Not enough hours in the day for us to talk

INTERVIEW. It has been nearly 10 years since producer Signe Byrge Sørensen first hooked up with director Joshua Oppenheimer and one of the most fruitful cinematic partnerships of the new millennium took root. Looking back, the filmmakers behind Oscar nominees "The Act of Killing" and "The Look of Silence" talk about their alliance – and how it rose from a mountain of tapes and no money.

There is this particular scene in "The Look of Silence," Joshua Oppenheimer's quietly devastating yet redemptively lyrical companion to his 2012 "The Act of Killing," an almost impossibly ambitious effort to blow open the suppressed history of the 1965 Indonesian genocide. Anyone who has seen it will never forget it.

It was an incredible moment of surprise and joy and what-the-fuck are we looking at, what is this project? Signe had only seen the tip of the tip of the iceberg.

Signe Byrge Sørensen never will. It changed her life. But, in another sense, it may never have come to light without her.

It is the so-called "riverbank scene," shot during Oppenheimer's decade-long contemporary investigation into the genocide, which claimed an estimated million lives, as supposed Communists and their supposed sympathisers were systematically wiped out by the henchmen of the military regime. The footage follows two of the killers as they sit on the bank of the Snake River, revisiting the site of one among the seemingly countless atrocities. As the camera rolls, each takes a role: one the victim, one the killer, and they reenact a gruesome murder. The victim was Ramli Rukun, the brother of Adi Rukun, the protagonist of what would become "The Look of Silence."

"I thought this piece was so amazing in so many ways," Sørensen says. "The way it was filmed, the things they were talking about, the openness they were talking with and also the way the filmmaker was allowing things to happen and not judging at the moment."

The Act of Killing Photo: Anonymous

Making the First Contact

The year was 2007, five years before "The Act of Killing" would premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Sørensen was attending a seminar at Copenhagen's CPH:DOX put on by a London-based collective called Vision Machine, a group composed of Oppenheimer and three friends. "I remember thinking, 'How is this possible and who did this?'"

Before long, she was in touch with Oppenheimer, away in Indonesia working with Anwar Congo, a perpetrator who became the focal point of "The Act of Killing," and one of the most fruitful cinematic partnerships of the new millennium was about to take root.

By way of introduction, Oppenheimer "hesitatingly" sent Sørensen a copy of his doctoral dissertation from Harvard. "It should have been 80 pages along with some film material," the filmmaker says of the document, which drew on previous research among Indonesian plantation workers, made between 2003 and 2005, before he first met Congo. "But what was supposed to be 80 pages was 220 pages."

Sørensen read it all. "What kind of producer reads a doctoral dissertation?" Oppenheimer asks.

"I really wanted to get involved," Sørensen recalls. "I didn't know there was a mountain of tapes and no money!"

The Act of Killing
The Act of Killing Photo: Anonymous

Jaws on the Floor

It is now nine years later, and the pair share a Skype hook-up in a New York hotel room. They are in the city for the Cinema Eye Honors, staged in mid-January, where the American non-fiction community gathers each year to salute the best of its own. Sørensen and Oppenheimer each won, for producing and directing, respectively, and "The Look of Silence" was named outstanding non-fiction feature. The same week, "The Look of Silence" became an Academy Award nominee for best documentary feature.

The pair's bond was forged somewhere between Sørensen's fascination with the material she was seeing and Oppenheimer's anxieties about its audacity. "The Act of Killing" takes a controversial plunge when Oppenheimer enlists its odd couple – aging assassins Anwar Congo  and Herman Koto – as the amateur stars of their own [staged] film productions, recreating the circumstances of their crimes in sequences, often deliberately bloody or absurd, that emulate genres popular in Indonesian theatres.

Oppenheimer recalls his worry early on, as he sat down with Sørensen and an editor for a couple of days in Copenhagen to immerse them in the project. "How do I show the musical numbers?" he says. "How do I show Herman in drag eating Anwar's liver? There's even scenes that aren't in the film where Herman gives birth to a monster. How do I show that? Their jaws were on the floor but I wasn't sure it was in a good way, until at some point they both in perfect unison burst out laughing. It was an incredible moment of surprise and joy and what-the-fuck are we looking at, what is this project?

"Signe had only seen the tip of the tip of the iceberg."

Like Moving the Sahara with a Teaspoon

To get from there to where the filmmakers are today has required an intense focus on several fronts amid a great deal of personal upheaval. Around the time Sørensen was taking on the films that would become "The Act of Killing" and "The Look of Silence," the company she worked in, Final Cut, dissolved its business. So she started a new one, Final Cut for Real, although it wasn't a given the enterprise could take off. Oppenheimer suffered great personal stress with the illness of his partner's mother.

