Nov 20, 2018 Last Updated 6:53 AM, Nov 20, 2018

Human Rights

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; thelookofsilence.com

 

Vannessa Hearman (vannessa.hearman@sydney.edu.au) 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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Silencing The Look of Silence

There are some ominous signs that justice for past crimes, including the 1965 mass killings, is off the government’s agenda

Grace Leksana

To commemorate Human Rights Day on 10 December 2014, the National Commission of Human Rights and film producers, Final Cut for Real, organised ‘Indonesia Watch: The Look of Silence’, a series of screenings of the second film from acclaimed director, Joshua Oppenheimer. Following on from his first film, The Act of Killing, this film tells a story of the brother of a victim of the 1965 mass killings, who later confronts his brother’s murderer. 

On 10 December, film screenings and discussions were held in 457 locations across Indonesia, from Aceh to Papua. All event locations were published on the film’s website. The film production team and organisers of this event, might never have imagined that under the hopeful democratic government of Joko Widodo anything would impede or disrupt the screenings. Unfortunately, this is precisely what happened, with the most intense attacks taking place in Malang, East Java. 

The chronology

In Malang and Batu, East Java, the film was due to screen across several locations: at the Faculty of Cultural Studies at Brawijaya University; the Faculty of Social and Political Science at Brawijaya University; Machung University; Kalimetro Community; Warung Unyil; and Omah Munir. Of these locations, only the event at Omah Munir was successfully held. The film commenced screening at three locations before being interrupted by the military or mass organisations and was unable to continue. At the remaining four locations, the events were cancelled due to prior intimidation or bans from local authorities such as the university rector.

On 9 December, when two Brawijaya University students were questioned by the military and asked to cancel the screening. In Warung Kelir, organisers were interrogated and threatened by a group of men from the non-government organisation (NGO) Pribumi and members of Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth), who forced the cancellation of the screening. The reason they gave was that the film is a threat to the nation’s unity and does not consider the victims of the Indonesian communist Party’s (PKI) own cruelty. Intimidation of the Warung Kelir organisers continued after 10 December and led to the cancellation of several screenings planned for other days at other locations. A public letter in support of the film released by the National Commission for Human Rights on 12 December, made little difference. 

On 17 December, a screening organised by the Malang branch of the Indonesian Islamic Students Movement (PMII) was stopped by local religious leaders.  On the same day, a similar incident took place in Yogyakarta, where a screening was organised by the Student’s Press Organisation (Sinesta) at the Faculty of Social and Political Science, University of Gajah Mada. On this occasion, following the disruption, the university issued a statement condemning the intimidation, saying it was inhibiting intellectual debate in universities and reiterating that the event was not intended to spread communism. 

On 21 December, Pemuda Pancasila held a discussion in Malang at which they attempted to analyse the film from the perspective of national unity. The outcome of their discussion was a four-point statement: Pemuda Pancasila loves the wholeness of the nation; national unity should not be negotiated; there will be no more screenings of the film The Look of Silence; and The Look of Silence is against the law. They also stated plans to sue the director and producers of the film for violating the Film Law and Government Regulation on the Film Censorship Board (LSF), on the grounds that the film is endangering national unity. 

On 23 December, the Malang Peace Alliance sent a delegation to the city police to file a protest against the acts of intimidation and disruptions of the screenings and discussions. The police chief commissioner responded to their complaint by stating that he must first clarify the film’s status with theLSF. He told the group that if the LSF decided that the film did not pass censorship, then Malang police would themselves take action against future screenings. Until then, the chief commissioner stated, the police do not have any objections to public showing of the film, so long as such events did not provoke conflict. Less than a week later, on 29 December, the LSF issued a ban on public screenings of the film, although it would appear that such a ban is only in place in East Java. 

The situation became even more peculiar when on 26 February 2015 the district military command in Semarang, Central Java, screened The Look of Silence for its soldiers. Photos of the activity was uploaded on their website, which described the activity as an exercise in ‘evaluation and monitoring… to prevent potential conflict in society’. 

The absurdity

The startling thing about the incidents described above is their sheer absurdity. The military involvement in actions to stop screenings of the film was clearly not an instruction from the central Jakarta office. Local activists speak of Malang’s particular role as a military centre in East Java and point to the fact that just a few days after the screenings, on 15 December, Malang was to host the ceremony marking an anniversary of the Indonesian Army. When asked about the reasons for their actions to stop the film, Commander of Military District 0833/ Bhaladika Jaya, Lieutenant Colonel Gunawan Wijaya told a Tempo journalist, ‘Communist ideology should not live in this country’.  Given that the statement were made by authorities who had not yet seen the entire film, this simply did not make sense. 

Meanwhile, following the film screening in Semarang in February, Lieutenant colonel Infantry M. Taufiq Zega told Tempo, ‘the activity was not a public screening, but part of instruction-giving activity to members of the District Military Command 0733 BS Semarang’. As time went on, it became clearer that despite previous disruptions of screening and the LSF ban, there are no solid reasons behind the protests. Statements such as ‘endangering the nation’s unity’, ‘preventing conflicts’ and ‘preventing the resurrection of communism’ lack deep analysis. These repressive actions in support of the official version of 1965 were based on fear of imaginary conflicts and chaos after the screenings. There can be several explanations for this fear. For members of mass organisations, such as Pemuda Pancasila, they felt the need to rebuild their image after The Act of Killing, which exposed their involvement in the violence and killings. For society, their involvement could be a result of intimidation from the military, or due to a fear of communism within the collective memory left over from the New Order. There are many groups with a vested interest in maintaining the New Order’s version: that the victims became victims because of their involvement with PKI. 

The complexity of history

The 1965 violence itself was a complex ‘event’. How it is remembered in Indonesia today, fifty years on, is just as complex. Until now this remembering has been done by forcing a single version of history and silencing others, but there were always contradictions and untold truths just below the surface. Many people received the state’s version of 1965, whilst knowing that mass violence happened against people who were accused of being PKI members and who belonged to organisations affiliated with the party. Meanwhile, others (especially Indonesia’s younger generation) only know of the 30th of September Movement (G30S) and simply have no knowledge of the mass violence. What is needed now is the opportunity to face the truths of 1965 in its complexity, and to do away with the perception that it is about the state versus the victims. 

For this reason films like The Look of Silence must be made, not only to bring the victim’s stories to the surface, but also to dare us to uncover more of its complexities.  By preventing these screenings and events, the authorities and organisations like Pemuda Pancasila, are stymieing this search to uncover the truths of this period in Indonesia’s past. 

The National Commission of Human Rights has described The Look of Silence as part of the effort towards national reconciliation. However, it is alarmingly clear that we remain far from reconciliation. When the state has not yet acted to address past human rights abuses, it can at least ensure that Indonesians are able to talk about 1965 openly and without fear. 

Grace Leksana (grace_leksana@yahoo.com) is a researcher of The Indonesian Institute of Social History, Jakarta and the Center of Culture and Frontier Studies, Brawijaya University, Malang. She is based in Malang.

 

Inside Indonesia 119: Jan-Mar 2015{jcomments on}
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