Human blood is salty and sweet

Two Films on the Indonesian Crimes Against Humanity
by Joshua Oppenheimer

Adi Rukun speaks to his mother about his brother's killing in The Look of Silence

Adi Rukun speaks to his mother Rohani about his brother’s killing in The Look of Silence

This past week Cinestudio at Trinity College showed The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion to The Act of Killing which I saw at the Montclair [N.J.] Film Festival in 2012. It is essential for anyone who wants to understand what an existential threat we pose to ourselves to see these films, preferably together. They both investigate the same question: What happens when immense crimes go unpunished? It is hardly a pleasant lesson to learn, and given that the crimes took place a half century ago, it is convenient to avoid these films as of antiquarian interest only and involving only people very much unlike us. That would be a mistake, for it is not just the victims and their families who suffer. These films make the case that all of society is distorted when fundamental human values are violated with impunity for the benefit of the powerful. The crimes that took place there continue to haunt that land, which is still ruled by the criminals. And Western, particularly US, fingerprints are all over the military coup, and, more importantly, the rationale for the crimes remain motivators of public policy, not only in Indonesia, but also in the West. The plutocracy-centered, change-resistant, capital-oriented reasons for clamping down on human aspirations not only still exist, they seem to have created a society here no less than there in which no alternative is possible.

The Historical Background

Suspects rounded up by the Army around Jakarta in 1965. (Photo: Bettman/Corbis/AP.)

Suspects rounded up by the Army around Jakarta in 1965. (Photo: Bettman/Corbis/AP.)

In 1965 Sukarno, a nationalist leader who led the struggle for independence from the Dutch (which involved collaborating with the Japanese during the war and the British after), was president-for-life of Indonesia. He had adroitly parlayed the relatively powerless office of president (Indonesia began as a parliamentary republic and executive power was lodged in the prime minister) into one fit for a strongman, and he moved the country away from the West, first helping to found the policy of non-alignment together with Egypt and India and then moving Indonesia into closer relations with China and the Soviet Union. The political power behind his “guided democracy” was threefold: the Indonesia Communist Party (PKI), the Islamic party and the Army. When the PKI urged the creation of a fifth security force separate from the established armed services, senior army officials acted with alarm. On October 1 members of the Presidential guard, calling themselves the September 30 Movement, kidnapped and then killed seven senior generals and they claimed that by doing so they had forestalled a CIA-backed army coup. Major General Suharto, reacting quickly, gained control of the capital and proclaimed that the September 30 Movement was actually a counter-revolutionary attempt on Sukarno’s life. Assembling the army under him, he spearheaded a purge of the communists. Top officials were rounded up and summarily executed. Under the still unclear supervision of the Army, paramilitary groups and death squad arose across the country and began the systematic murder of claimed communist sympathizers. The usual suspects were butchered as “communists”: union leaders, peasants, intellectuals, progressives and the like. From 1965 to 1967 over 500,000, perhaps over a million, and some have claimed 2.5 million Indonesians were massacred. Suharto replaced Sukarno as president, an office he would hold until 1998. No proceedings were ever brought against any of the killers, many of whom profited from their role either monetarily or with political power, or both. In addition to the political dimensions of the crime, there was ethnic cleansing of the Chinese population, who had been legally barred from conducting businesses outside certain urban areas.

Time celebrates the New Order with a July 15, 1966, cover story entitled

Time celebrates the New Order with a July 15, 1966, cover story entitled “Vengeance with a Smile.”

All of this took place at a time that the United States was becoming hopelessly ensnared in Vietnam under the dogmatic belief that the existence of communism anywhere was a threat to democracy everywhere. No differences were seen in socialist movements in different nations, all of which was lumped under a monolithic communism led from Moscow. The purge of communists in Indonesia was therefore praised in the West, whose economic interests were enhanced when unions at strategic industries (like rubber production) were broken. (An NBC News report seen in The Look of Silence shows how union members at a rubber plant were arrested and then forced to work there as prison laborers.)

The New Order presided over by President Suharto for 32 years was characterized by corruption, cronyism and above all iron-fisted capitalism. Unions were prohibited, farmers were moved off farms which were replaced by plantations to produce crops for export. (The farmers would then be “hired” under onerous long-term contracts to work for the plantation owners for subsistence or less compensation.) Above all the story of communist treachery was enforced and a nationalist mythology promulgated. The national myth was known as Pancasila, the “Five Principles” on which the New Order was to be based: (1) belief in one and only one God (symbol: star), (2) civilized society (symbol: chain (!)), (3) unity of the Indonesian state (symbol: tree), (4) “Guided democracy” (symbol: buffalo), and (5) social justice (symbol: rice and cotton).

