The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimers disturbing documentary about mass killings in Indonesia, opens with one of the perpetrators describing pulling intestines from a victims body. That the perpetrator does so matter-of-factly, followed by a hearty laugh, is only made more disturbing by the presence of a small girl playing happily in the background within earshot of the conversation.
The boasting was about the mass killings in 1965-66 and was a shock to Oppenheimer, but everywhere he went, perpetrators of the anti-Communist purges told their stories with a degree of self-congratulation that is chilling. Those stories gave birth to Oppenheimers first film about the mass killings, the Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing.
Documentary filmmakers operate with a culturally imposed burden of anonymity, a lack of popular awareness that leads to a task that is often thankless. For every Ken Burns, there are hundreds of documentarians who believe in the power of film to inform and transform, but that necessarily entails risk personal, financial, professional and emotional to a degree that is often life-threatening.
When Oppenheimer went to Indonesia for the first time, in 2001, he had no plans on making films about the sprawling archipelago nation. The country was just three years removed from U.S.-backed dictator Suhartos resignation, and they were still recovering from the financial crisis of 1998.
I went there to teach plantation workers how to make films, Oppenheimer said. The Belgian company that owned the plantation was forcing female employees to spray herbicide without protective gear. The herbicide got into their lungs and then their bloodstream.
Women who worked at the plantation were dying in their 40s, a direct result of the herbicides dissolving liver tissue once in the bloodstream. The plantation workers were trying to unionize for reasons including the demand for protective gear, so Oppenheimers task was to help them make films to further that goal.
What he discovered was people who were still deeply afraid of the regime in power, the perpetrators of the communist purges.
It was like being magically transported to Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, but in this case, the Nazis would still be in power, Oppenheimer said.
After the workers voiced their demands to the Belgian company, an echo of the narrative that had been embedded in the people since 1967 played out, much to Oppenheimers surprise.
The company hired paramilitary types and thugs to intimidate the workers, he said. They promptly dropped their demands.
They did so because union organizers and workers were primary targets in 1965-66 and it looked like the same scenario was about to play out in 2001. Oppenheimer saw how the fear worked nearly 40 years later, and The Act of Killing was born from that awareness.
Prison of fear
The Look of Silence is a companion film to The Act of Killing, and like the first film, it focuses on the mass killings, but from an utterly different perspective. Adi, an optometrist whose brother was killed in the purge, confronts his brothers killers while testing their vision. When he first approached Oppenheimer about the idea, the filmmaker balked.
Adi won him over eventually for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the young mans own children.
Adis brothers death was an anomaly, Oppenheimer said. There were witnesses to it, and the family was able to obtain the body and bury him. His family was able to grieve, unlike so many other families.
The inability to come to grips with the murders of their loved ones combined with the perpetrators still being in power led to a prison of fear.
The heartbreaking realization led to a conversation in which Adi told Oppenheimer that he had to confront the killers so that Adis own children would not grow up in that same prison of fear. Oppenheimer agreed to do the film, and The Look of Silence is the product of that desire to open the prison.
The beauty in The Look of Silence comes from the setting. Many of Indonesias approximately 17,000 islands, including Bali, are known for their natural beauty. However, Oppenheimers eye and lens find the beauty in the most broken humans, too, as in the moment when Adis mother explains that the boys birth, coming only two years after the murder of his older brother, saved her sanity. Still, its a difficult film to watch, too, and that is partly because the U.S. shares some culpability in the massacres.
Watching an NBC anchor report the killing of communists as good news is heartwrenching. Most of the victims were not communists; they were factory workers and farmers who resisted the military regime and struggled for labor protections. The U.S.-backed Suharto junta labeled all its opponents as many as 500,000 people communists and set about to liquidate them.
These narratives will continue to play out until we build societies with wider empathies, Oppenheimer said. Even at home, every attempt to get the U.S. government to release the details of the Indonesian mass killings has met with complete denial of every [Freedom of Information Act] request.
Indonesias murders were at least one horrific result of the U.S.s Cold War strategy, but Oppenheimer sees a more pernicious and hidden cause, too. In the newsreel referenced above, the same anchor shows Indonesians forced to go back to work at the Goodyear rubber processing plant. Again, its delivered as good news.
They took people from death camps and forced them to work to produce goods for a U.S. company, Oppenheimer said. Its an identical scenario that played out with German companies around Auschwitz. There is simply no difference.
One of the most telling moments in the film occurs when a death squad member looks straight at the camera, which, in effect, is straight at all of us, and says, I should be given a cruise to the United States because America taught me to hate and kill communists.
It is important to note that even if all half million Indonesians murdered had been communists, it is still murder. Post-Cold War, we can hope to reevaluate what our geopolitics make of us as a people. It is this push toward understanding and justice that drives Oppenheimer.
The film wasnt just to tell a story, he said. I wanted to take it farther, to actually make a push toward justice and reconciliation, but reconciliation and peace cannot come at the expense of justice.
Oppenheimers film opens at Oklahoma City Museum of Art on Aug. 14. It will show five times between Aug. 14 and 20.
Print headline: Disturbing gaze, The Look of Silence examines the fear that remains in Indonesia after the mass killings of the 1960s.