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The Look of Silence and prequels bring Indonesia’s dark legacy of 1965 killings into the light

Adi Rukun questions Commander Amir Siahaan, one of the death squad leaders responsible for his brother’s death during the Indonesian genocide, in Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Look of Silence. Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media.

The Look of Silence and prequels bring Indonesia’s dark legacy of 1965 killings into the light

A series of Oscar-nominated documentaries on the aftermath of the 1965 massacres in present-day Indonesia attempts to change the way we remember the history of global right-wing political violence.

Before The Look of Silence, nominated for an Oscar to be announced this Sunday, and its prequel The Act of Killing (2012), which was nominated in 2014, the 1965 massacres of leftists by the Indonesian army and civilian militias had been one of the world’s bloodiest yet least talked about episodes of political violence.

We may be familiar with the bloody overthrow of Chilean socialist president Salvador Allende in 1973 by General Pinochet as a famous example of oppression against the left. But few know that the anti-communist pogrom in Indonesia eight years earlier helped inspire the coup. Pinochet even named his takeover plan Operación Yakarta.

The documentaries of Joshua Oppenheimer and an anonymous Indonesian co-director show how the 1965 events shaped Indonesia’s history, bringing to light the country’s experience as part of a global narrative.

To grasp the big picture, viewers should watch The Look of Silence as part of a trilogy, starting with The Globalisation Tapes (2003), followed by The Act of Killing.

Decolonisation sabotaged

The Look of Silence follows Adi Rukun, an optometrist whose brother was killed in the US-backed anti-communist massacre before he was born. He confronts the perpetrators, members of civilian militias who see themselves as patriots, about their complicity.

The Look of Silence trailer

It’s prequel, the Bafta-winning documentary Act of Killing, shocked viewers with boastful killers re-enacting how they murdered their victims in 1965.

But The Act of Killing was not Oppenheimer’s first film on the effects of the 1965 violence. He had touched on them in The Globalisation Tapes.

Largely incorporating 1960s agitprop style, it depicts the struggle of workers in a Belgian-owned plantation in North Sumatra, Indonesia. Some of them are descendants of 1965 victims. Their stories reveal the impact of forced economic globalisation on their livelihood.

Globalisation Tapes

Oppenheimer may not have intended to frame his works as a trilogy. But through these three films he provides a picture of the long-term impact of a sabotaged decolonisation. From the first instalment to the next, he embarks on tackling the issue of a global political economy and shifts to local and more personalised problems.

Historical references

Some critics debated whether The Act of Killing is exploitation cinema. Some argue it is an orientalist picture about the atrocities, attributing the carnage to the presupposed “Asiatic nature” of the killers.

Some view the lack of historical context in The Look of Silence and The Act of Killing as overlooking the complicity of Indonesian military and Western countries.

The films do, however, bring historical context to the viewers.

Oppenheimer had chosen the direct cinema approach that focuses more on the here-and-now, limiting explicit historical description that fully describes the relationship between the armed forces and the civilian killers. He chose this approach to show that legacies of the 1965 violence remain in the present.

However, the films embody the sense of the past within different characters, expressed through their speech and gestures.

Oppenheimer also presents obvious Cold War references in his films. In The Look of Silence, Adi Rukun is exposed to NBC-produced newsreel from 1967 that relates Sukarno’s overthrow.

The film thus interrogates Western collaborators in the same way it interrogates the Indonesian killers. It shows viewers how the West spoke grandiosely of their anti-communism and their role in the slaughter.

The NBC narrator Ted Yates says: “Indonesia has a fabulous potential wealth and natural resources. Goodyear Sumatran rubber empire is an example. The rubber workers' union was communist-run. So, after the coup many of them were killed or imprisoned. Some of the survivors – you see them here – still work the rubber plantation, but this time as prisoners and at gunpoint.”

Adi Rukun watches footage of interviews conducted by Joshua Oppenheimer with perpetrators of the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide in The Look of Silence. Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media

The NBC footage, uncompromising in its demonisation of Sukarno and the Communist Party, shows plantation workers literally marching at army gunpoint.

Anti-communism remains a force

Oppenheimer’s team has effectively use several online platforms to promote the films and organise screenings by sending free copies of the films to hundreds of communities.

The public response to the documentaries has triggered screenings of related films. Between 2000 and 2011, at least 25 films (shorts, documentaries, features) have been made about the subject. Lexy Rambadetta’s Mass Grave (2001), for instance, deals with resistance from communities to families wishing to provide proper reburial for victims.

The increasing production of 1965-themed films shows that Indonesians are speaking up about the murders. Some screenings are banned by authorities and attacked by right-wing mass organisations. This also suggests violent legacies of the 1965 killings live on.

Influential members of the armed forces still retain links to militia groups notorious for their street violence. The anti-communist narrative – “they wage war on us”, “they corrupt the youth”, “we have no choice but to kill them or be killed” – can be found in many different translations, being handy to dismiss minority groups such as Ahmadis and Shiites, and having featured in recent attacks on members of the Gafatar religious cult and LGBT people.

Duty to truth

Oppenheimer’s trilogy challenges us to take on a different kind of engagement with past atrocities. That means casting a light on more and more perpetrators, some of whom live next door.

The military and its street proxies aside, the 1965 massacre involved sections of religious leaders, artists and intellectuals.

When the state keeps silent and wants us to be silent about its unpleasant past, the duty to expose past collaborators is ultimately left to us.