The Sumur Maut at Lubang Buaya. (Photo: Chris Woodrich; CC license via Wikimedia.) The marker says

The Sumur Maut at Lubang Buaya. (Photo: Chris Woodrich; CC license via Wikimedia.) The marker says “It is not possible that the aspirations of our struggle to uphold the purity of Pancasila will be defeated by merely burying us in this well. Lubang Buaya 1 October 1965.”

A Sacred Pancasila monument (with the “martyred” generals whose kidnapping launched the coup) and in 1990 a museum (glorifying nationalistic militarism and called the “Museum of PKI Treason”) were constructed near the Lubang Buaya in Jakarta, which is tended like a holy site. The Lubang Buaya, or “crocodile pit,” was where the corpses of the generals were deposited. (Death squads around the country would visit the same fate on “communists” with interest.) The pit is located outside the former PKI headquarters where today visitors can see mechanized dummies re-enact the official version of the supposed communists’ torture of the kidnapped generals, complete with spurting blood. Suharto also commissioned cinematographer Arifin C. Noera to make a film in 1984, the bloody and violent Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (“The Betrayal Movement of September 30/PKI”), which needless to say follows the official version. Each year until 1997 all Indonesian television stations were required to air the movie on September 30. Even the end of Suharto’s reign did not let in sunshine. In March 2007 Abdul Rahman Saleh, Indonesia’s Attorney General, proscribed and ordered burned 14 school textbooks because they failed to adequately blame communists for a “rebellion” in 1948 and for the events which justified the army coup in 1965.

Only recently has there been any attempt to officially and formally examine the massacres. After a three-year investigation, the Indonesia National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) issued a report in June 2012 concluding that massive human rights violations were sanctioned by government in 1965-66 and local purges continued into the 1970s. It recommended criminal investigation by the attorney general, but no such proceeding has been instituted. According to Amnesty International in “late May 2015, the Attorney General stated that President Joko Widodo’s administration would resolve past human rights violations, including the 1965-66 violations.” There is widespread doubt, however, that any such investigation would produce anything other than amnesty for the perpetrators. It is these crimes that the two films by Texas-born but Danish-based and financed film-maker Joshua Oppenheimer address. They are not investigations of the crimes themselves but are rather about the twenty-first century resonance of those crimes in the criminals, the families of the victims and society at large.

The Act of Killing (2012)

A member if the film crew comments to Herman Koto, one of the gangsters, how bizarre making a film with these killers is. Koto is about to film a scene in drag.

A member if the film crew comments to Herman Koto, one of the gangsters, how bizarre making a film with these killers is. Koto is about to film a scene in drag.

It is a considerable understatement to say that The Act of Killing is an unconventional documentary. In fact, it wanders so far beyond the boundaries of what we think of as a documentary that it might be called post-documentary filmmaking. The concept is this: While working on a documentary concerning plantation workers in North Sumatra, Indonesia, Oppenheimer came to know paramilitary members who openly bragged of their roles in the 1965-67 killings.* One of the killers in particular, Anwar Congo, agreed to Oppenheimer’s suggestion that he and others film their own account the killings. Scenes for a proposed movie were written, directed and acted in by the killers themselves.

The idea is of course stunningly bizarre. But it did not turn into a reality-TV episode. The film is both deeper and more true-to-life but also more surreal. Nor is it a papering over of the responsibility (or existence) of the massacres. Perhaps because those at the helm of the project were thugs, and not politicians, they made no effort to shape the story to make themselves sympathetic to viewers or to render their cause apparently just. It doesn’t even occur to them at the beginning. Or perhaps by permitting these crimes, over such a scale and perpetrated so openly and notoriously, to go without redress, and in fact condoning them, Indonesian society had become so morally warped that no one weighs such events in a moral scale. It is the latter possibility that ought to concern us, because we seem headed in the same direction. (Widespread official exonerations of police who kill unarmed black men and children seem to partake of this same phenomenon, for instance.)

Act of Killing-2

Anwar Congo (l) and Herman Koto (r) discuss why their film should be more popular than Nazi films: because they can make theirs more sadistic.

