In 2012 Joshua Oppenheimer’s ‘The Act of Killing’ broke new ground in the field of documentary film-making, collecting a multitude of international awards and helping to shed light on one of history’s most forgotten genocides.
This year, Oppenheimer returns to our screens with yet another powerful rumination on Indonesia’s mass killings of 1965-1966, seen this time through the lens of both perpetrator and victim.
Oppenheimer’s new film, ‘The Look of Silence’, is an exquisite companion piece to ‘The Act of Killing’, and an urgent call for Indonesia to atone for its dark past through truthful dialogue and reconciliation.
In ‘The Act of Killing’ we watched Oppenheimer track down a motley crew of wizened, former death squad members, who each took part and pride in the anti-communist bloodbaths of the early Suharto dictatorship.
Guided by the film’s inimitable protagonist, Anwar Congo – a frenetic, 70-year-old Elvis lover and self-proclaimed torturer – we were a granted a rare insight into the gleeful and grotesque memory vaults of some of Indonesia’s most prolific genocidal maniacs. Congo and his accomplices still professed complete unrepentance for their crimes, claiming that the slaughter of Indonesia’s suspected ‘communists’ was a just and necessary chapter in the country’s history.
An estimated 1 million people were put to death by state-sponsored paramilitaries following Suharto’s seizure of power in October 1965, bringing the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) to its bloody extinction by the end of 1966.
Oppenheimer captured the sadism of the killers disturbingly well by persuading them to re-enact their repulsive crimes in the style of their favourite movie stars, thus resulting in an utterly surreal pantomime of real-life murder theatrically yet faithfully reproduced by its actual perpetrators.
Watching the killers’ eagerness to regale their crimes on camera, the savagery of Indonesia’s genocide seemed to crystallise before our eyes, and the remorselessness of its perpetrators shone through with vivid and terrifying clarity.
Breaking the taboo
In contrast to ‘The Act of Killing’, ‘The Look of Silence’ is a much more sober and less sensational film. A new set of killers is on-hand to provide much of the same swaggering anecdote and graphic detail as featured in Oppenheimer’s previous film, only this the time our proud executioners are finally made to grapple with the idea that mass murder is, perhaps, unethical.
Here we interact with the killers not merely to hear about their industrious methods and listen to their insufferable boasting, but to beg for some form of explanation or moral justification for their misdeeds.
For this task we assume the perspective of one incredibly brave victim: 40-year-old Adi Rukun, a mild-mannered optometrist from a village in North Sumatra, whose older brother Ramli was brutally murdered by a local death squad in 1965.
We watch as Adi embarks on an intrepid truth-seeking mission in his local village, going head-to-head with known former death squad members in search of answers and reconciliation. What he finds, however – much to our shock and disappointment – is an unflinching lack of remorse among the killers, who each have their own way of rationalising the genocide as something that just had to be done.
All manner of self-deception and ethical conjuring is used to justify the killings, but none more so – and none more strikingly – than the justification from religious faith; or in other words: the invocation that communists did not believe in god and therefore deserved to die.
An early confrontation between Adi and a 74-year-old former executioner named Inong, who claims to have routinely drunk the blood of his victims, gives us our first taste of this abhorrent religious bigotry.
“I know from experience [that] if you cut off a woman’s breast, it looks like a coconut milk filter. . . Full of holes,” Inong begins after divulging his former blood-drinking habit.
“[But] why did you cut off the woman’s breast,” Adi enquires.
“[The] Communist Party members had no religion. [And] they had sex with each other’s wives. So people say . . .
“If they’re bad people, you can hack them up. . . ”
The contention that Indonesia’s communists had uniformly rejected the word of god is, of course, a complete fabrication. But the mere charge of atheism, levelled with enough excitement and enough consistency, proved to be a profoundly effective incitement of violence nonetheless. Thousands of Indonesia’s purportedly faithful Muslims felt compelled to slaughter their neighbours at this seemingly innocuous provocation, and then have the audacity to claim the moral high ground thereafter.
We see this total lack of contrition in all of Adi’s encounters with pious former death squad cadres, who openly admit to mass murder yet cannot find it within themselves to issue an apology for the slaughter – not even to an innocent victim.
A firewall of entrenched religious doctrine seems to separate the killers from the astonishing savagery of their crimes. Time and again we are told that the communists were an affront to the one true religion and an embodiment of all things profane, but at no point do we get hear an actual critique of communism as a political philosophy, or a coherent rebuttal of its teachings. Much to our unremitting frustration, faith seems to supersede all other lines of reasoning.
Perhaps the most tragic casualty of this all-consuming religious brainwashing is Adi’s uncle – a former prison guard who presided over the detention of Ramli and many others prior to their slaughter, but still finds it appropriate to invoke petty religious prejudices as a way of exonerating his indelible contribution to the genocide.
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, the benighted uncle sits in his living room clutching a string of Islamic prayer beads, with a framed photo of Mecca diligently hung in the background, and then proceeds to argue that the slaughter of Indonesia’s communists – including his own nephew – can somehow be justified as a defence of the faith.
“They were bad people,” he explains. “[And] what’s more, they never prayed! In 1965, communists rushed to the mosques [for sanctuary] because they were afraid of being slaughtered. Later, they stopped going . . . They pretended to be religious. And [now] you blame me [a man of faith]! How dare you!”
Perhaps it would have been a redeeming feature of the film if this sort of excruciating hubris seemed likely to die out with the passing of Indonesia’s older generations, but we soon learn that the very same set of prejudices and propaganda is still being force-fed to Indonesia’s children, as a compulsory part of the state’s national ‘history’ curriculum.
As is chillingly depicted in ‘The Look of Silence’, the subjection of Indonesia’s youth to this toxic blend of pseudo-ethics and fabricated history is nothing more than an institutionalised form of child abuse. From a very young age kids are mercilessly saddled with terrifying images of bloodthirsty and godless communists, whilst simultaneously being taught that the real wellspring of morality begins with submission to the one true god.
“Communists are cruel,” proclaims the teacher to a baffled audience of primary school pupils (one of whom is Adi’s son). “Communists don’t believe in God. . .
“To change the political system the communists kidnapped six army generals. They sliced the generals’ faces with razor blades . . .
“[How] would you like that? Imagine how painful it would be if your eyes were gouged out. Their eyes were ripped out!”
‘The Act of Killing’ was never submitted to Indonesia’s censor board for general release, due to fear of reprisal attacks being carried out on audiences by paramilitary organizations such as Anwar Congo’s Pemuda Pancasila. But with Indonesia’s new president Joko ‘Jokowi ‘Widodo now talking tough on the issue of bringing human rights offenders to trial, Adi and Oppenheimer are hopeful that ‘The Look of Silence’ can safely be shown to audiences throughout Indonesia without risk of retaliation, and it indeed it urgently needs to be shown.
Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) has therefore agreed to take the movie on an informal tour of Indonesia, with the aim of finally persuading the national government to issue an acknowledgement and an apology for the slaughter, and to open up an ad hoc tribunal to prosecute the surviving culprits.
The symbiosis of mass murder and mass impunity now has a long and uninterrupted history in Indonesia, but one hopes that Oppenheimer’s masterful new film, at least to some extent, can help to achieve the transformation in Indonesia’s collective memory that the victims and their families truly deserve.