Joshua_Oppenheimer - photo by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung

For his follow-up to 2012’s The Act of Killing, documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer returned to Indonesia to once again explore the late 1960s massacres of innocents that put the nation’s current government in power. With The Look of Silence, once again, Oppenheimer, co-directing with the victims and the victims’ family members who he credits as “anonymous,” creates a stark testament to a grim history. As opposed to The Act of Killing where he spoke to only the perpetrators who killed people with clubs, knives and steel wire with impunity, The Look of Silence features the family members of one of the victims.

Speaking via phone from New York City, the Danish-born filmmaker reveals he first thought of this film before he shot The Act of Killing. However, he only began shooting The Look of Silence in 2012. It was actually too dangerous to identify survivors of the massacres because the current government could have imprisoned them or worse. People still live in fear of the government in Indonesia, and the release of The Act of Killing has now given him and his victims a kind of protection, though he still had to be careful not to shoot interviews with people who were too high-ranking in the government.

Oppenheimer calls The Look of Silence and The Act of Killing mirror images. He says the title The Look of Silence also came to him before The Act of Killing. Explaining the film’s title he says, “It was, above all, a definition of a project of making visible, of making palpable something normally invisible, this silence born of fear and the traces that fear and silence leave on a human life. How can you look at a family that’s lived for 50 years afraid and in silence, and in forced silence, and see the traces of that and how can you discern the inventive ways that people find to live with dignity and love, despite being surrounded by the powerful men who killed their loved ones.”


It’s a profound observation for a heavy subject. The family Oppenheimer spotlights is that of Adi, a village optician who makes the rounds testing the eyes of his neighbors, including some who actually participated in the massacre. And it is Adi who conducts the interviews with some of the perpetrators. They share with him chilling stories of drinking the blood of their victims to keep from going mad. But what mainly gets to Adi is footage Oppenheimer shot of two elderly men while making The Act of Killing. The two men stand at a clearing by the Snake River and admit they were the ones who killed Adi’s elder brother, Ramli, They even act out their actions and go into gruesome details of each machete blow that they remember. And they laugh.

The film also features Adi’s parents, his mother, who calls Adi the reincarnation of Ramli, and his father, who is now blind, toothless and suffers from dementia. In a particularly unnerving scene that Oppenheimer says Adi shot one day when he was home alone with his father, his father suffers an episode and begins crawling on the ground patting the walls crying that he doesn’t recognize where he is. “Adi explained to me, ‘I shot this because I couldn’t comfort him that day,” says Oppenheimer, “because I was a stranger to him, and I realized that it’s too late for my father to heal. He’s forgotten the son whose murder destroyed his life and his family’s life, but he hasn’t forgotten his fear, and now he’ll die like millions of others, in a prison of fear. It’s too late for him to heal because he’s forgotten what happened, and I don’t want my children to inherit this prison of fear.’”


Indeed, this is a stark movie that dwells not so much on explaining but understanding how to heal from such a past for the sake of the nation’s future. A sort of mantra is repeated by both survivors and perpetrators of the genocide: “The past is the past.” Oppenheimer explains this reasoning thus: “It’s a statement that absolutely belies itself because the survivors always say it out of fear, and the perpetrators always say it as a threat, indicating that the past is not the past. It’s right there, keeping people afraid. It’s a gaping wound. It’s an abyss dividing everybody. Keeping survivors afraid and a kind of threat by the perpetrators. The past is right there and is open … That’s really the experience of the film. I tried to create a film that’s so immersive that it goes beyond a message.”

Oppenheimer has created a poetic film, actually. It is much more than a documentary (my review: The Look of Silence explores aftermath of genocide with startling cinematic poetry). The quality of his filmmaking stands alongside the work of Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, two of contemporary cinema’s most influential and important documentary filmmakers. Both even acted as executive producers on The Look of Silence. However, Oppenheimer names very different filmmakers as influences on this film. “I kind of made a study in preparation for this use of silence of two filmmakers. I suppose for the viewing scene, I was thinking more of the work of Robert Bresson. Diary of a Country Priest, for example, the closing shot of that film, where you see a face reacting to memory and reacting to the plights of the world and the trials that are being thrown at the priest, and in the dialogue scenes, I was thinking about Yasujirô Ozu, whom I think is a master of creating dialogue scenes where everything important being said is articulated through silence and shame as opposed to the words.”

