By Jake Stickler, Staff Writer
In September of 1965, an attempted coup against the Indonesian government sparked a mass outcry among the population directed at the country’s Communist Party, named by the government as the likely perpetrators. This outcry soon turned violent, and over the next year, an extremely brutal purge of suspected communists and ethnic Chinese took place, carried out by both the army and locally-organized paramilitary death squads often led by hired thugs and criminals. By the end of 1966, between 500,000 and a million individuals were dead (the numbers are murky – some estimates go as high as three million).
Documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer has been investigating this atrocity at the microcosmic level for the past decade, searching out the stories of individuals on both sides of the conflict; the slayers and the survivors. His 2013 film The Act of Killing introduces us to Anwar, a jovial man and former death squad leader who claims to have personally killed over a thousand people. It follows him as he graphically recreates events that he took part in with the aid of Hollywood-style effects and prosthetics. As gut-wrenching as these tableaus are, the truly horrifying aspect is the fact that many of the killers, now in their 60s and 70s, have maintained and in some cases elevated their statuses in society since the purge. They are national heroes, politicians, and talk show fixtures. This has occurred as a result of a kind of collective suppression; those who are too young to remember don’t ask about it, and those who do remember don’t talk about it.
Oppenheimer’s new documentary The Look of Silence takes as its focal point an optometrist named Adi who was born in 1968, after the violence claimed the life of his brother in an unimaginably grotesque fashion. Through taped interviews conducted by Oppenheimer, Adi learns the facts surrounding his brother’s death, and also that those involved are his neighbors, community leaders, and even his own uncle. Looking for answers, not vengeance, Adi sets out to confront these men, to ask them what drove them to kill so wantonly and how they manage to live with the knowledge of what they’ve done.
What shocks in these interactions is not just the brutality (this wasn’t the bureaucratic, mechanized killing of the
Nazi regime, for example, but was accomplished face-to-face, often by people acquainted with the victims, and often with knives and makeshift garrotes) but also the glibness with which they recount their deeds, almost a nostalgic reminiscing. As Adi grows more persistent in his questioning, however, cracks begin to appear in the façade as the interviewees become confrontational and withdrawn, obviously feeling the weight of their actions when faced with the presence of a victim. Adi, too, becomes concerned for his safety, refusing to give out personal information for fear of reprisal for the apparent crime of broaching the subject. At one point his mother insists that he begin secreting a knife or club to these interviews. This bravery is awe-inspiring, and extends to those behind the camera as well; a large portion of the crew, including a co-director, chooses to be credited as “Anonymous.”
Though we are fifty years removed from the events described in this film, it carries a forceful urgency and relevance because history, as the old saw goes, is doomed to be repeated if not remembered. And for the story of a horror such as this to be voluntarily as much as institutionally repressed, the very act of remembering is of immeasurable importance. This is a film that is not easily forgotten.
Jake Strickler will regularly be reviewing films that are relevant to the Thunderbird environment for Das Tor. He can be reached at email@example.com if you’d like to vent or go to the movies with him.
Movie stills from Final Cut for Real Productions.