In 2013, I heard about and finally saw a documentary called The Act of Killing, which interviewed death-squad leaders from Indonesia asking them to recreate their mass killings in whatever cinematic genre they wanted. It was strangely beautiful at times but utterly bizarre and confounding in how willing the perpetrators of these mass killings were willing to tell their stories and chilling in the details with which they recounted these horrors. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, but lost to Twenty Feet From Stardom, a film I did not see but which still felt like a robbery as The Act of Killing felt like important documentary filmmaking of the highest order. Director Joshua Oppenheimer has followed up The Act of Killing with The Look of Silence, a documentary that is more straightforward in its narrative and is just as sobering and chilling in its details, and feels just as important.
Indonesia is a unique country. Consisting of several islands, it is the 4th largest population in the world, behind China, India, and the United States. It is the largest Muslim country, with Buddhist and Hindu roots, and even Christian influences. In 1965, the country’s government and military executed a anti-communist purge, sparked by a failed coup attempt, which resulted in the killings of anywhere from 500,000 to 1,000,000 people or more were slaughtered from 1965 to 1966.
One of the families impacted by these mass killings is that of Adi Rukun, a middle-aged optometrist who goes around giving exams and prescriptions for glasses. His older brother, Ramli, was killed by a death-squad before Adi was born. The film follows Adi as he confronts the men who were responsible for his brothers death. It also looks at the lives of his mother and father, who still live in the same community with the very people who took their son’s life. It also tries to serve the purpose of confronting people with the atrocities they committed.
Like The Act of Killing, it is unnerving to hear these stories recounted. People were rounded up and sent to prisons by the thousands. Almost daily, it seems, death squads would come at night and take truckloads of people from these prisons and they would never be seen or heard from again. They were taken down to the river and slaughtered. The leaders of these death squads, more often than not, are all too proud to tell their tales of what happened, how they performed their duties, and in graphic detail. In a lot of ways they wear what they did as a badge of honor as something heroic and important that they did for their country. In fact, the camera sits in on a school room where Adi’s son is taught that the Communists were evil and so they were eliminated. The details are glossed over, but it is taught as a momentous occasion in the country’s history when Communism was wiped out. What is glossed over is the staggering amount of human life that was wiped out as well.
Aside from the unsettling, graphic details of the executions, what sticks out to me the most and what disturbs me the most as an American living in a democratic, free society is the complete lack of understanding about terms like “democracy” and “communism.” These words, in actuality, mean nothing to these, especially those who committed these mass murders. It is all merely jargon to justify their actions and explain their beliefs. When one of the leaders is confronted by Adi with the fact that a million people were killed, one man simply responds, “That’s politics.” The dismissiveness and blithe manner in which this was said continues to boggle my mind.
Another thing that boggles my mind is that while all of these men boast about their actions or are willing to recount their atrocities, when confronted with it by Adi, they usually deflect, saying, “It wasn’t really me,” or, “You can’t say I’m responsible” or other statements that simply pass the blame. These men butchered other humans in their own communities and also profited from the killings by taking the money that belonged to the men they slaughtered. One man even admits to drinking the blood of his victims so that he wouldn’t go crazy, like some did.
One important aspect of the film is Adi’s bravery in posing questions to these men. He is stoic and calm and disarming in his demeanor, which makes him the perfect person to approach these people. At a couple of points, one or two of them become agitated and annoyed with his questioning and more or less threaten him. When he later admits to his mother that he is doing these interviews, her demeanor changes quickly and she tells him to be careful. Having lost one son already to the senselessness of the people around her, her guard is quick to go up at this information.
Sadly, a mantra repeated by too many people in this film is a desire to leave the past in the past and move on. The perpetrators desire to move past it and explain it away and justify it so they do not have to live with any demons. Many of the families of the victims of this mass killing want to move on because it is so painful for them. It is precisely because of these reasons that documentaries are a valuable medium and Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentaries specifically are important. The past is past, but if it is not properly dealt with, if it is not acknowledged, if it is instead glazed over in indoctrination, then it is distorted and could happen again. When a person says, “Forget the past. Let’s all get along like the military dictatorship taught us,” that should give us pause. Self-introspection is good for the individual and it can be good for a community or even a nation. That is the only real way to move forward and get along together and heal.
Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars