Hi Reddit! My name is Joshua Oppenheimer, and I am a Director and Producer. I've directed and produced the documentary The Act of Killing, as well as directed my nominated documentary The Look of Silence.

You can find the trailer for The Look of Silence on my website, here.

I'm here today to chat The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence, and anything else you may want to talk about! So Reddit - Ask me anything!


Volunteer moderator /u/courtiebabe420 is here with me today assisting with this AMA.

Edit: I've got to run, guys, but thank you so much for stopping by today! It's been great talking to you, Reddit!

Comments: 97 • Responses: 33  • Date: 

woohees13 karma

any new documentary about Indonesia in the future? Indonesian viewer here, love your documentaries!

JoshuaOppenheimer28 karma

I cannot safely return to Indonesia, so it would be difficult for me to make a film there now. If The Act of Killing is Chapter 1, it has helped the people of Indonesia acknowledge the 1965 killings as a crime against humanity - and the criminal regime that's been in power ever since 1965. If The Look of Silence is Chapter 2, it has entered the space opened by The Act of Killing to show how torn the fabric of Indonesian society is, how urgently truth, justice, and reconciliation are needed. It has energized the struggle against impunity. Chapter 3 will be that struggle. It is just beginning, and in that sense it is the future, so it has yet to be written - and it won't be written by me, it will be written by the people of Indonesia.

FadingShadowz9 karma

Hi Joshua,

What do you look for when choosing your next film? Any idea what your next project will be? The Act of Killing was an astonishing piece of work. It takes a lot to shock me these days, but that film certainly did it.

Thanks and keep up the great work!

JoshuaOppenheimer14 karma

Musicals. But then, The Act of Killing is a musical, especially the director's cut (on Netflix and DVD/BluRay).

Frajer9 karma

was it ever hard being objective when making a film about such touchy subject matter?

JoshuaOppenheimer16 karma

One should be honest, not objective. Objectivity is often the opposite of honesty. And to know people honestly means becoming intimate, close. I try to immerse my viewers in the spaces that I film, and to depict those spaces in a way where you feel their deep truth: in The Look of Silence, this means finding a way of making the ghosts, fear, guilt, and silence palpable. I want you to perceive these spaces from the distance of objectivity, but from the intimacy of total immersion.

cimbalom8 karma

Hi Joshua, I'm asking this on behalf of /u/magikarpcandosplash from /r/indonesia since it's the middle of the night there.

How did you manage to reach out to your sources in Indonesia?

What did you do, outside of the multiple cars trick, to ensure your safety?

Thanks a lot in advance!

JoshuaOppenheimer14 karma

The survivors pointed me in the direction of first perpetrator I filmed. I pretended to be interested in the history of his village, and he responded with boastful stories of killing. From that point on, I never had to dissemble again. I asked him to introduce me to others who were in his death squad, and to his commanders. I slowly worked my way up the chain of command, always introduced by others.

We shot The Look of Silence after editing The Act of Killing but before it had its first screenings - after which I knew I couldn't safely return to Indonesia at all. As far as safety, when Adi proposed we confront the perpetrators, I first said 'Absolutely not. It's too dangerous. There has never before been a film where survivors confront perpetrators who are still in power.' We knew that the production of The Act of Killing was well known across that region of Indonesia (North Sumatra) because I had filmed with the most powerful men in the country - the Vice President, the governor, ministers in the cabinet, army generals, paramilitary leaders - and nobody had seen the film yet. The men Adi wanted to confront were regionally, not nationally powerful, and they would not dare even detain us, let alone physically attack us, because they wouldn't want to offend their superiors, whom they believed were my friends. So the production of The Act of Killing offered us the political cover to carry out the confrontations in The Look of Silence.

IKingJeremy8 karma

What was the most difficult part of completing "The Act of Killing" and "The Look of Silence"?

JoshuaOppenheimer10 karma

The painful truths it forced us all to confront.

Ivalance7 karma

Do you still keep in contact with Adi Rukun? How has the release of the documentary affected his life after the fact? I imagine it would be pretty terrifying knowing these Indonesian preman.

JoshuaOppenheimer11 karma

Adi Rukun is with me in the USA right now. Here is a wonderful interview with him from this past Saturday's New York Times, in which he describes his life now:


f6fhelldweller6 karma

Did you meet Werner Herzog?