The film begins with Herman Koto, a fat, brusque, coarse-featured gangster, attempting to recruit women and children to play the part of victims of a paramilitary attack on a village. Koto hectors and cajoles and eventually affects a falsetto to show how he expects them to plead for mercy. (In later scenes we see that Koto enjoys acting in drag. In one scene he plays a “communist” woman about to be raped by paramilitary ruffians.) In the background stands Anwar Congo, once a death squad executioner, but now a thin, white-haired, handsome man who is soft-spoken and often charming. He is later shown to be a doting grandfather. Congo will become the central character of the film, with Soto as his oafish side-kick and toady.

Congo (r) demonstrate the method of garotting he invented to reduce bloodshed.

Congo (r) demonstrates, on the very rooftop that he conducted executions, the method of garotting he invented to reduce bloodshed.

We become aware that whatever crimes Soto committed, he is a buffoon compared to Congo. Syamsul Arifim, governor of Northern Sumatra and a child during the massacres, says that “Everyone was afraid of [Congo].” Years of being shown respect out of fear (by the people) and gratitude (by the powers that be) have given Congo a sense of self that he wears gracefully. From his ordinary demeanor it’s hard to believe that he ever contemplated any crime, let alone killed hundreds with his own hands. And yet he demonstrates for the camera an innovation he came up with to reduce the amount of blood the killings caused (which created unpleasant odors). It involved fastening a wire to an anchor on the wall, wrapping it around the victim’s neck and pulling the wire to effect a quick and efficient asphyxiation. The demonstration used a playacting victim whose hands were tied behind his back. (Throughout the film “victims” seem to acquiesce in permitting the killers to brandish weapons and death contraptions without wincing.) After the demonstration Congo explains, in the very rooftop of “ghosts” where so many died, how he “tried to forget all this”: “with good music … Dancing… Feeling happy… A little alcohol… A little marijuana… A little… what do you call it?… Ecstasy… Once I’d get drunk I’d fly and get real happy.” He then begins to cha cha with his “victim” commenting on what a happy man he is.

Anwar Congo (l) demonstrates

Anwar Congo (l) demonstrates “feeling good” after killings and drugs.

Amid scenes in which Congo and Koto plan their movie, we are given glimpses at how Indonesian society is still shaped by the fascist-like putsch of the 1960s. Gangsters are shown shaking down Chinese shop-keepers. Governor Arifim muses that children of the “communists” will not prevail in overturning pro-government sentiment: “Communism will never be accepted here,” he says, “because we have so many gangsters. And that’s a good thing.” Newspaper publisher Ibrahim Sinik openly boasts about his role in the massacres: “… my job was to make them [the ‘communists’] look bad” and so he would change their answers to his questions. He then turned them over to the executioners. The army did not want to be involved (either for deniability reasons or because it would have taken too much personnel for so many bodies) and told him to “just dump [their corpses] in the river.” A chilling contemporary rally by Pancasila Youth is shown. This paramilitary group (claiming 3 million members today) performs a rousing martial exercise with women cheerleaders and flag majors. The group’s leader Yapto Soerjosoemarno does a remarkable il duce speech in which he proclaims himself the chief gangster. At a formal meeting the country’s Vice President Jusuf Kalla dons the jacket of the Pancasila and gives a speech extolling their lack of connection with the government (otherwise they would be bureaucrats he cracks), agrees that sometimes people need beaten up and extols the concept of gangsters as “free men.” But probably the most darkly comedic part of the film is the episode in which Koto runs for a seat in Parliament on the absurdly named Businessmen and Workers Party. Koto is unable to remember the remarks he is to deliver by megaphone while being driven, but he spends his time musing how, if elected and appointed to the building committee, he can shake down owners for bribes. He estimates that he can make $100,000 for every 10 buildings. But Koto was too bungling to be elected even when sponsored for the seat.

Anwar Congo (l) and Herman Koto (r) discuss why their film should be more popular than Nazi films: because they can make theirs more sadistic.

Congo and Koto discuss the good old days when they were carefree gangsters at the cinema and happy killers at the newspaper office.

As we see more and more of the gangsters’ behavior, we realize how cogent the movie-within-a-movie is as a device for understanding their behavior. Congo and Koto, standing beside the former cinema in Medan (the capital of North Sumatra), tell us how as young, unemployed gangsters they scalped tickets to make money. It was here they were recruited to become killers in the newspaper building across the street. Congo in particular had a strong affinity for American films and popular culture, which made his decision to oppose the “communists” that much easier, since, he says, they tried to ban Hollywood films.

