In 2002, Joshua Oppenheimer arrived in Indonesia to instruct some workers on methods of documentary filmmaking at a plantation. What was meant to be a small trip turned into a long journey into Indonesia’s violent past that consists of one of the most horrifying massacres of the twentieth century filmed over ten years from 2003-2012, culminating in a powerful diptych: The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014).
The first documentary, The Act of Killing, explores the lives of the perpetrators of the massacres that occurred in 1965-66 under the supervision of the paramilitary force Pemuda Pancasila and the gangsters who were active in the regions of North Sumatra. The second documentary, The Look of Silence, follows the life of Rukuns, one of the victims’ families who still live amidst the murderers of their son, Ramli. These two films explore Indonesia’s violent history that has been wiped out from public memory through re-enactments of the 1965-66 killings by the perpetrators and an attempt at reconciliation between the perpetrators and relatives of the victims for the camera.
In The Act of Killing, Joshua overturns the documentary conventions by choosing not to investigate the terrible events of 1965-66 chronologically but instead exploring the horror and its lingering presence through the killers, many of whom were leaders of the Indonesian paramilitary force. He convinced the former death squad members, including his primary subject, Anwar Congo, to re-enact some of their gruesome murders in a smattering style of Hollywood gangster films that they were fond of. Making a film within a film, they staged surreal fantasy interludes to symbolize their triumph over the evils of communism.
The Look of Silence is a quietly haunting film, which explores the psychological fallout after the genocide. It is an intimate story of a grieving, traumatised family: two elderly parents, Rohani and Rukun, and their youngest son Adi. 50 years after the genocide, they are still living in a village where the murderers of their son are either feared or embraced as heroes. The horror and the fear resounding from that past linger in each frame. Oppenheimer returns to Adi’s calm face throughout the film, often with close-ups, as Adi watches the video footage of Hasan and his accomplice re-enacting their gruesome killing of his brother. Oppenheimer’s camera tracks Adi as he sets out to confront the leaders of the death squads who murdered Ramli.
In The Act of Killing, the camera lens zooms in on Anwar Congo, a volatile and old leader of the gang in North Sumatra that was responsible for thousands of deaths in 1965-66. He is a man who boasts of his deeds from his gangster days. He does Cha Cha on the terrace where he murdered hundreds, and finds escape in alcohol, music and marijuana even though the past comes to haunt him in his dreams. Anwar doesn’t try to find reasons behind what he did. He wears a mask that the manipulated history has provided him—one of a heroic man who saved the nation from communists.
This is the point of contradiction between the two films: one is a killer and the other is a victim’s brother. So, why did Anwar Congo and Amir Hasan agree to collaborate with Oppenheimer in such a recklessly self-exposing way? Perhaps, the murderers thought the grotesque re-enactments of the past would make them appear even more heroic given the continued state protection and immunity they enjoy. Oppenheimer uses the term “cognitive dissonance” more than once to describe what he sees as their complex psychological state. He says, “Their boasting is helping maintain a regime of fear, but it is not a manifestation of genuine pride. You don’t brag about something you are proud of; you brag to compensate for insecurity. These guys are not proud. In fact, the opposite is true. It’s a desperate attempt to live with what they have done. It’s the very opposite of what it appears to be.”
Re-enacting the Suppressed Past
During the shooting of the re-enactment scenes, Anwar Congo plays the victim. There is a lot of make-up, fake blood, dolls, fire, screaming and violence acted out on Anwar and this is the moment when he is able to see the larger picture. He comes face to face with the impact of the atrocities they committed in 1960s. When he puts himself in the position of the victim, he is suddenly aware of the brutality of his acts. It is at this point, Joshua explains why he chose to shoot Congo in particular—because his guilt/pain was just below the surface; ready to be exposed.
Indonesia, like Anwar Congo, has its truth simmering just below the surface. Children shout and scream from a corner of the street while Congo’s henchmen re-enact the killings for Joshua’s camera. For Anwar and his fellow movie gangsters in Medan, it was cinema and acting that helped them distance themselves from the act of killing. The television screen plays a major role in both documentaries. In The Act of Killing, the television transforms how Anwar Congo reflects on the unacknowledged truth. In The Look of Silence, it again serves as a window to the truth that has always been lurking behind the shadows for Adi.
When Anwar first visits the terrace where he murdered hundreds, in front of the camera he mimes how he strangled his victims without spilling too much blood with apparent pride and a boastful smile. His demeanour changes when he watches the same footage on the television screen and realizes several ‘appropriations’ that he should have followed while acting for the camera. His face is remorseful, not for the past but for the one moment when he feels that he shouldn’t have smiled for the camera.
For Adi, the camera is a device that brings the truth forward. While Joshua documents the perpetrators confessions, one by one, following the chain of command upwards; he screens those confessions for Adi on television. Adi stares blankly at the screen, sometimes puzzled, sometimes emotionally distraught but he watches every single one of those confessions.
The Act of Killing isn’t an easy film for the survivors or victims’ families. “The killers we see clearly in the film don’t have to recognise that what they’ve done was wrong,” Oppenheimer has said. “To save themselves from the tormenting effects of guilt, they maintain the lies and the victors’ histories that they’ve told to justify their actions. They do so not because they’re monsters, but because they’re human and they know what they’ve done is wrong.”
