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


In the wake of the recent news surrounding the declassification of U.S. State Department files pertaining to the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide, Participant Media recently spoke with filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer for an exclusive interview about his reaction to the news and his experience filming award-winning documentaries The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. The declassification of these documents demonstrates the U.S.’s complicity in the killings of an estimated 500,000 to 1 million Indonesians.

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.

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Participant MediaAbout Participant Media

Founded in 2004 by Jeff Skoll, Participant Media’s (www.participantmedia.com) content combines the power of a good story well told with opportunities for real world impact and awareness around the most pressing global issues of our time. As an industry content leader, Participant annually produces up to six narrative feature films, five documentary films, three episodic television series, and more than 40 hours of digital short form programming, through its digital subsidiary SoulPancake—all aimed at entertainment that inspires social awareness and engaging audiences to participate in positive social change. Participant’s content and social impact mandate speaks directly to the rise of today’s “conscious consumer,” representing over 2 billion consumers who are compelled to make impactful content a priority focus. Through its worldwide network of traditional and digital distribution, aligned with partnerships with key non-profit and NGO organizations, Participant is positioned uniquely within the industry to engage a rapidly growing audience while bringing global awareness and action to today’s most vital issues.

Participant’s more than 80 films, including Spotlight, Contagion, Lincoln, The Help, He Named Me Malala, The Look of Silence, CITIZENFOUR, Food, Inc. and An Inconvenient Truth, have collectively earned 56 Academy Award® nominations and 12 wins, including Best Picture for Spotlight and Best Foreign Language Film for A Fantastic Woman. Participant’s digital entertainment division, SoulPancake (www.soulpancake.com), is an award-winning provider of thought-provoking, joyful, and uplifting digital content including such widely popular series as Kid President and The Science of Happiness and reaches an audience of nearly 9 million fans. Follow Participant Media on Twitter and on Facebook and Instagram. Follow SoulPancake on Twitter and on Facebook and Instagram.