In an interrogation scene out of a Hollywood gangster movie, Koto (l) confronts

In an interrogation scene out of a Hollywood gangster movie, Koto (l) confronts “communist” Congo: “Trying to ban American films in Indonesia?”

The scenes they film come right from the golden age of Hollywood: Gangster movies, of course, but also the dance-musicals, westerns, noirs, horror movies and an interrogation scene with the killers outfitted in American combat helmets à la World War II movies. Congo tells of his admiration for Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, John Wayne, all things Elvis (except when on killing business) and American casual wear.

It is in the combat-helmeted interrogation scene that we are introduced to the third of the killers, Adi Zulkadry, executioner from the old days. Together with Koto and Congo there are now a triad of personal responses to their ancient crimes. Koto, of course, is completely apathetic to questions of personal morality. A brutish amoral thug, it perplexes him that anyone would concern himself with issues of right or wrong; he is concerned only with self-interest. When it’s pointed out that showing what they did would cast them in a bad light, he says: “But why should we always hide our history if that’s the truth?”

Ali Zulkadry (l) states a moral truth that has so far been missing, as he and Congo are being made up for the combat-helmeted interrogation scene.

Ali Zulkadry (l) states a moral truth that has so far been missing, as he and Congo are being made up for the combat-helmeted interrogation scene.

Zulkadry, unlike Koto, fully understands and admits that they acted immorally. He also dismisses all equivocation and states that the death squads acted more cruelly than the “communists.” When he sees the movie they are making he understands the implications:

“It’s not about fear [of criminal prosecution]. It’s about image. The whole society will say ‘We always suspected it. They lied about the communists being cruel.’ It’s not a problem for us. It’s a problem for history. The whole story will be reversed. Not 180 degrees … 360 degrees.”

The entire scene is stunning and pivotal. Congo’s neighbor, who agreed to play the victim, tells the group of killers the his personal story: when he was 11 or 12 his step-father (a Chinese) was taken away from the house at 3 a.m. and later discovered under an oil drum. “We buried him like a goat, next to the main road. Just me and my grandfather.” He assures them he is not criticizing them, only offering the story to complete the history. Congo tells him that they will use it to motivate the actors.

Act of Killing-8

Congo peers into the abyss.

Congo is the most ambiguous of the killers. At first he gives no thought to the consequences of filming, more interested in appearing young for the camera (so he dyes his hair). But he does not deny the fact that he has had recurring nightmares since the events. In fact, the gangster-film-makers make his night fears part of their movie by staging an elaborately costumed ghost scene. Congo later talks to Zulkadry about his nightmares privately (on camera), and the latter advises he see a nerve doctor to get nerve vitamins. At night, staring from a pier into the dark ocean, Congo contemplates Karma, a law “direct from God.” But he sees only nothingness.

Zulkady ultimately comes up with his final rationalization strollikng through a mall with his wife and daughter. In the end what the killers achieved was a society that imported Western values: materialistic, driven by international commrcial trends, culturally homogenous and spiritually dead.

Zulkadry comes up with his final rationalization strolling through a mall with his wife and daughter. But in the end what the killers achieved was a society that imported Western values: materialistic, driven by international commercial trends, culturally homogenous and spiritually dead.

From this point on the mindscapes of Zulkadry and Congo part ways. Zulkadry restates the same arguments of all victorious war criminals: The winners define the rules. But with clear hindsight he claims he is untroubled. Strolling through a modern upscale mall with his wife and daughter, he recounts:

We shoved wood in their anus until they died. We crushed their necks with wood. We hung them. We strangled them with wire. We cut off their heads. We ran them over with cars. We were allowed to do it. And the proof is, we murdered people and were never punished.”

The climax of the killers' movie makes us realize we have nothing in common with that mindset. Here a

The climax of the killers’ movie makes us realize we have nothing in common with that mindset. Here a “victim” thanks his killer. But of course we have always been on the killers’ side.

Congo’s journey is more complicated and also strangely pat. Observing the conventions of film discussions (which would never be applied to literary discussions), I will not reveal “spoilers.” But needless to say the movie-within-a-movie reaches its absurd conclusion, in which Congo is beatified in a fascist-secular way, all to the tune of “Born Free.” (Throughout the film characters keep telling us that in English gangster means “free man,” an etymology I cannot find in any reputable source.) And that same device also causes him to take a journey of moral discovery. That journey is both simple and complex. Among the questions that occur to us are: Is Congo’s discovery true or is it an “act”? After all, the final shot could easily dissolve with the music from The Sweet Smell of Success, and I’m sure Congo would have been proud of that. But even assuming it is true, is it enough? And what next?