*  *  *

You can read much more about the film, its story and Oppenheimer’s intentions in an article I wrote for the Arts and Culture blog of “The Miami New Times.” I’m quite proud of it. Jump through the logo of the blog below to read an even more insightful piece on what is sure to be one of the greatest documentaries of the year:

NT Arts

Hans Morgenstern

Screening update: The Look of Silence returns to our Miami area thanks to the Miami Beach Cinematheque starting Friday, Sept. 4 (see screening calendar here).

The Look of Silence opens in our South Florida area exclusively at O Cinema Miami Shores on Friday, Aug.14. It plays only for the weekend. If you live outside of Miami, visit this link for other screening dates and locations. Drafthouse Pictures provided a screening link for the purpose of this review and also provided all images in this article.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Act of Killing video release

This morning, the nominees for the Oscar® awards were announced. Among those nominated for best documentary* was the already plenty-award-winning film the Act of Killing, which also won best documentary from us at the Florida Film Critics Circle. The film’s co-director, Joshua Oppenheimer sent us a statement regarding the nomination this morning: “We are deeply grateful. This nomination is an honor for us as filmmakers, but for the survivors and victims it is a crucial first step in their country’s acknowledgement of a moral catastrophe— the horror of the genocide and the on-going regime of fear and corruption built by the killers. May it also be a first step toward healing.”

Last week, Cinedigm Entertainment released the extended cut of the Act of Killing on home video. I first spoke to Oppenheimer last year. We spoke fast and deep about this film, and much of our conversation can be found in this post featuring two articles:

An interview with the director of ‘the Act of Killing’; more in ‘Miami New Times’ (August 16, 2013)

However, as is usually the case, even with two articles, there was still left over material from our interview. I don’t even think I had room to note that Oppenheimer is actually credited as co-director with Christine Cynn and “Anonymous,” the latter representing the survivors of a virtual genocide in Indonesia following a coup d’état that left over a million dead in 1965. The Act of Killing director Joshua OppenheimerThey too spoke out about the Academy Award nomination: “The Act of Killing— and the issues of impunity it raises— will make front-page news today in Indonesia. Our schools still teach children an official history that glorifies genocide, and our government continues to celebrate mass murderers as national heroes. They do so to keep us afraid, so we won’t dare hold them accountable for their crimes. I hope this nomination encourages us to demand truth, justice, and reconciliation.”

That fear was the source of inspiration for making the Act of Killing. Oppenheimer revealed the project began with the Globalisation Tapes, a film he made with Cynn about a Belgian-owned oil pump plantation in Indonesia that manufactured palm oil (take note, Nutella lovers), which documents the struggles of workers with abuse and inhumane working conditions (the film was never released on home video, but you can view it free here). Oppenheimer noted that the workers were threatened into not forming a union and had to endure forced labor and pesticides that killed mostly women over the age of 40. “Turned out that the reason they were terrorized into silence was that their parents and grandparents had been in a union until 1965 and had been accused for being communist sympathizers simply because they were in a union, had been rounded up, put in concentration camps and dispatched out to be killed by local death squads, and they were afraid that this could happen to them again.”

This piece of history that still haunts much of the Indonesian population became the inspiration for the Act of Killing. However, the filmmaking was met with many roadblocks by Indonesian officials. “As soon as we came back and word got out that that’s what we were doing, the army would come and stop us from shooting with them,” Oppenheimer said.


The victims that compose “Anonymous” then gave Oppenheimer and Cynn the idea to focus on the perpetrators because, they said, they would gladly not only share details about the killings they committed but also show off about them. The filmmakers struck a goldmine of material to work with. “I found they were all boastful. They were all open,” said Oppenheimer. “I found myself in Germany 40 years after the holocaust, and the Nazis were still in power.”

The filmmakers were able to brew up a surreal concoction of staged movie scenes featuring the killers themselves among traditional documentary footage. The mix of gangster film, musical, horror movie and documentary makes for a surreal experience that feels more truthful than most documentaries. The Act of Killing takes an exploration into the depths of the soul of men corrupted by heinous acts to a whole other level.

