most death-haunted of landscapes, The Look of Silence achieves something exceptional within the long tradition of films about historical atrocities: this work of obstinate memory becomes a work of obstinate beauty.


Will Di Novi is a writer and film programmer based in Toronto. He has written on arts and culture for publications like The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Salon, and The New Republic.