The Star of ‘The Look of Silence’ Talks About Confronting His Brother’s Killers
Decades after the Indonesian military massacred hundreds of thousands of suspected Communists, the perpetrators remain in power, history books omit the truth, and many families are still afraid to talk about the killings that ravaged the country in 1965. But in the less than four years since filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer released two documentaries that confront the genocide head-on, he has seen small but significant changes taking hold throughout the country and around the world.
"These two films are not the same as the activism that needs to follow, but they make possible the activism," Oppenheimer said during an interview at TakePart's Los Angeles office last December. "You can't address problems that you are too afraid to talk about. And now people are talking about them."
The Oscar-nominated films he's referring to are The Act of Killing (2012) and last year's sequel, The Look of Silence, both of which were produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, and have created wide ripples of dialogue "around the need for truth, justice, and reconciliation," said the American-born, Denmark-based filmmaker and MacArthur Fellow.
Thanks in part to the release of the films, reminders about the mass killings now frequently appear on the front pages of the country's newspapers, "progressively pushing the government towards an acknowledgment" of the genocide it committed more than half a century ago, Oppenheimer said.
The Look of Silence follows Adi Rukun—an Indonesian optometrist whose older brother, Ramli, was murdered during the killings—as he visits the homes of the government officials responsible for his brother's death. Under the guise of providing them with eye exams, Rukun probes them with questions about the massacre. Throughout the often tense encounters, he is remarkably calm, keeping a straight face in pursuit of the truth—although he never receives the apology he seeks.
"I tried as hard as I could to hold my feelings in when I met them so that the whole thing would succeed—so that the confrontations wouldn't fail and so that the film would show what we were trying to show, which is how they would react when confronted by a relative of a victim," Rukun said in Indonesian, with Oppenheimer translating, during the interview in Los Angeles.
The scenes are powerful not just because of the high stakes but also because of an underlying metaphor about making the invisible more visible. The significance of the performance was not lost on Rukun.
"There was a very deep meaning I felt, in the eye tests—I was working with Joshua to try to help them see more clearly and to see their past more clearly," he said. "It's a very strange thing that it's been 50 years, and it's been covered up for so long, and it's taboo to even talk about it, so the glasses have this kind of double meaning." Oppenheimer paused from his translating and stared at Rukun with awe—he had never heard Rukun describe the scenario with such a sense of insight and self-awareness.
Oppenheimer met Rukun in 2001 during his first trip to Indonesia. He had been asked to teach a group of oil-palm plantation workers, including Rukun and his family, how to make a documentary about their struggle to organize a union. The workers were dying of liver failure because of the herbicides and pesticides they worked with, but when they requested protective clothing, the company instead paid the army to coerce them into dropping their demands, Oppenheimer said.
That was when he realized the military that gained power through the genocide still had authoritarian control over its citizens. "I understood in that moment what was killing these workers was not just poison but fear," he said. "Therefore, in a terrible sense, the killings hadn't ended because with impunity, fear has lingered."
While Oppenheimer will likely not be returning to Indonesia—he has faced death threats from military leaders incensed by their portrayal in the film—Rukun said he does not live in fear.
"Everyone I meet who has seen the film, they always feel positively toward me," he said. "They understand also that the military dictatorship was wrong, and the film has just helped them acknowledge that." Rukun added that he never acted out of hatred or vengeance for the people responsible for the killings—rather, he viewed them as human beings and asked them to do the same for him.
The Look of Silence was banned from commercial cinema release in Indonesia by the military, which controls the film censorship board. But Oppenheimer estimates that the film has been shown at more than 4,000 grassroots screenings throughout the country, including at film clubs, youth-group gatherings, churches, and mosques. It was made available online in December and was briefly taken down following complaints—"clearly from the Indonesian military," Oppenheimer said—that it violated YouTube's community standards.
He said the dialogue generated by the release of his films has also inspired a rash of new projects spearheaded by young people, including what Oppenheimer describes as a "virtual truth commission" website that allows Indonesians to share and archive stories about the events of 1965. "Indonesian people ask questions all the time on social media, in articles, in op-eds, in students newspapers, saying, 'This is supposed to be a democracy,' " he said. " 'It claims to be a democracy, but we're not allowed to look at our history, and it obviously won't be a democracy until we find the courage to demand the truth.' "
This story is presented in partnership with Participant Media, the parent company of TakePart and Pivot.