THE LOOK OF SILENCE: Guilt, Complicity And Reconciliation

Why the follow-up to Joshua Oppenheimer's THE ACT OF KILLING should matter to America.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing was nominated for an Academy Award in 2014. Both its 122 and 159 minutes cuts were critical darlings in the Western world, and the film eventually found a home on Netflix, Blu-ray and DVD. However in Indonesia, its country of origin, it was forced to open in secret. The documentary was shot over a period of seven years, focusing largely on one Anwar Congo, and his role in the killing of over a million people in 1965, a state-sponsored massacre of communists and the country’s ethnic Chinese during the initial years of the Cold War, events that the Indonesian state hails as heroic to this very day. While Congo eventually comes to terms with his actions, re-enacting each killing until he begins to understand its weight, there still hasn’t been any national recognition of this atrocity - by Indonesia, or by any of the other countries responsible.

Oppenheimer’s follow-up takes a more direct and personal approach to demanding accountability. During his many years filming The Act of Killing, the director grew close to Adi Rukun, a middle-aged traveling optician and spectacle salesman who not only knew some of the individuals responsible for the killings, but was a child born out of the events themselves. Adi never knew his older brother Ramli, who was slaughtered by his own neighbors. They had been tasked with protecting the state from communism by any means necessary, and even though their involvement was kept off the record so that government officials could shirk responsibility, their actions were celebrated and passed down as propaganda over five whole decades. While helping Oppenheimer make his first film about the events, Adi watched the footage of these boastful murderers over and over again, as they gleefully recounted the horrifying details of what they had done, before deciding that they needed to be confronted. And so The Look of Silence was born, a companion film in which Adi sits face to face with the people responsible for disemboweling, castrating and decapitating his brother before dumping his body into a river, along with so many other bodies that it destroyed their town’s fishing industry.

Elsewhere in the country, another industry benefitted from the genocide.

Like its predecessor, The Look of Silence features extended segments of its main character sitting in front of a television. The Act of Killing’s Anwar Congo was shown footage of himself as he re-enacted his murders. Here, Adi Rukun watches footage of similar killers telling tales of the blood they shed, killers who don’t seem like they’re going to come around anytime soon. Among them are two men from Adi’s village who helped physically carry out the massacre, filmed in 2005, and a third killer whose involvement is rarely acknowledged: the United States. Breaking the traditional formula of playing his own footage for his subjects, Oppenheimer instead shows Adi (and us) snippets of an NBC documentary about the return of Goodyear Tires and other American companies to Indonesia after the nation had passed its Foreign Investments Law in 1967, a law which specifically protected the United States “against currency inconvertibility, expropriation, war, revolution, and insurrection.”

The notion that all communists were vile and Godless made it easier for them to be hated by countries with largely religious populations (Christians in the U.S., Muslims in Indonesia) and is a notion repeated ad nauseam by the people interviewed in Oppenheimer’s documentaries, from killers, to politicians, to school teachers. The NBC footage speaks of events on par with the Nazi Holocaust, a period of History openly condemned by the United States, yet it mentions the massacre with adoration, touting it as a major political victory. Per the documentary (which NBC made available to Oppenheimer upon request), Goodyear had a presence in the country prior to the events of 1965, but its plant in Sumatra was seized by the rubber workers in response to American military aggression in Vietnam. The union was communist-run, and after the massacre, many of the surviving rubber-workers were made to work at the Goodyear plant as slave labour, often at gunpoint.

Workers World describes the documentary in greater detail, and while its inclusion in The Look of Silence initially feels like mere backdrop, the full context of it becomes clear during another one of Oppenheimer’s recent interviews. In it, a killer talks about how he feels he’s owed a reward from the United States (perhaps even a vacation here!) because his actions were in service of the fight against global communism. He wasn’t wrong. Even though to him it may have seemed purely ideological (“We did this because America taught us to hate Communists”), the CIA played a direct role in the massacre, funneling arms to the Indonesian military (along with Britain and West Germany, albeit to a lesser extent) and even compiled comprehensive ‘death lists’ of supposed communist operatives. This information has been around for a while, and is something the American government has yet to admit any involvement in fifty years on, but this isn’t the only reason The Look of Silence might be an important watch for American audiences.

Towards the end of the film, footage shot by Adi himself shows his blind, frail, 103-year-old father crawling around an enclosed room, exclaiming “I’ve wandered into a stranger’s house! He’s going to beat me!” as he tries to find a way out. His father has begun to lose not only his basic senses, but his memories as well. He has no recollection of his son Ramli, nor the fact that he was brutally murdered by his own neighbors, and he has no factual attachment to events of 1965. However, despite having no idea why, he lives in a constant cycle of fear. He has no chance at reconciliation or forgiveness, or even understanding the events that took place, and no way to gain closure for the events that still plague his every waking moment. According to Oppenheimer, this was one of the reasons Adi wanted so desperately to get the film made, because he didn’t want his children to suffer the same fate. And so, he took on the task of sitting down with his brother’s killers to ask them some tough, uncomfortable and necessary questions.

