Apr 14, 2024 Last Updated 4:19 AM, Apr 12, 2024

Film review: Refusing to forget

Published: Mar 23, 2015
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 (jmelvin@unimelb.edu.au) 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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