JoshuaOppenheimer11 karma

He saw a rough cut of the director's cut of The Act of Killing. When he learned I was making a shorter version, he said 'it's a crime to shorten this film'. He still maintains that, saying the director's cut (on Netflix in the US) is not 40 minutes longer, it's 15 miles deeper. Here is a recent dialogue between us; start at 34 minutes: http://timestalks.com/detail-event.php?event=werner_herzog_and_joshua_oppenheimer

jnatalietan6 karma

Omigod, I loved your movie. I watched The Act of Killing, then again with the director's commentary. This is such an overloaded question but here goes.

Reading your wikipedia page, you were just this guy who studied filmmaking from Harvard and after, just left everything to go live in Indonesia with little money for a little less than a decade.

Did you know you were going to make this movie? What kept you going after the many encounters, failures and blockades to getting the story of these victims told? What happened to all the anonymous people, the people that chose to help you and tell this story. Are they safe? You no longer can return to Indonesia after your films.

JoshuaOppenheimer14 karma

The anonymous crew is like a second family to me. They're all well, and we're in touch all the time.

I didn't move to Indonesia. I couldn't have handled that emotionally, given what we were doing there. Nor would it have been safe - it was important we could get out of the country (and bring my crew along if necessary). I would film for 2-4 months at a time, and then return home (to London and then Copenhagen, where I live now) for around six months. I would need this time to work through footage, and figure out what we should do next. And to heal, emotionally.

lula24886 karma

What was your first thought when you woke up this morning?

JoshuaOppenheimer8 karma

How strange it is to have different dreams every night and start each morning in such similar ways.

woodlandpixie6 karma

The Act of Killing was the reason why I decided to change my major and pursue film and photography. You and your work have been incredibly influential.

I have 3 questions:

  1. As someone who is looking to work in the film industry what tips do you have?

  2. Who did you look up to when you were just starting out in film?

  3. How can I work for someone like you?

Thank you for doing this!

JoshuaOppenheimer9 karma

  1. don't give up; if you want to be a director, don't let anybody ever tell you how something should be done, but study the films that you most love. If you imagine that you will one day be making work on that level, they will love you back. And as Werner Herzog says, 'cultivate your criminal energies.'
  2. Dusan Makavejev, Werner Herzog, Buster Keaton, Barbara Koppel.

BrutalMilkman5 karma

Hey there! My question is : What influenced your decisions of your life path?

JoshuaOppenheimer10 karma

Above all, my first trip to Indonesia:

I first went to Indonesia in 2001 to help oil palm plantation workers make a film documenting and dramatizing their struggle to organize a union in the aftermath of the US-supported Suharto dictatorship, under which unions were illegal. In the remote plantation villages of North Sumatra, one could hardly perceive that military rule had officially ended three years earlier.

The conditions I encountered were deplorable. Women working on the plantation were forced to spray herbicide without protective clothing. The mist would enter their lungs and then their bloodstreams, destroying their liver tissue. The women would fall ill, and many would die in their forties. When they protested their conditions, the Belgian-owned company would hire paramilitary thugs to threaten them, and sometimes physically attack them.

Fear was the biggest obstacle they faced in organizing a union. The Belgian company could get away with poisoning its employees because the workers were afraid. I quickly learned the source of this fear: the plantation workers had a large and active union until 1965, when their parents and grandparents were accused of being “communist sympathizers” (simply for being in the union) and put into concentration camps, where they were exploited as slave labor and ultimately murdered by the army and civilian death squads.

In 2001, the killers not only enjoyed complete impunity, but they and their protégés still dominated all levels of government, from the plantation village to the parliament. Survivors lived in fear that the massacres could happen again at any time.

After we completed the film (The Globalisation Tapes, 2002), the survivors asked us to return as quickly as possible to make another film about the source of their fear—that is, a film about what it's like for survivors to live surrounded by the men who murdered their loved ones, men still in positions of power.

We returned almost immediately, in early 2003, and began investigating one 1965 murder that the plantation workers spoke of frequently. The victim’s name was Ramli, and his name was used almost as a synonym for the killings in general.

I came to understand the reason this particular murder was so often discussed: there were witnesses. It was undeniable. Unlike the hundreds of thousands of victims who disappeared at night from concentration camps, Ramli’s death was public. There were witnesses to his final moments, and the killers left his body in the oil palm plantation, less than two miles from his parents’ home. Years later, the family was able to surreptitiously erect a gravestone, though they could only visit the grave in secret.

Survivors and ordinary Indonesians alike would talk about “Ramli,” I think, because his fate was grim evidence of what had happened to all the others, and to the nation as a whole. Ramli was proof that the killings, no matter how taboo, had, in fact, occurred. His death verified for the villagers the horrors that the military regime threatened them into pretending had never occurred, yet threatened to unleash again. To speak of “Ramli” and his murder was to pinch oneself to make sure one is awake, a reminder of the truth, a commemoration of the past, a warning for the future. For survivors and the public on the plantation, remembering “Ramli” was to acknowledge the source of their fear—and thus a necessary first step to overcoming it.