Koto, again in drag, this time as an avenging angel of nightmares, confronts Congo, who plays the victim he beheaded.

Koto, again in drag, this time as an avenging angel of nightmares, confronts Congo, who plays the victim he beheaded.

In the end, we come to several conclusions. Above all Act of Killing is a remarkably complex and oddly beautiful film. It is neither history nor real documentary, but rather a work of art. It therefore has both the attributes and deficits of art. It is a historical artifact that attempts a psychological and moral analysis of men who committed unfathomable crimes. In that it is destined to fail as all anecdotal accounts of evil are incapable of coming to a general truth. Nevertheless it uses art to undermine the false claims made by the killers, and maybe that is all that can be expected.

Suryono, victim himself, agrees to play victim in the killers' movie. Here he listens as Zulkadry makes the case for not making the movie at all.

Suryono, victim himself, agrees to play victim in the killers’ movie. Here he listens as Zulkadry makes the case for not making the movie at all.

But art itself is another way of distorting, “interpreting,” historical truth, and perhaps in a way less self-analytical than the killers’ own movie. Watching the film, nagging questions are raised about the nature of the narrative device. For example, all the shots in this film are complex, disturbing, and increasingly brutal, but ultimately beautifully staged. This is not something we expect from documentaries. How can intimate (and spontaneous) conversations be captured in perfectly framed shots without prior direction (especially when more than one camera is used)? And does that prior direction pollute the “truth” of the conversation? And what about the killers’ movie? Does it express what they wanted? Does it matter? These questions address a smaller part of the question that the movie embodies as a whole. Oppenheimer was an essential collaborator in the movie-within-a-movie as well as the scenes surrounding it. Does that contaminate the film? I suppose the answer has to depend on whether the content comports with your own view of how humans behave. There can be no other assurance. Maybe in the end all history follows a version of the uncertainty principle: If we try to learn something we disturb the very thing we are investigating and therefore can only know part.

As for the rest, it is hard to contemplate a more visually beautiful movie on such a morally debased subject. And the ambient sound, something that is normally smothered by music, is a marvel in its own right. That is something that becomes even more evident in the second film.

The Look of Silence (2014)

This second film, which is just now making its way around American art houses, offers both a simpler and more profound experience than Act of Killing. This is because it focuses not on multitudes of victims but just one and because it is seen not through the eyes of the criminals but those of the victim’s family.

Adi's mother has lived with a half century of memory amid silence and practiced forgetfulness.

Adi’s mother has lived with a half century of memory amid silence and practiced forgetfulness.

Early on in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Milan Kundera makes the observation that the history of atrocities has become so accelerated that we cannot remember: The massacre in Bangladesh replaced the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, which was covered over by Allende’s assassination, which was followed by the Sinai war, the Cambodian massacre, in a series without end. And so we remember nothing. Which is why Indonesia of 1965 has no power to hold us. Even if it happened in recent memory, hasn’t the recent civil wars in Congo killed five times as many? (Not that we follow that crisis either.) Our minds simply are not designed to understand, in any way that makes a difference, mass killings, which is why they occur so frequently and are so rarely punished.

But we are able to examine in minute particulars the unjust destruction of one life, the one thing we are given and the one thing we cherish above all else. And that is what The Look of Silence is about.

The other thing that makes this film more accessible is that the villains act in ways we understand—suspicious, wary of inquiry into their conduct and willing to threaten and maybe commit further crimes to keep the past hidden. It is reassuring that even in a land that celebrates paramilitary exercises and death squads, most criminals prefer to hide their crimes. And these circumstances provide the context for one of our favorite story-types: the intrepid searcher for truth who threatens to expose the dangerous and powerful. Except in this case, the story is true.

Like the first movie, this one deals with the killings in North Sumatra. These take place, not in the city as in Act of Killing, but in the rural countryside where the population consists of peasant farmers or plantation workers. International capital at the time wanted to move the population from subsistence farms to plantations harvesting valuable exports: rubber, palm oil, cocoa. So there already existed a substratum of thugs used to muscling the population, unlike the city where the killers were recruited among the unemployed urban gangsters. The organization that orchestrated the killings (and the forced plantation work) was the Kommando Aksi, a group, from the sample in this movie, that had none of the seemingly light-hearted frivolity of the urban gangsters. But this movie (just like the first) does not dwell on the particulars a traditional historian would be interested in: the dates, places, circumstances and social context of the events. We know only that it takes place in or near Aceh at a place called Snake River.

