Mar 20, 2018 Last Updated 7:10 AM, Mar 17, 2018


Film review: Refusing to forget

The Look of Silence exposes the festering wound of impunity

Jess Melvin

If The Act of Killing was a wild fever dream, The Look of Silence is the next morning. Indonesia and the rest of the world has woken with a throbbing headache, unable to retreat back into delirium. In The Act of Killing, Suharto’s killers boast proudly and unchallenged about their actions, growing ever grander in their stories until the central protagonist of that film, Anwar Congo, reacts. In the second film, the narrative of the killers is unsettled. With no fanning ostrich feathers and make-up to disguise the truth of their actions (to themselves, if not others), in The Look of Silence the killers become defensive and then openly threatening, as the truth of their crimes is revealed to them.

The most shocking aspect of Oppenheimer’s latest offering is not the stories of the unending killings – the throat slitting, the disembowelling, the cutting off of penises and women’s breasts or the drinking of blood to stave off madness (one to two glasses from the throat of ones victims), described by one former death squad member as salty and sweet. Rather it is the audacity displayed by Adi Rukun, whose older brother Ramli was killed by the military sponsored Komando Aksi death squad at Sungai Ular in North Sumatra, when he looks calmly into the eyes of his brother’s killers and calls them mass murderers. 

Adi Rukun is a travelling optician, who goes from village to village testing people’s vision. This job involves visiting the men who killed his brother. As he fixes his optical trial lens frame before their eyes and methodically adjusts the strength of the lenses until they can see clearly, he asks them to recall their memories about that time. Not knowing that Adi is the brother of one of their victims, they speak openly and proudly about their actions. Adi allows the men to state their own positions, and hence to thoroughly implicate themselves, before revealing to them his relationship to Ramli. As his lenses bring clarity of sight, Adi demands that neither perpetrator nor victim hide behind platitude or generalisation. The ensuing encounters are deeply revealing and sobering.

Subdistrict Komando Aksi Commander, Amir Siahaan, who oversaw the death squads at Sungai Ular, is initially keen to tell Adi how he has grown rich and powerful as a result of his role in the killings. He describes this period as ‘our historic struggle’. ‘If you do good, you’re rewarded’, Amir explains. When Adi tells Amir that his brother was killed and that Amir is himself responsible, Amir’s mouth falls open. He attempts to absolve himself of responsibility by explaining that he was acting under the direction of the military and had the protection of the government. Adi calmly replies: ‘Every killer I meet, none of them feel responsible. They don’t even feel regret. I don’t mean to offend you, but I think you’re avoiding your moral responsibility’. It is an excruciating moment. In explicitly calling Amir a murderer, Adi has transgressed all norms of discourse surrounding the genocide. Amir’s face sets into a cold stare.

‘If I came to you like this during the military dictatorship what would you have done to me?’ Adi now clearly shaken, asks Amir. ‘You can’t imagine what would have happened’, Amir replies very slowly. No longer an old man proudly retelling the tales of his youthful exploits, but deadly serious and threatening. After all, as director Oppenheimer reminds us, in Indonesia the killers have won. Indeed, some perpetrators feel they are not receiving the recognition they deserve.

Another of Ramli’s killers, Amir Hasan, was so concerned his story would not be told he wrote a short story about his experiences named ‘Bloody Dew’, decorated with sketches of the killings, which appears in the film. Military men and members of the death squads stare back from its pages, frozen in time as they stab, hack at and decapitate their victims. This story includes a detailed account of how Amir and his fellow death squad members brutally killed Ramli, who died a slow and public death. Amir then proceeds to re-enact the murder for Oppenheimer’s camera with his fellow death squad member, Inong. Using sticks as knives, Amir and Inong compete to outdo each other as they demonstrate the systematic nature of the killings at Sungai Ular. Amir and Inong are proud of their actions and consider themselves to be heroes. They complete the shoot by posing for a photo at the killing site, holding their fingers up in a ‘v’ sign as they grin at the camera. It is an image eerily similar to the photos of Lynndie England posing with her victims that sparked the 2003 Abu Ghraib scandal surrounding American mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners. Only in this case, cold-blooded murder continues to masquerade as patriotic pageant.