Oppenheimer said he prefers the extended cut of the film, a near-three-hour odyssey into the heart of remorse and revelation unlike most anyone will ever see, which can be found on the home video release. He notes one of the film’s executive producers also prefers this longer cut to the U.S. theatrical cut: the famed documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog (the other noteworthy executive producer is Errol Morris).


The director also noted that some of the subjects of his film have seen this extended cut. “Anwar [Congo] was very, very moved by it. He was silent from a long time after watching it, a little bit tearful, and he said, ‘This film shows what it is like to be me. I am grateful to have had the chance to finally express feelings that I have been discouraged from acknowledging for so many years.’”

Oppenheimer noted he and Congo, who he filmed over the course of five years, have remained in touch, “and always will because we’ve been on such a painful, intimate and ultimately transformative journey.”

Then there was Herman Koto, who never hesitated to dress in drag during many of the staged scenes. “Herman has seen the film and loves the film,” said Oppenheimer. “Herman, over the course of the film, fell in love with acting, developed an actor’s loyalty to the truth. A good actor has to have a loyalty to the moral and emotional truth of any situation that she or he is acting in. He does.”

Oppenheimer said Koto also came to his own revelation about the group he belonged to, the sort-of neo-fascist Pancasila Youth, which still hold rallies celebrating the killings to this day. “He became more disillusioned with Pancasila Youth because he came to understand more and more deeply the horror upon which it’s all built. So he’s been very supportive of the film.”


Someone Oppenheimer did not bother showing the film to was Adi Zulkadry. He explained, “He recognizes in the film exactly what the film will do and decides to leave the film for that reason, and he has high connections with the paramilitary leadership in Indonesia, and I was worried that if he saw the film he could start lobbying against the film and that could jeopardize our plan for distributing the film in Indonesia and could make it unsafe for people to screen the film … All high-ranking political leaders who appear in the film inevitably hate the film, as well as they should, or else it would mean I didn’t do my job.”

Though, throughout the Act of Killing, the filmmakers keep the implications of U.S. culpability to these killings on a subtle level in the film, juxtaposing destitute neighborhoods and the fancy malls tourists and the upper class frequent in Jakarta, it’s not lost on Oppenheimer that there was something culturally criminal at play here. Therefore, there could be some poetic justice if the film indeed wins the Oscar, come March 2. “There could be a whole film made, certainly a book written, about the U.S.’s role in supporting the genocide,” he said. “but that would be a historical film. The Act of Killing is not a film about the past. It’s a film about today. It’s about how the past is abused in the present … The moral and cultural vacuum of sort of rampant capitalism and consumerism. The alienation, the hollowness of consumerism is a character that haunts the whole movie.”

Hans Morgenstern

In South Florida, The Act of Killing returns to the Cosford Cinema on the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus for two nights only this weekend (buy tickets).

*Also nominated for best documentary feature was another Indie Ethos favorite, Cutie and the Boxer (Film Review: ‘Cutie and the Boxer’ looks beyond art for the heart of a long-term relationship)

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

With Tabloid documentary filmmaker extraordinaire Errol Morris focuses his lens on a 1970s-era beauty queen whose delusions of love made for salacious fodder in the British scandal sheets. It was irresistible: the alleged kidnap and rape of the Mormon object of her affection, an underground career in the S&M business, and a return to the pages of the tabloids for a story about the cloning of the only thing she had left to love: her pet pit bull.

In the brisk documentary (87 min.) former Miss Wyoming Joyce McKinney sees things a certain way and holds steadfast in her perspective. She says she loved a man once: Kirk Anderson. He happened to be a Mormon who she tried to save from what she called his “indoctrination” at a London-based temple, in 1977.  She says she rescued him, and they spent several days of bliss together in a cottage in the English countryside, giving him back rubs, feeding him his favorite foods, like chocolate cake, and making love to him. She blamed  Mormonism for Anderson’s impotence and felt a duty to make love to him. “If it took  giving up my virginity in a romantic moonlit cottage, so be it. I just wanted him out of that cult.”

She says she had hoped to have his children. But word got out Anderson had gone missing, and McKinney was jailed for rape and kidnapping. She skipped bail and returned to the US but never got over the 6-foot, 300-pound-plus Anderson. “I never got married because of him.”

After the scandal died down, Morris offers a sad portrait of McKinney growing old in seclusion, suffering agoraphobia and failing to complete her life’s story, a book she had titled A Very Special Love Story. Paranoid that the press was still after her, she adopted a mastiff to guard her home, which turned on her. She says another pet dog, a pit bull she rescued off the street she named Booger saved her life from the mastiff. When Booger passes away from cancer many years later, McKinney gets over her grief by finally finding a sense of maternal bliss after cloning him in 2006. “We’re pregnant!” The cloning, which she paid to have done in South Korea, saw her return as a subject of the tabloids. However, at the beginning of the news coverage, she would keep the sex scandal out of the story by adopting an alias.

But the other version of this story comes mostly from two journalists from competing UK tabloids: “The Daily Express” reporter Peter Tory and “the Daily Mirror” photographer Kent Gavin. Tory talks about McKinney as a woman set on dominating men. He says, she, with the help of an accomplice, actually kidnapped Anderson and shackled him to a bed at the cottage with chain or rope, forcing him to become her sex slave. Gavin uncovered her past as a call girl and model who offered bondage and dominance or S&M services, prior to her London trip.

The two men share an ironic laugh over McKinney’s dishing out as much as $150,000 to clone her dog. When she made the media rounds with the pups, she used her middle name: Bernann as a first name. In her interview with Morris, she even says Joyce McKinney no longer existed.

With Tabloid, Morris makes efforts to point out the impossibility of documenting the so-called truth, to almost giddy effect. The film becomes nothing more than a variety perspectives by varied interests, as many documents on both sides of the story seem to have been lost. But this is as much about McKinney’s version of a story, as it is a representation of it by tabloid journalists. The differences between the interviews McKinney granted exclusively to “the Daily Express” in 1978 and the background published by “the Daily Mirror” based on investigative research, also offer their own extreme differences. “We became her fantasy,” Tory says. One layer after another reveals itself as just another different story about different people.

Another version of the story comes from Salt Lake City Radio Host and former Mormon missionary Troy Williams who speaks of the cautionary tale of “Joyce McKinney and the Manacled Mormon.” As an already highly interpretive story, Williams says, there is an important lesson in the tale for young Mormons on their mission to beware a temptress, such as McKinney, who might strip them of the magic underwear to take away their purity. McKinney offers the most salient point when she says, “You know, you can tell a lie long enough till you believe it.” Though it was a criticism of “the Mirror,” this statement could very well apply to herself, as well as anyone else trying to recount her story.

Morris does not so much take the stories seriously, as he presents his own version, which reveals one can never know for certain what has happened at any time, when it comes to hindsight (so often described as 20/20). Morris can be heard of camera exclaiming over certain answers with incredulous questions: “You mean she wanted him to inseminate her?” Morris juxtaposes several bits of narrative provided by the sources with ironic footage of fifties-era suburban bliss or cartoons. The director also offers images of the actual news clips from published articles of McKinney’s story cut up and animated in a collage form to augment some of the narrative. This again, smartly drives home the point that any story can be manipulated by the storyteller.

In between these widely varying stories, not based so much on fact as they are “accounts,” remain the mysterious gaps. In his interview, Tory introduces her accomplice,  Keith “KJ” May as “this strange, unexplained man.” Tory notes observing McKinney telling May, “Down, slave!” during their interviews and meetings. Tory theorizes the two have a long-standing master-slave relationship. May passed away a few years ago, so he could not offer any insight into his relationship with McKinney.

Interpret what you will of these references. That’s what makes Tabloid such a wonderful movie: it presents you with information that leads only to suspicion, as what Morris is really pointing to is the fact that no one can know the whole truth about anything, least of all know what really happened among so many versions of a story. As Tory notes, somewhere in between the stories lies the truth. The gaps, however, are so wide, one will never know what really happened. Some might find this frustrating, but I find it’s a more accurate truth of the life experience than most films dare explore.

Hans Morgenstern

The Coral Gables Art Cinema provided a screener copy of this movie for review. Tabloid is rated R and will have its South Florida Premiere at the Coral Gables Art Cinema on Friday, Aug. 12 at 5 p.m. The Miami Beach Cinematheque will also screen the movie beginning Friday, Aug. 26 at 7 p.m. For screening dates in other areas, check the movie’s homepage at the top of this post.

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)