And so, when I returned in early 2003, and began the journey that would lead me to make these two films...

Frentis4 karma

Hi Josh

Fist thank you for doing this AMA!

What have been the most rewarding about making The Act of Killing and The look of Silence?

Also what has been the most surprising part about making the movies?

JoshuaOppenheimer8 karma

The most rewarding: the impact in Indonesia - and the way audiences around the world have seen the films as mirrors in which they see themselves and their societies, rather than windows onto a far-off country.

The most surprising part: Adi's courage, the dignity and grace with which survivors build a life in the open-air prison that Indonesia is for them.

NotANestleShill4 karma

What was your favorite part of the productions "The Act of Killing" and "The Look of Silence"?

JoshuaOppenheimer7 karma

The impact of the films in Indonesia has by far been the best part of releasing these two films. Also, my work with my anonymous, wonderful Indonesian crew - and becoming so close to the heroic, gentle Adi Rukun, protagonist of The Look of Silence, and his dignified, magnificent mother.

ITpurpleblue4 karma

What was your biggest challenge with making The look of Silence?

JoshuaOppenheimer9 karma

The confrontations with the perpetrators created situations of unimaginable pain, where everybody is pushed beyond their comfort zone. There were thugs standing by to attack us if ordered to do so by their commanders. I was torn between trying to remain emotionally present in these moments, and trying to prevent the situation from becoming violent. And then there were moments of such sorrow - like when the daughter realises that her father has done something unspeakably awful, and finds the courage to apologise to Adi on his behalf, or when Adi's mother learns that her brother was involved with murdering her son... Realising that we had made a film that required confronting these painful truths and navigating how to handle these situations with kindness and love for all concerned was the greatest challenge of all.

Scoutster133 karma

How challenging was the emotional toll of working on projects with such heart-wrenching subject matter?

JoshuaOppenheimer8 karma

The scene where Anwar Congo butchers the teddy bear in The Act of Killing Director's Cut gave me eight months of nightmares and insomnia. If The Act of Killing was an emotionally frightening film to make, The Look of Silence was physically frightening - but emotionally healing.

cimbalom3 karma

Hi Joshua,

I was recently at your talk at the University of British Columbia and you mentioned having a husband, something I've never heard in any past interviews.

If you are open to talking about this, is your sexuality something you decided to keep low-key while working in Indonesia, due to your already vulnerable situation there?

JoshuaOppenheimer12 karma

Though Anwar, Herman, and the other perpetrators with whom I was close knew my husband, I did not discuss my sexuality widely because I didn't want it to be used against me by the higher-ranking perpetrators, if anything went wrong. Discretion was, therefore, a safety concern - for my crew as well.

lulaalt3 karma

If you were a hotdog, would you eat yourself?

JoshuaOppenheimer4 karma

No, I'd be too scared.

Oh_Fuck_Naw3 karma

What films influenced your approach to filmmaking?

JoshuaOppenheimer6 karma

Werner Herzog's Even Dwarfs Started Small and Stroszek. Jacques Demy's Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Godard's Weekend. Lanzmann's Shoah. Tsai Ming Liang's The Hole. Orson Welles' The Trial.

future_forward2 karma

Additionally, are there any particular books that have influenced you and your work? (Literature and non-fiction?)

JoshuaOppenheimer7 karma

John Dos Passos's USA. Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Walter Benjamin's Theses for a Philosophy of History. Robert Bresson's Notes on Cinematography. Carson Mccullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Samuel Beckett's Happy Days.

KnyfeGaming3 karma

How easy was it becoming a director and producer?

JoshuaOppenheimer5 karma

It meant many years in the wilderness, with no support, and a determination to follow my heart and somehow find a way to be able to continue doing what I was doing. Remember, The Act of Killing was my first film, and for the eight years it took to make there were very few people who believed in our work.

Chtorrr3 karma

What were your career goals as a child? Did you always want to work in the film industry?

JoshuaOppenheimer9 karma

I initially wanted to be a theoretical physicist, because I'm interested in the nature of existence and consciousness. I realised I could better explore these questions through practice. Filmmaking became my way of exploring the world, and how we know ourselves through stories.

adamfstewart813 karma

Were you ever worried that exposing injustice would beget further injustice against the survivors?

JoshuaOppenheimer7 karma

No, because every step we took was considered deeply with a great deal of the Indonesian human rights community, as well as the many survivors families who entrusted me to do this work.

