‘Human capacity for evil depends on our ability to lie to ourselves’
Joshua Oppenheimer, 2015
If technology has a ‘bleeding edge’, so does cinema. Films like ‘CitizenFour’, the Edward Snowden documentary, provide an analogous case for art, where the story’s telling poses substantial risk to filmmakers and their participants. In Joshua Oppenheimer’s diptych exploring the 1965 Indonesian genocide, The Act of Killing (2012) and its current companion The Look of Silence, we have a much bloodier, sharper edge.
It is the edge of a machete which Amir Hassan and Inong wish they had brought back with them to Snake River, so that they might re-enact their killing of innocent people more faithfully. It is the double-edged sword of memory, on one side repressed by the victim community, on the other, glorified and revelled in by the perpetrators. It is the veiled edge of government threats to the filmmaker and his subject’s family, who in daring to question the actions of a military dictatorship which committed genocide in the 1965-6 ‘revolution’, confronts a government which still rules today.
Oppenheimer’s subject is Adi Rukun, who discusses the murder of his brother, Ramli, with those who remember his death. Amongst them are his parents, his uncle, and most strikingly the men who murdered Ramli and a million others like him. Each party’s reluctance to talk is an attitude forged in 50 years of silence, enforced by victorious killers who continue to live amongst their victim’s families.
Both sides agree, the past is past, and at times we doubt alongside Adi that he might be mistaken in disturbing rested soil. But as he digs deeper, the necessity of revisiting the past becomes clear. In images mirroring those of Hassan and Inong, who Adi sees revisit Snake River on a small television at the film’s beginning, Adi and his uncle retread the same ground. The killers’ retelling is one of jovial observations and wistful remembrance, two old friends debating the details of shared experience. The victim’s response is the polar opposite – solemn, praying of their Gods to let the dead rest peacefully. In a later clip from the same video, the killers make peace signs and pose for pictures next to the site of Ramli’s death.
The murderers are shown to appreciate beauty, in nature – as they stop to admire a flower – and in human art – as they draw pictures to remember the massacre. As Louis Theroux observed in his introduction to the film, the ‘weirdest thing about weird people is how normal they are’. His quote is supposed to make us relate to the abnormal, and see ourselves in their supposed ‘otherness’. But after Oppenheimer’s film, empathy becomes a bitter pill to swallow.
Adi’s considered, pensive persona is all the more remarkable as a result. He is a man of quiet intelligence, who knows when to hold his tongue, but whose indignation is palpable as he conducts his interviews. Oppenheimer revealed afterward that Adi actually shot one sequence in The Look of Silence, where his father finally loses the memories of his family, his home, and his dead son; crawling around his room shouting ‘this is not my house!’ As Adi explains, this is moment it became too late for his father to achieve closure – where the victim and aggressor are both lost in the passage of time.
Oppenheimer shows us multiple methods of engagement with the past, and here the victims/perpetrators are in unlikely communion. Neither wishes to delve into what has already happened. Adi’s parents say there is ‘no use raising it now’. His uncle says ‘remembering is asking for trouble…the world has healed.’ On the flipside, these comments carry the threat of further violence. Amir Siahaan assures Adi that if he ‘keeps making it an issue, then the past will repeat itself’. In a moment which signifies the danger of the project, Siahaan asks his brother’s name and subdistrict, which Adi refuses to grant him for fear of repercussions upon his family. We are reminded of the singular nature of Oppenheimer’s project: cinema has never before captured a victim’s interview with murderers while the latter is still in power.
In a gracefully observed metaphor, Adi conducts eye examinations on his murderous interviewees. Their refusal to see through another’s eyes are in parallel with their declining powers of sight. Oppenheimer later explains the practical use for this mechanism, which decreases the risk of violence and threats by putting the interviewee in a weakened position. Their words, Adi hopes, will speak for themselves. He is proved right. Their statements are fraught with hypocrisy, changing goalposts at will, redefining sentences uttered as recently as several minutes ago. It the behaviour of unopposed victors, used to inscribing the past in accordance with their temperament. There are small victories to be had against them here, in succinct, oxymoronic lines like ‘Your questions are too deep… I know nothing of politics’ (this from a man who specialised in identifying ‘communists’); or most strikingly ‘Luckily I drank human blood, or else I’d be crazy now’ (highlighting the stomach-turning practise of the perpetrators, who believed it gave them the mental toughness to overcome personal atrocity. In a further level of irony, it appears to have worked.)
In these sequences, Oppenheimer holds close to the faces of both sides; Adi’s quiet mask of defiance questioning old men of power, who faces may twitch, but none flinch. These men have no trouble inhabiting the past. Neither does Adi’s father, who in his centurion senility claims he is 17 years old and sings of sexy girls who catch his eye. Oppenheimer claims after that, in some way, ‘the genocide is still happening’, and it’s not hard to see the why. The past has become a place for the infirm or the insane.
Both sides invoke God on their side. One asserts the perpetrators will suffer in the afterlife, the other abdicates their individual morality in pursuit of a higher calling (in this case, the ‘communist’ purge). Adi, who remains religious and exemplifies extraordinary strength in forgiveness*, seems ultimately discontent with this divine displacement. The younger generation of Indonesia more widely is increasingly willing to challenge the old order, and encouraging sounds were made after The Act of Killing was released to record audiences in Indonesia. Unthinkable even 10 years ago, The Look of Silence even received backing from two Indonesian government initiatives.
The Look of Silence is a tremendously brave act of political filmmaking. It highlights the vacuum of responsibility created by the governing officials’ continued rewriting of history in modern Indonesia. Instead of providing an objective account of the massacre’s effects, Oppenheimer structures the film like a poem. He uses layered metaphor to explore untouched levels of memory, which manifest themselves in a mother’s restrained grief, in Adi’s unspoken resilience and, most shockingly, in gross caricatures animated by deluded men of power. It is a mark of the film’s timeliness and the genocide’s continued atrocity that Adi and his family have been relocated 1000s of miles away from their aggressors, and that the cast list is dominated by the label ‘anonymous’.
Amongst the pain, there are reprieving moments of beauty: in Adi’s giggling little girl, symbol of hopeful youth and brighter futures; in the luscious scenery of Indonesia, which (in the manner of 12 Years a Slave) provides beatific counterpoint to instances of unthinkable human brutality. In terms of cultural effect, Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was said to lift a cultural embargo on speaking about D-day and its atrocities. The Look of Silence is in the process of creating another moment of collective remembrance. Though this time, cinema aims to set the record straight, to shatter half-a-century of silence and usher in some form of closure to the victims that remain before it is too late.
Q: ‘Do you forgive your brother’s killers?’
Adi: ‘If I was vengeful, it would be the same feeling which drove people to slaughter.’