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Joshua Oppenheimer’s breathtaking 2012 documentary, The Act of Killing, focused the world’s attention on the 1965 Indonesian genocide. His equally stunning 2014 companion piece, The Look of Silence, demands we do not look away.
In The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer interviews former death squad leaders and we watch as they re-enact the killings, theatre blood daubed across their faces as they try to maintain the lie that they are the victims of the killings they perpetrated. In The Look of Silence, it is the survivors who ask the questions. The great shock of this film is not the self-deception of the perpetrators but rather their reactions as they are called murderers to their faces. By dissolving the discourse that has held perpetrators as victims and victims as perpetrators for the past fifty years, The Look of Silence gives us a glimpse at the mechanisms of terror at the heart of the genocide, which still persist today.
Adi Rukun, the film’s subject, is a traveling optometrist who visits the murderers of his older brother, Ramli. As he checks their vision, placing lenses of increasing strength in front of their eyes, he asks them about their memories of the killings before revealing that he knows they killed his brother. Adi is not seeking revenge – he, like other survivors, has no such luxury. Rather, Adi hopes his brother’s killers will betray a glimmer of recognition of the horror and pain they have caused. Instead, these aging death squad leaders show a renewed determination to maintain the wilful blindness that has let them portray themselves as heroes.
By never making its role in the violence explicit, the military and its village level accomplices have maintained their grip on power through fear and blatant impunity. Official accounts of the genocide, for example, in military history books, document the discovery of nameless “corpses” which are simply “found”, with no agency attributed to the killers. The military is depicted as acting to stem the violence, rather than sparking and orchestrating it, as they did. Likewise, the death squads are portrayed as spontaneously springing into action, despite obviously being coordinated (my own research has uncovered documents detailing extensive military and government support and funding for the death squads). No mention is ever made of the hundreds, if not thousands, of mass graves that stretch the length of the country.
While anybody old enough to have witnessed the genocide can recall the intentional, systematic and state-sponsored nature of the killings, this state-sanctioned denial not only robs victims of their victimhood but also reinforces the impunity of perpetrators. It sends a message that not only was the violence considered appropriate but that anyone who dares to contradict the official account remains an enemy of the state and a legitimate target for future violence. The violence of the genocide hangs as a threat that can be recalled at any moment. When the aging perpetrators in The Look of Silence caution Adi that digging up the past could reignite the violence of the past they are threatening him. It is a threat will remain real for as long as support for the genocide remains the ideological foundation of the post-Soekarno Indonesian state.
These threats do not appear set to fade away as the final remaining eyewitnesses of the genocide die. As Eric Hynes observed in his poignant review in Reverse Shot, the long shadow of the genocide stretches over the next generation. In one of the final and most powerful scenes of The Look of Silence, Adi is threatened by the son of one of his brother’s murderers, Amir Hasan. After showing the son footage of Hasan proudly re-enacting beheadings at Snake River, the son grows visibly agitated before cutting off the interview and threatening to call the authorities. Despite his mother’s tearful apology to Adi, the son would prefer to maintain his wilful blindness to the past, confident that he would receive official backing for his denial.
It is not surprising, of course, that children of perpetrators wish to preserve the good names of their parents. It is also not surprising that many would choose not to believe that their parents could have been involved in such horrific violence. But The Look of Silence, like The Act of Killing before it, has exposed the Achilles’ heel of perpetrator narratives. Official accounts of the killings depend on a continual justification of the violence. They fall apart as soon as the cold-blooded nature of the violence is made explicit. Ironically, it is these ageing perpetrators – often frustrated at what they feel is a lack of recognition – who are doing the most to destabilise official versions of the genocide.
The mechanisms of terror that have kept the genocide alive can be dismantled. In The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer asks us to reflect on the terrible silences that have allowed murderers to masquerade as victims while their victims have lived out their lives in fear. In doing so, he also reveals the critical vulnerability of the official propaganda account.
The Look of Silence will be screening at MIFF on Sunday, 2 August at 1.30pm at the Treasury Theatre; Sunday, 9 August at 1.30pm at the Comedy Theatre; and Wednesday, 12 August at 9pm at the Comedy Theatre. Joshua Oppenheimer will be speaking, via Skype, with the film’s main subject, Adi Rukun, on Sunday, 9 August at The Wheeler Centre at 6pm. This MIFF event will be hosted by John Safran and is co-sponsored by the Indonesia Forum and the Herb Feith Foundation.
Joshua Oppenheimer will also be speaking at the University of Melbourne on Tuesday, 11 August, 1- 2.30pm at ‘the open stage’, 757 Swanston St (corner of Grattan St). This event will be hosted by Jason Di Rosso (The Final Cut, ABC Radio National). It is sponsored by the Indonesia Forum, the Herb Feith Foundation and the Asia History Hub. It is a free event, so arrive early to guarantee your seat.