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Highlights from our Documenting Impact discussion on “The Look of Silence”

The Look of Silence, is, I hope, a poem about a silence borne of terror—a poem about the necessity of breaking that silence, but also about the trauma that comes when silence is broken. Maybe the film is a monument to silence—a reminder that although we want to move on, look away and think of other things, nothing will make whole what has been broken.” —Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer

Last month, we had the opportunity to sit down with filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer and Rebecca Lichtenfeld, director for social impact at the Bertha Foundation, to discuss The Look of Silence, an incredible documentary by Oppenheimer that focuses on Indonesia more than 50 years after its 1965 genocide. The discussion was the latest in our Documenting Impact series, which features in-depth conversations with filmmakers, funders and impact producers about the most pressing social issues of our time.

In the Academy Award-nominated The Look of Silence, a family of survivors discovers how their son was murdered, and learns the identities of his killers. The family’s youngest son, an optometrist named Adi, decides to do something unimaginable in a society where the murderers remain in power: He confronts the men who killed his brother and, while testing their eyesight, asks them to accept responsibility for their actions. This unprecedented film, which initiates and bears witness to the collapse of 50 years of silence, is a companion piece to Oppenheimer’s 2012 The Act of Killing, which won BritDoc’s 2013 Puma Impact Award. You can read more about that film, including the impact case study, here.

If you missed our discussion on The Look of Silence, here are some excerpts of our OVEE recording, and a guide with time stamps and points of reference to help you follow along in the conversation between our executive director, Vince Stehle, Oppenheimer and Lichtenfeld. (For those who are unfamiliar, OVEE is an online screening platform from Independent Television Service (ITVS) that allows viewers to watch and chat live together in a virtual theater.) You can find the OVEE in full, below, as well.


In 2001, plantation workers in a remote part of Indonesia were struggling to unionize, and Oppenheimer was asked to help the workers make a film documenting their issues. The workers eventually dropped their grievances for fear of retaliation by the same people who carried out the mass killings in 1965. Here, Oppenheimer describes the beginning of what turned into a 10-year journey to make The Look of Silence.

Rebecca Lichtenfeld, director of social impact for the the Bertha Foundation, a principal funder of the film, explains the organization’s impact strategy for The Look of Silence:

Lichtenfeld describes Bertha Foundation’s theory of change. “If you combine an activist, a storyteller, and a lawyer, it’s exponential what can happen”:

In the film, Adi is seen asking an elderly woman about her memories of what happened in 1965. First she denies that anything happened at all, and then wonders why Adi is asking so many questions in the first place. Here, Oppenheimer explains the dynamics of silence for ordinary Indonesians:

In one part of the film, Adi watches interviews with some of the perpetrators to prepare for his own confrontations with them. In those interviews—in which the perpetrators speak openly about their crimes—Oppenheimer says he saw an “odd kind of compulsive boastfulness” about what they’ve done, and saw it as a sign of guilt:

Oppenheimer says when he was done filming, he didn’t even know if The Look of Silence would ever actually be released. Below, he explains the fear and uncertainty around releasing the film and ensuring the safety of Adi and his family. “It’s almost like a controlled explosion, where the film is the detonator, and you have to have everything precisely organized so that it has a constructive explosion rather than prematurely killing everybody in the room,” said Stehle.

Want more, including the film’s trailer? Check out the entire OVEE, below. Visit thelookofsilence.com to learn more about the film and its impact.

Special thanks to Philanthropy NY and the International Human Rights Funders Group for partnering with us for this discussion.

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