Adi Rikun watching video of his brothers' killers describing the deed.

Adi Rikun watching video of his brothers’ killers describing the deed.

At the center of the story is Adi Rukun, a 44 year old optometrist whose brother, Ramli, was murdered in a particularly gruesome way by the local death squad two years before Adi was born. Adi is shown to be a quiet and gentle family man. He has none of the swagger or boastfulness of the killers in the first movie, but he has a sustained intensity that can be seen in his eyes, an intensity that propels the movie along its tense and dangerous course.

Both of Oppenheimer’s titles have wordplays built into them. In this movie the “look” has multiple meanings. Facing the men complicit in his brother’s death, Adi’s only weapon is his fixed gaze, which betrays a determined, an unsubtle, moral clarity. It is fitting that he is an optometrist, and he uses this profession on two occasions to gain access to those he wants to interview, bringing with him a portable phoropter, a device designed to improve vision, continuing the central metaphor of the movie. His own eyes look deeply into the souls of the killers and also make the accusation that his soft voice never does. His eyes (and the camera) linger on the criminal long after he has stopped talking, and the stress this causes the accused is visible in his face. Adi’s eyes act like the eyes that haunted Anwar Congo in the first film, eyes of the man he beheaded which he failed to close and which come to him in his sleep.

Adi's ancient father bathing. Like society around him he is losing his memory and his sight.

Adi’s ancient father bathing. Like society around him the old man is losing his memory and his sight.

By contrast, his own father, now over 100, is nearly blind and losing his memory. His mother bathes her husband and puts him to bed. She doesn’t sleep with him any longer “because he smells of pee.” But she tenderly cares for him. She has not lost her memory. She clearly remembers the details of the night when her son came home, nearly disemboweled, begging for coffee and how the men hunted him down. They told her they were taking him to the hospital, but she knew better. They refused to let her come with him.

There is no doubt how Ramli died. Oppenheimer had filmed the killers themselves, walking down the same riverbank toward the Snake River, describe and even demonstrate dragging Ramli and the other victims, hacking him and cutting off his penis to finally let him bleed to death. His body seems to have been thrown into a well (a lubang buaya), although the bodies of thousands were tossed in the Snake River. (The corpses so polluted the river, we are told by a villager, that no one would buy fish any longer, fish that had eaten humans.) The incident was even recorded for posterity by a leader of the death squad who wrote and illustrated a book about the bodies thrown into the well. Oppenheimer films the man describing the killing and showing his book. His wife stands beside him, worshipping the hero. Adi would return late in the film with the book to the family of this man.

Securing the future by changing the past, always most effectively done with children.

Securing the future by changing the past, always most effectively done with children.

The film begins not with silence, but with a noisy elementary school. A male teacher is instructing the class in the elimination of the “communists,” eliciting responses as though it were a catechism. He drills them with propositions that the communists were cruel (he tells the children that they would slash people’s faces with razors and gouge their eyes out), that they denied God and were libertines. He explained that it was necessary to take them to prison and to keep their children from working for the government or becoming a policeman. When the students are asked what the heroes achieved, in one voice they shout “Democracy!”

Adi’s first task in this movie is to undo this teaching to his son. In a quiet conversation he tells his son that the communists were not cruel, they did not deny the existence of God. His son is quiet and respectful, but how is he to resolve the conflict between his loyalty to his father and the authority of his teacher? Adi has no first hand knowledge; he was not even born when the killings took place. Adi believes in family, as something you learn from and something you pass on. And while we see him adore his children, especially his young daughter, his idea of family is much more complex than that held by his wife. When she discovers that he embarked on the dangerous path of confronting his brother’s killers, she told him she would not have let him. Didn’t he think of the children? she asked. He has no answer. How could he? There is always a reason to be silent.

Adi’s wife is not the only one to counsel silence. An elderly lady tells him to forget the past. She said she knew that the communists were taken to the river but didn’t learn any details. Even Kemat, who had been one of those taken from prison on the trip with Ramli to be hacked to death and who made his escape and miraculously eluded recapture, even Kemat counseled forgetting: “It’s already covered up. It’s up to God to punish those who hurt our family and friends.”

