Joshua Oppenheimer’s acclaimed film, The Act of Killing, and its sequel The Look of Silence are about getting away with murder.
In 1965, the Indonesian military seized power and launched a nationwide massacre of the left. Much of the dirty work was delegated to death squads and Muslim militias, ordinary citizens as well as shock troops. The victims were party activists, intellectuals, artists, unionised workers and illiterate sharecroppers. In a few months, roughly one million people died, eight times the combined death toll of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But unlike the victims of aerial bombing, Indonesians fell to individual acts of murder, messy and sadistic. These films consider the performance and the legacy, the small print of organised slaughter.
Oppenheimer ignores the wider context of post-colonial, Cold War politics to concentrate on local operations in North Sumatra – a sideshow to the pogroms of Java and Bali but similar in their meticulous brutality. It’s a risky move, but close focus better reveals the intimacy of the killings, the self-vindication of perpetrators and, in the second film, the tragic predicament of victims’ families.
For survivors there was no consoling reckoning, no Nuremberg trials or Truth and Reconciliation. Half a century of propaganda has buried the truth. During the early years of New Order rule, when the best of Indonesia died, the nation learned not to think – or to think only what was ordered.
The Look of Silence
One scene in the new film shows a teacher drilling his class in the national myth of military salvation from the godless, eye-gouging communists. As the lies drip from his mouth, the camera scans the shocked faces of pupils (the film is a study of faces and emotions), then pauses on one squirming child. His uncle – as we learn – had been one of the victims.
We follow the boy’s father, a rural optician, as he tours the district, visiting dusty backyards to test rheumy eyes and quiz ageing customers about their past. One toothless veteran, glaring through optometrist goggles (rimmed in red and white, the national colours), explains the executioner’s procedure: the correct angle for the machete blow, the prescription for downing “one or two glasses” of the victim’s blood to avoid going crazy. The startling conflation of close-up violence and moral myopia – the ultra-nationalist optic – becomes a leitmotif of the film; the begoggled, bloodthirsty Gorgon its most memorable image.
No need for euphemism or apologetics, the killers are proud of their crimes, happy to oblige with a re-enactment. And when, with due caution, the optician Adi professes his wish to confront his uncle’s killers, they are unashamed to threaten, secure in the backing of the fascist state. (The Act of Killing has a chilling scene in which Indonesia’s vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, delivers a speech extolling thuggery to a jamboree of blackshirted gangsters.) The brazen swagger and the accusing gaze that reflects it give the film its moral and emotional punch. Its argument is less about the capacity for evil – thugs are thugs – than about injustice and impunity.
More than terror
Indonesia’s silent trauma, its moral paralysis, recalls Franco’s Spain and post-Stalinist Russia. But what guarantees impunity in this case is more than terror or a pact of forgetting. It’s something to do with deviance and conformity, an enigma unconsidered by Oppenheimer.
In 1992, in the dog days of the Suharto dictatorship, I boarded for a year with a widow whose husband, a schoolmaster, had commanded a death squad in the villages around Banyuwangi, East Java. Knowing both killers and survivors, hearing commentary from all sides, I was struck by a generalised approval for his actions, a grudging respect among non-aligned villagers and – but for an aesthetic shiver – an indifference to the victims’ fate.
In Java, the dissident, the deviant and the witch are equated as “figures of the left, the sinister”. Internal enemies, they are equally deserving of savage treatment. Propaganda relies on this demonisation; repeated ad nauseam it becomes fact. From a few ex-killers it was possible to elicit regrets (never guilt), but I couldn’t overturn the shibboleths of 50 years.
What can a film like this hope to achieve? The unblinking confrontation with the past, embodied in the questing – and very brave – optician, makes for riveting viewing. That piercing, painful gaze is unforgettable. The reunion, at the end, of his mother with a friend of her dead son, a fellow survivor, is a moment of overwhelming cathartic grief and profound emotional truth. And truth, of different kinds, is what both of these films set out to explore and what Indonesia, if it is ever to regenerate, will need to address.
A scene halfway through Act of Killing shows its anti-hero, a rakish dandy with the improbable name of Anwar Congo, reviewing an earlier scene in which he demonstrates how he garrotted his victims: more efficient and cleaner than a knife. He shakes his grizzled head at the video monitor. “No, that was wrong,” he says, frowning sagely; “it was a mistake”. His sidekick, a piggish man with a black mane and a Buddha belly, grunts sympathetically. The audience is primed for a moment of insight, perhaps of remorse. “I wouldn’t have worn white trousers for a massacre,” explains Anwar, pointing at the screen. “There I’m dressed for a picnic. When I went out killing it had to be black.”
Anwar’s concern for the truth, or what he sees as the truth, is very important in a film about the deaths of a million people, a film which makes of its killer-stars – or star killers – co-directors. The staging and costumes have to be right, just like in the gangster movies Anwar admires, death imitating art.
The Look of Silence eschews its predecessor’s gory glamour and unearths deeper truths. It offers a harder message for modern Indonesia. The Gorgon challenges the optician: “Your questions are deeper than Joshua’s, I don’t like them”. But someone sometime will have to answer them. Truth, accountability, justice, reparation: The Act of Killing sparked a national discussion that has still barely started. The Look of Silence – with film credits mostly to Anonymous – takes the necessary second step.