These men have all but gone insane, and yet they are still the ones who get to choose the narrative of history.
From 1965 to 1966, large-scale killings took place throughout Indonesia. The ethnic Chinese population, Communists, and anyone who was considered too far to the left were the targets of these Indonesian death squads, and around one million Indonesians died. Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2013 documentary The Act of Killing focuses on the leaders of these death squads. Many of these men reenact the murders for Oppenheimer’s camera with a sickening sense of pride. Sometimes they laugh about the brutal murders they committed, and other times they’re sorry they didn’t bring better props for their reenactments.
When I first viewed this feature, their lack of self-awareness was unfathomable to me. It’s such a surreal experience to watch The Act of Killing. These men have all but gone insane, and yet they are still the ones who get to choose the narrative of history. They are the ones who won, after all. These murderers may have the privilege of their crimes going unchecked, but many are still haunted. The danger is that they never have to face this. You spend much of this film listening to the former death squad leaders assure themselves of their own narratives, over and over again. It’s maddening to watch.
The Look of Silence is a companion piece to The Act of Killing; it was filmed simultaneously, though it takes on a totally different approach. Unlike its predecessor, this film isn’t at all absurd or ironic in tone, which brings us much closer to the violence. In The Look of Silence, the focus is Adj Rukun; a 40-something ophthalmologist whose brother was cut to pieces by the death squad. In the many decades that have passed after the genocide, families of the victims and the murderers still live among each other. Everyone knows who each other is, but no one addresses it.
Just like in The Act of Killing, we hear from those who murdered the supposed-Communists with that all-too-familiar glee from the first film. However, this time Oppenheimer calls attention to the untold history of the victims, by having Adj Rukun to be a part of the conversation. Almost like how it’s unbelievable to hear the killers talk so proudly, it’s amazing to see how composed Rukun is talking to these men. (Remember, he is putting his life on the line talking to them. So is Oppenheimer and the rest of his crew, as it’s made very clear when the credits role. On both films, nearly half the crew has an anonymous credit.) He’s one hell of an interviewer. Even more impressive is how pure Rukun’s motives seem to be. It’s clear he doesn’t seek revenge or public shaming; he just wants to put an end the silence, and is unrelenting in his pursuit of truth.
You don’t necessarily need to have seen The Act of Killing to be able to follow The Look of Silence, but the two films are strongest together. Both deliver very raw experiences, and although they each garnered PG-13 ratings, they are rather disturbing features. Still, to let the unpleasant subject of The Look of Silence keep you in the dark would only perpetuate the silence.
Although the scope of The Look of Silence is mostly contained within the lives of the Indonesians affected by the killings, there is this quiet suggest that the West—specifically, America—had much influence on these events. Oppenheimer very rarely utilizes archival footage in this documentary. At one point, it’s an NBC news report from the late ’60s that refers to Indonesian Communists being released from prison camps to be killed by local citizens. It’s said so matter-of-factly and removed from the situation.
Like the killers lacking in self-awareness, I find that NBC clip haunting me the most. After all, I’ve gone from grade school to college without this subject ever coming up in a history course, or even read about it in a book. It’s clear that America has forgotten this tragedy. Hell, we never even paid mind to it. Elsewhere, the murderers get to tell their own narratives to themselves over and over as a way of comfort, yet Oppenheimer’s close-up shots of Rukun and his family members face expose all the years of suffering they can’t escape. This is an untold history they don’t get the luxury of forgetting. | Cait Lore