The producer can go into a lot of detail about pulling together a complex network of funders – the Danish Film Institute came on board very early – necessary to back the films. National film institutes like to know that television deals exist before they sign a check. Television deals often require agreements to stick with a designated runtime. Oppenheimer had 1,200 hours of footage. As he half-jokes, his and Sørensen's discussions weren't simply about what process to use in whipping the material into presentable shape, but the process to find the process. In the end, Oppenheimer spent a year-and-a-half overseeing the work of two editors who pulled overlapping eight-hour shifts to come up with a 23 hours of selected scenes.

"It was like moving the Sahara desert with a teaspoon," Oppenheimer recalls. "I was dancing around the apartment in London the day we finished that task."

In 2011, as work progressed, Oppenheimer took the leap and moved to Denmark. He confesses a deep ambivalence at the time. He associated the country with his visits there to pursue funding. "It used to make me very nervous," he says. "I was so scared of speaking in public I would shake and shake. I was terrified of pitching."

Sørensen made him feel, quite literally, at home.

"It was like walking into a home I didn't realise I had, and had been prepared for me," Oppenheimer says of his arrival at the production offices. "It's a place where everybody eats lunch together every day. It's a detail that seems so trivial but is so different from the way things are done in the United States. We eat together as you would in a home. It's a Danish tradition."

The Look of Silence Photo: Lars Skree 

Not Your Hollywood Archetype

The connection would repeatedly transcend any clichéd notion of what movie producers do – the big money and big cigars Hollywood archetype. On trips to Indonesia, Sørensen was part of small, agile crews prepared for anything to happen. In order to minimise risk to Indonesian crew members during the confrontational interviews conducted for "The Look of Silence," the producer doubled as a sound person.

It also was Sørensen who had bags packed for Adi and his family each morning, ready for them to be whisked to safety should one of his encounters with a genocidal operative go awry.

"I respect Joshua an enormous amount for everything he does as a director but not least as a human being," Sørensen says. "There is this very basic trust in what it is he wants to do with his films and what he is doing in his life, and of course those things are connected. There's not enough hours in the day for us to talk."

Not least among the producer's attributes, Oppenheimer says, is her eagerness to entertain, or perhaps outmatch, his most extravagant ideas. "There's the pleasure of discovery, which is always seductive," he says. "Because you discover something that was hidden. It's like a geode. You cut it open and discover this crystal garden you didn't necessarily see at first."

Each Accolade Helps the Activists

That philosophy helps explain how the Indonesian diptych manages to engage the horror of humanity at its worst by somehow sustaining a flicker of hope and transcendence within even the most apocalyptic conditions. It would seem that Academy Awards voters agree, to some degree. Should "The Look of Silence" win on 28 February, it would be a tremendous moment for Indonesia and human rights awareness worldwide, Oppenheimer says.

"Each accolade the film has received becomes front-page news in Indonesia and helps the activists there take further the struggle," he says. "While here, it's another opportunity to raise awareness, not just to recognise what happened in Indonesia, but to acknowledge the role of the United States in dozens of other atrocities around the world, ultimately, I think, motivated by the same corporate greed."

The Look of Silence
Photo: Lars Skree 

With nearly a decade of risk-taking adventures behind them, the filmmakers are moving forward with new projects. They close with an anecdote that illustrates how complementary their partnership has become.

"We had this funny moment on the elevator yesterday," Sørensen says. A young assistant was preparing for a trip abroad. "We were talking about what to say to her."

Oppenheimer interjects: "Because she can be a little reckless."

"Should we say, 'Don't do anything that we wouldn't do?" Sørensen continues. "No! We are ready to go pretty far, both of us. Not recklessly, but with a common idea in mind."

They both laugh. "This facade of sobriety is very helpful in convincing people to support what we do," Oppenheimer says. "People look at Signe and think, 'Oh, she's so reasonable!'" •

More about the films

"The Act of Killing" (2012) received an Oscar nomination in 2014, and "The Look of Silence" (2014) is nominated for the 2016 Acadamy Awards on 28 February.

In "The Act of Killing," Joshua Oppenheimer takes the concept of staged reality to a new, shocking level. Rather than tell the victims' story from the Indonesian genocide in 1965-66, he chose to make a film about the winners. We see powerful men and former death squad leaders such as Anwar Congo and his sidekick Herman Koto replay their infamous deeds for the camera in the style of their favourite Hollywood films such as gangster movies, westerns, crime thrillers and musicals. Read interview Scenes of the Crimes

With "The Look of Silence," the tables are turned, and the surviving victims get to speak. Looking through Oppenheimer’s footage of perpetrators, a family of survivors discovers how their son was murdered – and the identity of the men who killed him. In search of answers, the family's youngest son, Adi, decides to confront each of the surviving killers, men who remain in power, asking them to accept responsibility for their actions. Read interview Holding a Mirror to Horror

"The Act of Killing" and "The Look of Silence" are directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and produced by Signe Byrge Sørensen for Final Cut for Real. 

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