Adi tells his mother, Kartini, he could forgive his brother’s killers if they would show remorse for their actions. It is precisely this that he does not find. Instead, upon hearing that Adi is the brother of one of their victims, they become increasingly aggressive. Adi uses this aggression to fuel his determination; refusing to break away from their cold stares as he demands that his brother and other victims be recognised as human. Kartini, meanwhile, responds to Adi’s revelations about the complicity of a family member in Ramli’s death with anger, her pain and resentment still palpable after fifty years.

Oppenheimer has observed that ‘making any film about survivors of genocide is to walk into a minefield of clichés, most of which serve to create a heroic (if not saintly) protagonist with whom we can identify, thereby offering the false reassurance that, in the moral catastrophe of atrocity, we are nothing like perpetrators’. Through his sympathetic and powerful portrayal of Kartini, Oppenheimer refuses us this luxury, giving lie to the Indonesian government’s claim that ‘organic reconciliation’ has occurred at the local level. As Kartini’s bitter anger demonstrates, the wound of the genocide remains raw and the continued impunity of perpetrators only serves to cause further hurt. If Kartini’s hatred for her son’s killers seems shocking, it is even more shocking to realise that it is the complicity of the international community that is in no small part responsible for the blatant impunity enjoyed by Ramli’s killers.

This October, Suharto’s killers will have enjoyed half a century of complete impunity for their actions. In their communities they are used to being feared and held in awe for their participation in the killings. Unfortunately, this situation does not look likely to change any time soon. Despite initial optimism that Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, would use his position as president to champion human rights in Indonesia, he has spent his first months in office trashing these hopes. The Indonesian Human Rights Commission’s (Komnas HAM) recommendation that an official investigation be carried out to determine whether crimes against humanity were perpetrated remains stalled; the Indonesian Film Censorship Board declared a ban on public screenings of The Look of Silence in East Java in December; while in February the police stood back as survivor groups were physically threatened in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra and Solo, Central Java.

The greatest irony is that it is perhaps the perpetrators themselves, like Amir Siahaan, Amir Hasan and Inong in The Look of Silence, and Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry in The Act of Killing, that are doing the most damage to the official propaganda account of the genocide, which has consistently sought to depict the killings as the result of a ‘spontaneous’ uprising by ‘the people’.  So confident of their own impunity, they have failed to realise that this official propaganda version depends on denial of the systematic nature of the violence. Having exposed themselves as murderers they dig an even deeper hole by attempting to transfer responsibility for their actions to their military commanders.

The Look of Silence is a devastating film. It tells us that awareness is not enough. It exposes the deep traumas that underpin present day Indonesia and demonstrates that coming to terms with this past will demand a reckoning at every level of Indonesian society from the village level to the very top. The release of The Look of Silence to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the genocide is a timely reminder that the international community must also play a role in demanding truth and justice for this horrific crime that has so far been written off as Cold War collateral damage.

The Look of Silence is an essential companion to The Act of Killing that will play a vital educational role in advocating on behalf of truth and justice for 1965. The killers claim that opening up this past will tear open a wound that has now healed, but denial only lets the wound continue to fester.

Jess Melvin ( completed her PhD, ‘Mechanics of Mass Murder: How the Indonesian Military Initiated and Implemented the Indonesian Genocide, The Case of Aceh’, at The University of Melbourne in 2014.

Inside Indonesia 119: Jan-Mar 2015{jcomments on}
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Film Review: Connecting with killers

The Look of Silence is a conversation and confrontation between perpetrators and survivors of the violence, but most of all it is about connection

Vannessa Hearman

In his latest film, The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous and their team, turn their lens to the story of Adi Rukun, a young optician and his family living in North Sumatra. Adi was born following the grisly and slow murder of his brother – trade unionist, Ramli – at the hands of the Sungai Ular (Snake River) militias in 1965. It was up to these militias to pick up detainees, well-known leftist activists in the area, and where required, to dispatch them on the banks of the river by slitting their throats. The circumstances of Ramli’s extremely violent death are never fully revealed in the film, which is in some ways merciful. This is the story of a family in Sumatra upon whom the loss of a loved one fifty years ago has left an indelible imprint. 

If The Act of Killing was larger than life, loud and bombastic on screen and attention-grabbing with phantasmagorical images and a parade of young beautiful women engaged in a spot of bizarre filmmaking, this follow-up offering from Oppenheimer and Anonymous is quite the opposite. 

