Opening Indonesia's Eyes In 'The Look Of Silence'
American filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer traveled to Indonesia in 2001 to make a documentary about plantation workers. What he found was the legacy of genocide. The documentary he made, The Act of Killing, looked at life in the country since a 1965 coup led to the slaughter of between 500,000 and 2 million people by paramilitary death squads, in the name of stamping out communism.
That film told the story through the killers' eyes. Now, Oppenheimer is back with a sequel that follows one of the victims, as he confronts the men who murdered his brother.
Oppenheimer spent nearly a decade making The Act of Killing. He discovered that in the years since the genocide, former death squad members had become anti-Communist heroes in the eyes of some — rising to become community leaders and, in one case, even a national legislator.
"I had this feeling that I'd wandered into a place where killers have won," Oppenheimer says. "In fact, I felt like I'd wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power."
The person who carries the story in The Look of Silence is 46-year-old optician Adi Rukun. That's not his real name. As he says in the film: "Please understand, I must hide my identity because the killers are still in power and still consider themselves heroes."
Last September, Adi Rukun traveled to the Toronto International Film Festival with Oppenheimer, who served as his translator. He told the audience there that ever since the genocide, the perpetrators have shown no remorse.
"The victims' families, our families, were regularly taunted by the perpetrators and their families," he said. "So they would talk openly about the killings in front of us and even though we were the relatives of their own victims, they weren't reluctant to speak about it. And they and their relatives would taunt us for being their victims."
The Look of Silence intersperses Adi Rukun's interviews with some of the killers, with him staring silently at footage Oppenheimer shot — including of two men enthusiastically acting out how they killed Adi's brother.
"There's a scene in The Look of Silence where two aging death squad leaders take me down to a place on a riverbank where they helped kill 10,500 people," Oppenheimer says. "And they take turns re-enacting the roles of victim and perpetrator, boastfully describing what they did, and stop to pose for photographs at the end. And that awful afternoon of filming for me is the genesis of my last two films."
Challenges To The Story
Recent political change in Indonesia has allowed challenges to the story of heroic killers saving the nation. Northwestern University political scientist Jeffrey Winters, who's spent years researching the events in Indonesia following the 1965 coup, says Oppenheimer's two films have been part of that change.
"The pendulum is swinging now in Indonesia in the direction of asking, 'How did we kill all these people and why did we kill them? And how have we lived side by side without confronting this historical horror as a people?' " Winters says. "And that process is underway now and there's no doubt that Joshua's movies are moving that process forward."
Oppenheimer and his subject were able to ask those questions, in part, because of Adi Rukun's job.
"My job is working as an optician," Rukun explained at the film festival. "It's my career. I love the work because I can ask a lot of questions, mainly about the past. It's something I feel I need to know, because my older brother was murdered. But not only my older brother. In my neighborhood, in my village, many, many people were killed. And so I'm trying to understand what happened there and why everybody is as they are, why people are afraid, why people are silent."
For Oppenheimer, Adi Rukun's profession became the central metaphor for The Look of Silence.
"Adi's correcting the vision, both literally and metaphorically, of people who are willfully blind," Oppenheimer told the audience at the Toronto festival. "And the film is about willful blindness and the willful blindness that underpins silence. And in that sense, we come full circle to the title.
"The film is about looking at silence and the look of silence, the blindness that underpins silence. And then the look, of course, maybe what most poignantly the title refers to is the look on Adi's face as he's watching the testimony of the men who killed his brother."
In the film, Adi Rukun says, "If they felt regret, we could forgive them. After all, we're neighbors."
It's a tiny glimmer of hope.
But he still can't use his real name.
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