Since its world premiere in Venice last August, "The Look of Silence" has screened at 45 festivals and won 37 awards – and counting.
"I think the reaction has been very deep," says director Joshua Oppenheimer, based in Copenhagen, about his Danish-produced film.
"People are very much seeing the film as a mirror to all of us, which is exactly as I had hoped. Many people find 'The Act of Killing' more approachable after having watched 'The Look of Silence' – people who never got around to see 'The Act of Killing' or were afraid to see a film about perpetrators. Or they discover the director's cut or see the film again through new eyes. I think people realise that the two films complete one another and form a whole, a single work."
"The Look of Silence" just celebrated its British premiere as the opening film at Sheffield Doc/Fest, where it received the audience award. On 12 June, it was released in UK cinemas.
"Sheffield was wonderful," says Oppenheimer on his way home from the festival. "We had a screening in two cinemas next to each other, and they were both full. The reaction was lovely, especially to Adi."
RED CARPET. Producer Signe Byrge Sørensen, director Joshua Oppenheimer and Adi Rukun, the protagonist of "The Look of Silence," at the world release in Venice last August. Photo: Einar vid Neyst
Award Ensures Family's Economic Future
Adi Rukun, the film's protagonist who in the film confronts his brother's killers, accompanied Oppenheimer to the screenings for the first time since the premiere. The pair was recently in Tokyo to do press for the Japanese launch.
"Japan is one of the most important countries for my work. 'The Act of Killing' sold several more times tickets in Japan than in the US or any other country," says Oppenheimer. In the light of Japan's current debate about reforming its defense policy, Oppenheimer experienced a strong reaction to the theme in "The Look of Silence" about facing war traumas.
"There's a lot of discussion of how Japan has not yet looked back and acknowledged the horrors of World War II, both being a victim of war crimes and perpetrating war crimes. There was a strong sense in the media and the public that until the government encourages an honest reckoning with the past, it's immoral to go to war offensively. I actually think it is immoral to go to war offensively or strategically in any case, but with the rising tension between Japan and South Korea and Japan and China, the film has provoked profound responses in Tokyo."
Other highlights from travelling with "The Look of Silence" include presenting the film in Berlin with a Q&A with Werner Herzog, winning an audience award at South by Southwest in Oppenheimer's birth town, Austin, Texas, and receiving the True Life Fund Award at True/False in Columbia, Missouri. That award goes to the film's protagonist, and with this cash prize, Adi has been able to start a new optometry shop at his new home – the family moved to another part of Indonesia after the release of "The Look of Silence."
"That will ensure the long term economic security for the family in a very wonderful way," says Oppenheimer.
Bans and Barricades in Indonesia
As of 1 June, the film has been screened 1,345 times in Indonesia, in all 34 provinces. But it hasn't been without resistance.
"Throughout the winter, the army was deploying a strategy sending out thugs to attack the screenings and then use that as an excuse to demand the screening cancelled," says Oppenheimer. "Finally, a group of students at the State Islamic University in Yogyakarta barricaded themselves in the university and went ahead with the screening despite the threat. The fundamentally positive coverage of that in the Indonesian media made the army realise that the strategy had backfired. They were looking so terrible, organising attacks on screenings."
According to the Indonesian distributor, only about 30 screenings were cancelled, but there is still pressure to cancel. The film is also the object of a conflict within the government, since the army pressured the National Film Censorship to ban the film from commercial cinema screenings.
"There was a big outcry against the ban," says Oppenheimer. "But there is not much of an infrastructure for releasing documentaries in Indonesian cinemas anyway. By building a network that helps organising community screenings, the National Human Rights Commission has been able to reach a much broader audience anyway. But of course it's a bad thing that the film has been banned, and the media is angry about that."