It is a small, quiet, meditative film with extraordinary poignancy and pathos. The colours are rich and saturated, such as the scene in which Adi’s mother, Kartini, slices vegetables. In a quiet moment between mother and son, Adi asks her how she feels when she sees the people who were responsible for her son’s death. She answers simply and honestly that she hates them. While doing so, she squats on the ground, methodically slicing the vegetable and is bathed in the orange light of late afternoon. Stripped of the bright lights and loud noises of The Act of Killing, this film amplifies the human emotion through this sparseness.  The sense of loss is all the more real. Yet the bright colours in the scene, such as the red of Kartini’s housedress, speak of the vitality of life coursing through this film and through the survivors of the violence. This family has survived and rebuilt their lives, all the while making compromises to be able to live in the small town. Such compromises include holding one’s tongue and being resigned to a spartan life, in spite of the hatred she feels towards the perpetrators.

Kartini is the primary carer for her husband who suffers from senility. She is old herself and is exhausted from the daily routine of bathing and feeding him. The film focuses on this small cast of Adi’s parents, Adi, and some of his children, who appear in the film sharing tender moments with their father. Beyond this tight-knit circle lies a small group of elderly perpetrators of the violence, who along with their own family members, alternately seek to hide facts, to obfuscate, to express sorrow and to rise in anger in response to Adi’s persistent questioning about 1965 and the effects of Ramli’s killing on his family. 

Adi’s work, fitting spectacles for the elderly, brings him to the streets and laneways of the town and to meeting these men in their homes. He plucks up the courage to ask them some pointed questions and to tell them that his brother was one of those killed. The responses these men and their families give are fascinating, sometimes horrifying. For some, the visit of Adi does not ameliorate their difficulties but creates new ones, in the memories he brings to the surface. Not all perpetrators remember willingly. 

The Look of Silence provides space for the interplay of voices between victims and perpetrators. Their words, anguish, indifference and emotions joust, leap and spar on the screen. At times this makes for uncomfortable viewing. But as is always the case with people’s stories, one is captivated long after the last word is spoken. 

This film also presents the complexity of the interaction between perpetrators and survivors. Survivors are not confined to silence. Perpetrators are on the back foot at times. At other times, they swagger and almost leap with joy as they slide down the river embankment to demonstrate to Oppenheimer how they slit their victims’ throats. This complexity is invaluable to understand the nuanced interaction between the oppressor and the oppressed that takes place, sometimes on a daily basis. Survivors are shaped by their experiences, but they also go on, making new lives and new meanings of their circumstances. In spite of their intense grief, Ramli’s parents went on to have another son, Adi. During the New Order regime, Adi’sfamily secretly prayed at Ramli’s grave, located in what became a palm oil plantation. They pretended to be plantation workers and always made quick, furtive visits. Now they are freed from these constraints after the demise of the Suharto regime. They have adapted to new circumstances. 

As in The Act of Killing, a central theme of this film is the larger picture of impunity in Indonesia when it comes to the anti-communist violence. Adi’s family continues to chafe at the impunity which has choked them for decades and which in turn led Adi to confront the perpetrators. A member of parliament maintains the killings were necessary. Here Oppenheimer et al could have explored how Ramli posed a threat to the new world Suharto was constructing in 1966 with the inauguration of the New Order regime. How did a trade unionist in the plantation sector in North Sumatra pose a threat to the Western investment-driven, capitalist agenda the regime was implementing in Indonesia? Why was his murder necessary? For viewers not familiar with the Indonesian case study and the background story of Adi and Ramli’s family, the lack of a strong narrative arc in the film is not helpful. Rather, the film focuses on the conversations between Adi and the perpetrators, and is preoccupied with long takes of the town and of Adi’s family going about their daily business. In that way, the film shows a slice of small town life in North Sumatra. But it does not necessarily explain to the viewers the political composition of the town and the impact this had on the violence there. 

We can only speculate on the significance of Ramli’s murder for his family. We can empathise with them, as we see his father dragging himself around on his hands, disorientated and talking to himself. Ramli, while absent, is represented through Adi’s dogged quest to demand answers from those involved in his killing. One can only be moved by Adi’s quiet dedication to risking his life by simply asking questions. He seeks to make human connections to those who took his brother’s life in the most painful ways possible. Ramli’s murder was dehumanising, but in forging this connection Adi seeks to leave us not with despair, but with a sense of hope. 

The Look of Silence (2014), Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer & Ass. Dir. Anonymous; Final Cut for Real;


Vannessa Hearman ( lectures in Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney. Her research deals with the 1965-66 killings, memory, activism and social change

Inside Indonesia 119: Jan-Mar 2015
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