Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence returns to the slaughter of around a million supposed Communists in Indonesia in 1965, explored in his disturbing Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing. Whereas that film concentrated on the perpetrators, Oppenheimer’s focus this time is a family who lost a member in the purge, and have suffered in silence ever since.
This is the documentary he always wanted to make. However, when he first started speaking to survivors in the plantation belt outside Medan, in North Sumatra, the workers were warned off by threats from the army. Unable to co-operate themselves, they encouraged Oppenheimer to meet the killers instead.
These men lived without fear. Hailed as heroic defenders of the nation – a narrative, Oppenheimer shows in The Look of Silence, still being taught in schools – they had no shame and, in encounter after encounter, boastfully recounted their grisly atrocities to him in horrifying detail.
Out of these encounters came The Act of Killing, which helped to foster a new openness in the way the mainstream media in Indonesia talked about the events of 1965 and their legacy. The government, though, resisted until the Oscar nomination gave them no choice.
“They said, ‘Look, we understand the killings were a crime against humanity and we will deal with them in our own time,’” says Oppenheimer. “Now the government’s said it’s wrong, how long can they continue to teach history the way we see them do it in The Look of Silence?”
That history is explicitly challenged in the new film by Adi, an optometrist in his mid-forties, whose brother, Ramli, was murdered by a death squad in North Sumatra, two years before he was born.
Oppenheimer first heard about Ramli from the plantation workers. His name “was virtually synonymous with the whole massacre”, he says, because despite being badly wounded, Ramli managed to escape his captors and return to his parents’ house. Tragically, he was recaptured and left for dead in a creek, from where he was heard screaming for help. “That led passers-by to gather. Eventually the death squad came back and killed him. They left his body in the plantation. So his death had witnesses and in that sense was irrefutable.”
Adi was keenly interested in what Oppenheimer was trying to do. “Over the seven years of filming with the perpetrators, 2003-2010, he would watch as much as there was time for,” says the director. “He would visit us in our house in Medan to view rushes from The Act of Killing, and he would watch it with a mixture of devastation, curiosity, anger and distress.”
Oppenheimer always knew there was another film to be made. But also that he’d have to move fast and shoot it before The Act of Killing was released, because afterwards it would be too dangerous for him to return to Indonesia. So, after he’d finished editing The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer set about filming meetings between Adi and some of the perpetrators he’d filmed years earlier. These included Inong Sungai, one of Ramli’s killers, who talks about drinking the blood of his victims to stave off madness, and Amir Siahaan, the commander who oversaw the death squads where the murder took place.
Concerned the men might tip each other off, Oppenheimer worked quickly, filming one confrontation per day. He’d then spend the evenings between meetings with Anwar Congo, the greying killer from The Act of Killing. “I believed that if perpetrators were speaking to each other, Anwar would be told first because everybody knew he had been working with me for years. I know Anwar well enough that I would be able to tell if something was wrong, and we could stop the confrontations then and there.”
He let Adi decide whether to reveal his connection to Ramli. Most important was that the perpetrators voluntarily told Adi what they’d told him in 2003/2004. “He had viewed my old footage, so he could’ve confronted them saying, ‘I saw what you said to Joshua,’ but the perpetrators would feel trapped. It was important they know that they told Adi what they did.”
Adi doesn’t want revenge but to see some sign of remorse. Instead, his dignified challenges to the official history and taboo-breaking accusations of murder are met with anger, defensiveness and threats.
In his last confrontation, with the widow of one of Ramli’s killers and her sons, Adi’s quest for some kind of closure is snuffed out as he is stonewalled by the woman’s denials about her husband’s guilt, despite Oppenheimer’s filmed proof and a book the killer wrote about his gruesome activities.
“That’s an important scene,” says Oppenheimer, “because it’s saying to viewers who want a comfortable ending, ‘No, there is a mess lurking under the surface.’ It exposes the tension and fear that cuts across Indonesian society, the abyss of an unspeakable past that divides neighbour from neighbour.”
These tensions and divisions were evident when the film opened in Indonesia. Unlike the release of The Act of Killing, which had begun with closed events, the first screenings of The Look of Silence were sponsored by government bodies (The Jakarta Arts Council and the National Human Rights Commission) and open to the public. However, as the film spread, there was a backlash from the army.
“They organised thugs to threaten to attack the screenings,” says Oppenheimer, “and then used this as an excuse to demand screenings be cancelled. Only when university students in Yogyakarta defied police orders to cancel the screenings, barricading themselves into their campus, did this intimidation end.”
He is clear about what this means: “This is evidence of the army and police’s opposition to addressing the past. This opposition is shared among all who have enriched themselves through corruption and plunder, because they fear that as the truth of their plunder is exposed, people will question the legitimacy of their spoils.”
After shooting The Look of Silence, Adi and his wife and children had to “move thousands of kilometres to protect their safety,” says Oppenheimer, showing that despite some progress in the public discourse, “little has changed”.
The Look of Silence ends messily, but it is truthful. And Oppenheimer hopes that by witnessing – or more to the point, feeling – the truth, viewers will have their eyes, hearts and minds opened further.
“I am confident any human being watching is likely to be touched by Adi and his parents’ experience of 50 years of fear and silence, and even viewers from the army, or from perpetrators’ families, will feel in their bodies how torn the social fabric is, and how urgently needed are truth, reconciliation, and some form of justice and healing.”
• The Look of Silence is in cinemas from 12 June