The optical frames allows Adi to bore into Inong's soul.

The optical frames allow Adi (and us) to bore into Inong’s soul. It is a frightening place.

We meet the first killer in his forest property, an old man, named Inong, with his pet monkey on a leash. Adi begins examining him, adjusting the lenses to determine his prescription. Adi then begins asking questions quietly: Are your neighbors afraid of you? Inong answers in a matter of fact manner that they are and with good reason given his deeds in the old days. Inong needs little prompting to describe the killings. He tells of his work with a machete. He says that a woman’s breast when cut off looks like the inside of a coconut with all the fibers to filter milk. The woman was brought to him by her brother who was unable to kill her himself. It was tough business. One killer, he tells us, lost his mind in all the slaughter and would climb a palm tree to call for prayers. Fortunately, he took the precaution of drinking his victims’ blood and was able to retain his senses. It is he who explains the taste of human blood. When Adi, surprised by his description asks him what he said, Inong repeats that human blood tastes salty and sweet.

It took only a few gentle questions to unravel him. Adi accused him of hacking his victims, but he said that he only used one blow per victim. Adi asked him how he was able to cut the woman’s breast off and then kill her with one blow. Inong was flustered. When Adi began asking tougher questions Inong complained to Oppenheimer. It was “too deep”; it was all politics, which he didn’t want to discuss. (It has perhaps become commonplace that it is easier to motivate men to take up a cause that requires killing than it is for them to understand the nature of the cause.) The camera peered into his face for an uncomfortable length of time, but he did not blink.

The confrontations continue up the chain of responsibility and they become increasingly ominous. In a confronting with a local Kommando Aksi leader Adi points out that he became rich from his actions. When he tells him that his brother had been killed under his command, the killer asks for Adi’s address. Realizing the danger, Adi refuses, his resolve momentarily broken. At the local legislature, he confronts the leader of the regional Kommando Aksi, who claims his repeated re-elections showed the esteem he was held in. When Adi presses him further, he menacingly asserts: “If we keep asking the same questions, it will happen again, sooner or later.”

Interlaced with these confrontations, we see Adi’s father decline. In his dotage he says that he is 16. His wife asks him if he remembers his son’s name, but he keeps asking, “Whose son?” Finally, we see him, blind, pulling his useless legs across a patio unable to find his way out, crying that he had been put in a stranger’s house and begging for release. Forgetting gave him no relief.

In a scene suffused with quiet, understated emotion, Adi visits his uncle. Adi discovers that he had guarded the prison that Ramli was in and watched as the paramilitary group took them away by truck. He claimed he did not know what was to be done with them. In any event, he says, he was in the army and what could he do? He cannot even answer Adi’s question whether he “regretted” his role. He asks Adi to leave.

The final two confrontations involve the families of two killers. One, now senile, is with his daughter. The other (the one who had written the book containing Ramli’s death) is dead, and we see his wife and two sons. The reaction of relatives is intensely interesting. Not invested with the crimes, they make no excuses, except that they themselves didn’t know (however implausible that excuse was); they only want to avoid the subject. The pain inflicted when Adi reveals that he is Ramli’s brother is palpable. There is no escape from the consequences for the relatives of the victims or of the killers. Perhaps that is why the Israelites believed that God visited vengeance to the third and fourth generation.

Adi's children play with the larvae of butterflies, a metaphor with significance.

Adi’s children play with the larvae of butterflies, a metaphor with significance.

Like The Act of KillingThe Look of Silence is visually beautiful as well as suggestive. Danish cinematographer Lars Skree who shot both films is well-known for his personal courage and his ability to use filters, light, colors and post-production effects to create scenes that have almost mythological auras to them. He was director of photography for the Danish documentary Armadillo, which followed a Danish regiment into the Helmand Province of Southern Afghanistan. The scenes he achieved were mesmerizing, dangerous and intimate. (He won the Danish Roos Award for his work.) In The Look of Silence the framing, color, focus and extreme close-ups gives the audience a closeness that makes it hang on every word spoken.

Mother and son have a bond that goes beyond words over the son Rohani lost 50 years ago and the brother that Adi never had.

Mother and son have a bond that goes beyond words over the son Rohani lost 50 years ago and the brother that Adi never had.

