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In 'Look of Silence,' Relatives of Indonesian Genocide Victims Seek Answers

  • Carolyn Weaver

Two award-winning documentaries about the unreconciled history of mass killings in Indonesia 50 years ago are leading to calls for change in that country, and for the U.S. to apologize for its own part in supporting a genocidal regime.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 film, "The Act of Killing," explored the legacy of government-led massacres of communists, trade-unionists, ethnic Chinese and others in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966.

“There was a right-wing military coup, where the government of Sukarno was overthrown,” Oppenheimer said. “This was supported by most of the Western world, including the United States, and to effect this, somewhere between half a million and 2.5 million people were killed in less than six months.”

End of military dictatorship

Even 16 years after the end of Suharto’s military dictatorship, the former paramilitary death-squad killers and their protégés remain powerful and respected.

“And people remain afraid of them,” Oppenheimer said. “It is as though the Nazis had won World War II, and you went there 40 years later to find them still in power, as if the rest of the world had celebrated the Holocaust while it was taking place.”

The 40 or so killers that Oppenheimer interviewed for the Oscar-nominated "The Act of Killing" boasted with seeming pride about the murders.

Among them were Hollywood movie buffs who spent months reenacting the butchery for the camera, imitating the tropes and styles of their favorite gangster movies and Westerns.

“When you brought two perpetrators together who didn’t know one another, they would boast in even more flamboyant ways, [as if] they were reading essentially from a shared script,” Oppenheimer said.

“I had to let go of this reassuring hope that there’s something fundamentally different about these men. I had to recognize that if there’s insanity here, if there’s monstrosity, it’s political, it’s collective," he added.

Victims' families

Oppenheimer’s second Indonesia film, "The Look of Silence," now showing in the United States, won the top prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival.

It focuses on those he originally met and began filming 12 years ago: family members of victims, still living in fear, stigmatized and banned from many professions.

The film’s protagonist is Adi Rukun, a quiet optometrist in his early 40s, born after the murder of his older brother Ramli by a death squad composed of teachers from the local elementary school.

Another brother overheard them planning, Oppenheimer said.

“[He was] at lunch in the recess at school, and heard his teachers saying ‘tonight we’re going to kill Ramli.’ And he had to go home that night and tell his mother what his teachers said," he said.

"Ramli was indeed killed that night. And the next day, what did she have to do? She had to send her other children back to that school to be taught by her son’s murderers," Oppenheimer said.

Even now, Oppenheimer said, Indonesian schoolchildren are taught that the mass killings were necessary and patriotic.

'Heroic extermination'

“It’s not talked about as a genocide, it’s talked about as the heroic extermination of the Indonesian left, and what’s taught is that they somehow deserved what happened to them,” Oppenheimer said.

In "The Look of Silence," Adi Rukun gently but persistently questions the men who killed his brother and others like him, even in the face of their rising anger and veiled threats.

“If I came to you like this during the military dictatorship, what would you have done to me?” he asks one.

“You can’t imagine what would have happened,” the man replies. “If you keep making an issue of the past, it will definitely happen again,” says another.

When the film came out last year, Rukun and his family had to be relocated to another part of Indonesia.


The Indonesian crew on "The Look of Silence," as on "The Act of Killing," chose to be listed only as “anonymous” in the closing credits.

Oppenheimer, an American who lives in Denmark, has received death threats and said he cannot safely visit Indonesia again.

But the two films have reverberated in the country, leading to open discussions for the first time about the killings and the culture of silence and fear they engendered.

“The public is now talking about these things. "The Act of Killing" began its life in secret, but ultimately has screened thousands of times across the country," he said.

"It was online for free for Indonesians, and was downloaded millions of times. When it was nominated for an Academy Award, the president’s spokesman said, ‘Look, we know what happened in 1965 was a crime against humanity, and we need reconciliation, we just don’t need a film to make us do this.’ Yet it was a wonderful moment, because it was the first time someone at this level had said this was wrong,” Oppenheimer said.

Premiered in Jakarta

In contrast to the samizdat-like first screenings of "The Act of Killing," he said, "The Look of Silence" premiered in Jakarta at a screening advertised on banners, and hosted by Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission and the Jakarta Arts Council.

Major Indonesian media outlets named it the top film of 2014, Oppenheimer said.

“The government also has – I think in response to this debate that 'The Look of Silence' really triggered [although] they haven’t said it – has introduced a truth and reconciliation bill," he said.

"It’s woefully inadequate at this point, but human rights organizations and the public and media, now that they’re talking about this, are easily able to point out its inadequacies and to rally for a stronger bill," Oppenheimer added.

In the United States, Democratic Senator Tom Udall has introduced a resolution calling for the U.S. to disclose all documents relating to American support for the Indonesian military coup and genocidal regime.

The resolution notes that the U.S. gave the Indonesian army “financial, military, and intelligence support during the period of the mass killings, and did so aware that such killings were taking place as recorded in partially declassified documents,” and notes that aid to the Suharto regime continued for more than 30 years, “despite ongoing crimes against humanity.”

Udall reportedly plans to reintroduce the resolution in the current congressional session.

October 1st will mark the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the mass killings in Indonesia.