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Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer Discusses Declassification of U.S. Files and Its Ground-breaking Impact

By Andrew Stewart
Director of Communications, Participant Media

Joshua Oppenheimer spent 11 years documenting the horrific 1965-66 mass killings in Indonesia—a topic that would provide the historical backdrop for his Oscar-nominated documentaries The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014).

The filmmaker described his time making these films as “a very dark place to spend a decade,” though he relates his involvement as an eye-opening experience.

“My whole world view was deeply impacted by the filming,” Oppenheimer says. “I discovered very quickly that there are no monsters.… Our lies are not motivated by callousness; they’re motivated by guilt.”

Oppenheimer says he found his greatest inspiration from the families of those who survived.

“There is something about the power of love,” Oppenheimer says. “This family sustained itself by finding the strength to contemplate forgiveness.”

Three years later, the ripple-effect of Oppenheimer’s vision and dedication—with support from Participant Media, Drafthouse Films, Human Rights Watch, ETAN, Amnesty International and the University of Connecticut in releasing the film—is being felt on the world stage.

Earlier this month, the U.S. government declassified thousands of files related to the Indonesian genocide—a monumental achievement and the key goal of Participant’s social impact campaign for The Look of Silence. The declassification speaks volumes to the power of meaningful content aimed at socio-political change, though Oppenheimer and others caution supporters not to take the declassification at face value.

“It’s important to know what this declassification means and what it doesn’t mean,” Oppenheimer says.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), who has been at the forefront of the declassification, issued a moving statement in response to the news, saying: “Today represents real progress. But in Indonesia, many of the individuals behind these murders continue to live with impunity, and the victims and their descendants continue to be marginalized and unrecognized. Only by acknowledging the truth about our own history will the United States be able to speak out forcibly and credibly to defend human rights in the future.”

Oppenheimer agrees, saying that knowledge and acceptance of the issue is tantamount to action.

“You can’t address a problem that you’re too afraid to name,” he says.

It’s precisely for that reason that Oppenheimer says he embarked on the subject in the first place—to prevent history from repeating itself. He recalls his first time in Indonesia and relates it to his own family history:

“It’s as though I wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust,” Oppenheimer says. “I grew up hearing we must never allow this sort of thing to happen again. And here I understood that not only had it happened again, but the perpetrators had won. I realized that I couldn’t look away from this.”

For Oppenheimer, one thing is certain: the story has changed irrevocably.

“The reaction to these documents in Indonesia was immediate and profound,” he says. “This declassification has demolished the whole official story of our country and there’s no going back.”

Oppenheimer says that knowledge of what happened is instrumental in continuing the fight for those involved—and working together to continue the dialogue will only deepen its impact.

“There’s always so much to do,” Oppenheimer says. “There’s always so much left undone.”

Read more about the issue here.