It isn’t just the perpetrators who have told themselves a particular version of the truth that they are comfortable with. It is a lie disseminated to the entire nation through the state and private media apparatus. During a television show, Anwar Congo, his men and the paramilitary force are hailed as the heroes who wiped off the communists by a pleasing, over-enthusiastic host. The new generation—especially those not belonging to either the ‘victims’ or the ‘perpetrators’ families—are beginning to question the ethicality and legality of their actions, but the media establishment continues to glorify these killings. Backstage, the producers of the talk show raises questions of morality and injustice for Oppenheimer’s camera, which exposes and heightens the superficiality and irony of the situation.
Breaking 50 Years of Anonim Senyap (Anonymous Silence)
The absence of noise and lingering silence in The Look of Silence serves as the sound of fear; the mute announcements of the villagers who feel like prisoners in their own land. But there is another silent fear that the documentary explores: the silence of confrontation. Adi as an optometrist, shuffles lenses during his mock eye checkups to help the perpetrators ‘see clearly,’ and politely raises questions about their past. At the end of his questions, there is again silence. But this time, the silence and the fear is not that of the victim but the perpetrator.
Every meeting is followed by a moment of silence—the perpetrators’ mum. They are confronted with the ultimate reality of their deeds and the only way they can retaliate is by anger, dismissal and threats. Breaking the fifty years of victims’ silence, the perpetrator has finally been questioned. Oppenheimer knows that Adi is playing a dangerous game.
While investigating a violent past of a nation, how much is an outsider willing to risk in order to restrain from following the documentary clichés? Some filmmakers call this form of confrontation to be a hybrid form of documentation. For someone belonging to a similar past, it is more than just the discovery of a new documentary format. So, where does one draw the line with this?
Filmmaker Ajay Raina, created a documentary called Tell them, The Tree They Had Planted Has Now Grown (2002) about returning to his own past in the violence ridden Kashmir to confront the perpetrators of 1990s mass murders. Here, the shift occurs in the form of direct confrontation with the filmmaker’s own past. Raina didn’t have anyone as the neutral middle man who would substantiate and provide a certain form of authority over the whole situation and documentation. In the documentary, he directly confronted the perpetrators of Kashmir insurgency of 1989 though he refrained from revealing his true identity.
Adi, when faced with the question of revealing his own identity to the perpetrator also chooses to refrain from doing so. In their quest to eliminate the confrontational questions and the people who question them, the perpetrators fail to recognize the purpose of the confrontation which is not revenge but reconciliation.
Truth and Reconciliation
Towards the end of the film, Adi also confronts the family of Amir Hasan, who died not long after he was filmed re-enacting Ramli’s murder. Hasan’s wife and sons react with a mixture of denial and outrage. The scene ends abruptly when one son calls the police.
“I had a sense of foreboding that the whole effort to get the perpetrators to apologise would fail,” Adi says. “Joshua had already told me he thought this would happen and the conflict at the end confirmed his fears that they would not get any expression of remorse. But the reason they were unable to apologise to me is not because they were afraid of me, or even of justice. They are afraid of themselves – their own guilt, their own conscience.”
There is no reconciliation in The Look of Silence. Adi never gets an apology from the murderers. They either refuse to believe his claims or threaten to silence him like they silenced millions in 1960s. Instigating terror in front of the camera then becomes an act, a performance. They remind Adi to not question the authorities as it will not be good for him. The documentary brings out the truth but it doesn’t do much for anyone except Adi. It gives him a sense of closure, perhaps. Now, he knows that there is no going back to how things were before 1960s between the villagers.
Anwar Congo, on the other hand is tormented by his past actions. He doesn’t know of a way to overcome the pain that comes with exploring the past. He has no one to reconcile with. He goes back to the terrace where he murdered hundreds. He cries for an apology from the ghosts of his victims but no one answers. Truth and reconciliation are either not delivered or not accepted. There is a sense of performance in Congo’s actions. It seems to him that by acting out an apology for the camera and viewing it again and again on the television screen, he might come to terms with it all and have an illusion of being forgiven. “There is no one to reconcile with or there is no one to apologise to.”
To sum up, Joshua Oppenheimer was able to collectivise the history of Indonesia using a camera that possibly an insider wouldn’t have been able to capture. Though, he has his own army of Anonymous Indonesian crew that worked with him for years in completing these documentaries, it still needs to be understood and considered that the perpetrators and the survivors, both felt safe in confiding in him and his camera was primarily because he was an outsider who wasn’t seen as a threat, either to their constructed history or to their haunting past.
The documentaries do work in exposing both the constructed history and the haunting past through the mechanisms of re-enactments, mobilisation of memory, the television screen and the attempted truth and reconciliation. They do so in a manner that the creators, participants or the viewers did not anticipate. Following the films’ international release and nomination for Best Documentary feature at the Academy Awards, there is growing concern and uproar over the human rights violations and for bringing the perpetrators to justice in Indonesia, and we could only hope for the same.
- Oppenheimer, “The Act of Killing has helped Indonesia reassess its past and present,” The Guardian, February 25, 2014.
- Interview with Dan Edwards, Senses of Cinema, September 2013.
- Colin Mc Naughton, “Reading the mass violence in Indonesia in 1965-66 as a form of Primitive Accumulation,” pgs 292-305.
- Vedi R. Hadiz, “Capitalism, Primitive Accumulation and the 1960s’ Massacres: Revisiting the New Order and its Violent Genesis,” pgs 306-315.
- Mathias Hammer, “The Indonesian Killings and Economic Redistribution: A reply to Hilmar Farid,” pgs 316-326.
- Interview with Zack Ruskin, Consequences of Sound, August 17, 2015.
- Oppenheimer, “Suharto’s Purge, Indonesia’s Silence,” The New York Times, September 29, 2015.
- Panel Discussion with Werner Herzog at Berlinale, February 9, 2015. Youtube.