That said, it has been appalling to see the military backlash against the national conversation prompted by our films. While nobody has been killed, a few people - elderly survivors and at least one journalist - have been beaten up.

You see, again and again in the film we hear 'let the past be past'. But survivors always say it out of fear, while perpetrators always say it as a threat. Which means the past isn't past: it's right there, keeping survivors afraid and empowering perpetrators to threaten. It's an open wound, maintaining the conditions that all but ensure the recurrence of such violence. And it will never heal until it's addressed.

adamfstewart812 karma

What is going on with Anwar and other perpetrators who you know closely now that both films are out and it sounds like social change is starting to take place (albeit perhaps slowly)? Will Indonesia make reparations, and if so, what will that mean for Anwar, et al? Are there any good news sources (in English) that we can follow to stay current on relevant events?

JoshuaOppenheimer8 karma

Anwar and I are in touch regularly and continue to care for each other. He is less involved with the paramilitaries, though admits that he still has nightmares. He has not been scapegoated for making the film by the military hierarchy or paramilitary leadership. Herman Koto is one of the only people with the courage to screen The Act of Killing publicly in Medan, the city where we made the film. Of course, he is not a perpetrator - he was 10 years old when the film came out.

In general, it's unlikely that the government will make reparations. What we can hope for is an acknowledgment of the genocide as a crime against a humanity, a robust truth commission, and a revision of the nation's school curriculum. Even this will be difficult, though, and any more serious end to impunity - let alone justice - will require a real struggle. Why? Because almost all people with serious wealth and power in Indonesia have enriched themselves through corruption and plunder. These perpetrators, their protégés, and their partners in business know that once the events of 1965 are acknowledged to be the crime against humanity that they are, people will realise that their wealth and power are the spoils of plunder and mass murder. So truth and reconciliation will be a struggle, but I'm optimistic this struggle is underway.

We post all important developments on the film's facebook page: facebook.com/thelookofsilence

courtiebabe4202 karma

What do you do to relax and unwind from working on such serious pieces? What do you do for fun?

JoshuaOppenheimer4 karma

Cooking, hiking, cross country skiing.

adamfstewart812 karma

Two more questions: 1. I really fell in love with Adi's mother. How is she doing now? Is her husband still around?

  1. Can you please do us a favor and choose a less dangerous project for whatever comes next? You're a beautiful man and we need you to be safe. :) Much love to you.

JoshuaOppenheimer5 karma

Adi's father died. Adi's mother is doing well, but now growing old and losing her memory.

Thank you so much for caring about my safety!

crabsnappa2 karma

Getting the support of Herzog and Errol Morris seems like an important moment in the life of the films. How quickly did they get on board with the project once you showed it to them, and what impact did they have on getting a distributor?

JoshuaOppenheimer7 karma

Werner offered to do whatever he could after seeing the director's cut of The Act of Killing. Errol offered to help on the basis of some roughly edited scenes, a few years earlier. They both helped introduce The Act of Killing to the Telluride Film Festival.

Toshiro462 karma

What was your favorite scene to direct in the Act of Killing. Why?

JoshuaOppenheimer5 karma

everything at the giant fish. there can be no explanations for such beauty, horror, or mystery.

JoshuaOppenheimer6 karma

Also, everything else was harrowing. The fish was truly a relief.

Chtorrr2 karma

What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in the film industry?

JoshuaOppenheimer5 karma

Follow your fascination. And explore its deepest origins. Don't settle for making a good story out the elements that fascinate you. Search for the source of your fascination. And watch films. And, as Werner Herzog advises: read widely, and read deeply.

No-Time-For-Caution1 karma

What's your very best life advice?

JoshuaOppenheimer10 karma

We are all part of everything - and nothing - and that makes everything sacred, exquisite, deserving of our empathy.

If you come up with something better, send it my way.

anti6661 karma

What's a film you have and can watch a hundred times? And can you list a couple of your favourite directors?

JoshuaOppenheimer8 karma

Films I can watch a hundred times: Dr. Strangelove. Barton Fink.

JoshuaOppenheimer7 karma

And my favorite directors: Herzog, Hawkes, Fritz Lang, Vicente Minelli, Fassbinder, Jean Rouch...

cimbalom1 karma

Hello Joshua, Asking another question on behalf of a friend who was at a recent talk you gave.

You had mentioned to them that there might be a gathering of survivors of the 1960s anti-communist killings being put together in Los Angeles in the future.

Can you give us any more information about that?

JoshuaOppenheimer6 karma

We were interviewing survivors of the 1965 genocide in Indonesia and in LA. We were hoping to organise a screening and panel discussion for them.