The sound, once again, is remarkable. No musical tracks interfere, and nothing intrudes on the private, painful and deeply significant conversations that the characters have with each other. But the sound space is filled with quiet noises, forest sounds, animals, surrounding ambiance, which has the effect of putting the conversations in a three-dimensional world, of highlighting them and of making us quiet for fear of missing a nuance. The scene in which Adi tells his mother that he has been confronting the killers is tense, slow and emotional, filled with pauses. She alone does not discourage him. She only advises him to be careful, to go armed and if necessary deliver a blow right behind the neck to fell an assailant. (The scene quickly cuts to killers explaining how they beheaded by striking in just such a place. Where murder is riot, everyone knows technique.) The close up shows that Adi and his mother understood each other, that they shared the belief in the need to end the silence.

When the film ends the very real danger, the fact that this nation still remains a place of darkness, is quietly proved by the credits: position after position is noted with only “anonymous.” Adi and his family were relocated after the filming for their own safety.

The Act of Killing is available on DVD and Blu-Ray and can be streamed from Amazon’s video serviceThe Look of Silence was released in the US in July and is making its way among art houses around the country.


*That film was The Globilisation Tapes, made by the members of the international plantation workers union PERBBUNI, as an organization tool. Among other things it shows the inhuman working conditions forced on palm oil plantation workers today. It is currently hosted on YouTube and can be seen by following this link. The film is didactic and somewhat naive in its aims, but it shows what Suharto’s New Order brought about. Oppenheimer first saw the unabashed ways in which the killers described their participation filming this movie and early on you can see another killer describe his participation, egged on by a proud wife.

  1. I really don’t know what to say here, but the feelings in my heart are quite painful right now. Woe is us.

  2. Your detailed and powerful analysis of these films and their relevance for the world today is deeply troubling. It reminds me of simpler times when I found Colin Turnbull’s work, the Mountain People, distressing and alarmingly prophetic. It’s hard to deny the existence of evil when confronted with people’s inability and unwillingness to call enslavement and butchery immoral. I’m grateful to you for sharing your work and raising these crucial questions, DK/

  3. Thank you for bringing our attention to these films and your analysis. We are all complicit if we allow these things to happen and don’t rise up to condemn them. The problem is that most people in the USA don’t even know these events took place (probably most Americans don’t even know where Indonesia is), and that we continue to help despots keep their population under control. What a mess the Bush administration made in the Middle East. Now people are fleeing Syria en masse and we don’t want to accept these refugees. It must be a great burden for European countries to accept and integrate so many of these refugees, but they do it. There is such an outcry here to even accept Latin American children who are fleeing similar atrocities in their own countries. Send them back?? That would be inhumane. But that is what many people are proposing.
    Keep up the good work!

  4. Interesting commentary on two great films. The real hero of ‘The look of silence’ in my mind is Adi’s mother: amid all the forgetting and erasure of history that has happened over the last century, she has forgotten nothing. She recalls every detail, remembers every action of every neighbour and relative during those days a half-century ago. And clearly, the pain of losing her son is also undiminished.
    You may be interested in my own review of “The Act of Killing” posted two years ago.

  5. Both films have continued to grow in my estimation in the time since I saw them; I would probably be less critical of “Act of Killing” today than I was two years ago.

    I think Oppenheimer chose to tell the story in the way that he did, rather than a conventional narrative documentary, and it followed that to include any coherent political perspective, or even any ‘historical background material’ would get in the way of that.

    Well, despite my vague feeling of a hunger unsatisfied, I have to say that’s fine by me. He certainly found effective ways to relate the story of the massacres. It just means we have to go elsewhere for the explanations. A film that makes you want to go and read further on the subject must be a good film.

    Thanks once more for your reviews, and for getting me thinking about this subject again.

  6. Very interesting to me to read your review of these two films, D. K., and the remarks of James Robb. I read a year or so ago the book by Janny Scott on Anne Dunham, Obama’s mother, who spent most of her adult life in Indonesia. I did not know much about Indonesia, but I fully appreciated Scott’s life of Dunham, a life and times in a way, and I am amazed by these films and what was taking place in the sixties in North Sumatra just as Dunham first took up her life in Jakarta. Things seemed in general rather normal and reasonable in Jakarta, at least. You might want to take a look at this book. Dunham was the “singular person” of the title, a truly admirable woman, far more interesting than her son. She had no politics to speak of, no desire but to understand, record, and support, in a certain way, the village life of Indonesia. You may know that she died in her fifties of cancer, pretty much alone, and poor in NYC.

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