During the course of the film, Adi works his way up and down the chain of command, talking to a Government official from the era who still happens to be in power, a local leader who’s a hero to his community, the man who carried out his brother’s murder, and even Ramli’s own uncle, a prison guard at the time. He poses simple questions about regret, coupled with facts about his family’s lived experiences, as each person he talks to gives him the same runaround about letting the past be the past. He needs to be cautious, however, as the power structure set up in 1965 is the same one that exists today, and revealing his identity comes with the danger of his being labeled a communist and being persecuted for it. The military responsible for the massacre is still above the law in Indonesia, and the people he sat down with continue to be seen as heroes. When Adi’s questions get too tough for them to answer, they respond either with aggression, or by telling him to move on. But how can he, when the conditions that led to (and stemmed from) the genocide still exist as the norm, and his own children are being taught that communists are, by their very nature, vile, bloodthirsty sub-humans deserving of death?

No one is willing to give him a straight answer, and the people who weren’t physically holding the machetes put the blame on whoever was immediately above or below them in the power structure. Not only that, Adi is told that he’s the one “opening old wounds” by bringing up the subject, and accused of being an agitator. His mother still doesn’t have a single answer as to why her son was ripped from her arms and viciously put to death. She’s been forced into silence by decades of living in a society that’s convinced itself everything’s okay and as it was meant to be. One of the killers even talks about how they all drank the blood of their victims to “stay sane,” while the wife of another denies her late husband’s involvement in the events altogether, despite being confronted with video evidence of not only his involvement, but of her knowledge of it as well. Her family claims to be upset by the conversation, while Adi sits there holding back all his rage and frustration at the fact that no one wants to take any responsibility. One of the killers pretends to be ill the moment the topic comes up, however his daughter (who claims to have had no prior knowledge of her father’s involvement) is on the same page as Adi. Like him, she’s part of a generation that wants to see some kind of reconciliation. Her perspective on the massacre is somewhat limited, and she asks Adi to forgive her father even though he doesn’t ask it himself, but she seems to be the only one willing to even consider the fact that her family might be on the wrong side of history. Elsewhere, in one of the old interviews, the two men who carried out Ramli’s execution talk about how he was “probably a good guy,” before they go on to re-enact his brutal castration without a hint of remorse.

Oppenheimer believes that the new leaders of Indonesia might finally recognize the country’s wrongdoings, and unlike its predecessor, The Look of Silence saw a wide domestic release despite opposition, screening publicly thousands of times. News of soldiers ordered to watch the film even made the rounds, and the country seems to have taken its first step towards healing, by recognizing the role of their government and their society in the atrocities of the past. It’s an important film for Indonesia, no doubt, but its American release is something that should perhaps be taken full advantage of, because the need to recognize the contemporary effects of historical oppression is all too relevant.

Ever since the Charleston shooting, debate has raged over the Confederate Flag flying atop Government buildings in several states. We’re coming up on the first anniversary of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the events of which led to the Black Lives Matter movement, often accused of being ‘race-baiters’ who play certain ‘cards’ in order to concoct issues that supposedly don’t exist anymore. Certain news networks often dismiss the idea of systemic racism with the wave of a hand, claiming that community organizers who speak about racial inequality are “obsessed” with race, and are themselves the real racists. Or as Jon Stewart calls it, the “He who smelt it, dealt it” of racism. There’s a chasmic divide between those who want the Confederate Flag (and by proxy, slavery and all the ensuing racial inequality) to be officially condemned, and those who still show up in droves to Confederate Flag rallies claiming its only meaning is southern pride.

Adi Rukun has a theory about such pride, and the reasons it’s both pushed and publically displayed. His many interactions with the people responsible for propagating the idea of a heroic genocide have led him to believe that it’s a cover for deep-seated guilt. In each interview, there comes a point where what the subject is saying is completely disconnected from the look on their face and how they’re behaving, much like The Jinx’s Robert Durst. None of them ever say that they’re guilty, but looking at how they react to Adi’s line of questioning, squirming in their seats, avoiding eye contact and changing the subject to shift the blame onto him, it’s hard to believe they don’t think it on some level.

This of course doesn’t apply directly to everyone who waves the Confederate Flag. Except for the actual KKK or the folks who show up to “Southern Pride” rallies with a Nazi Swastika, we’re talking about people who might not have the same associations with the flag as its creators did, or at least such is their intention. Some might not display overt negativity to people of different ethnicities, and they might even be holding onto their beliefs because it’s all they know about their history. But in essence, isn’t that part of the problem? That there’s no collective responsibility or willingness to acknowledge how the past still has a hold on the present, and the potential future? The individual perpetrators of slavery might be long dead, but is it not their names that line the same South Carolina streets where the blood of their crimes once ran? Are they not still considered heroes who fought for the right reasons, with the systemic oppression of an entire race being nothing more than an ‘unfortunate outcome’? Is this not the same pride embodied by the school teaching Adi’s daughter to hold the monsters of the past in high regard? The same pride that talks about the ‘liberation’ of the Indonesian peoples and their move towards further industrialization, despite being built on slave labour? The same blindness that prevents people from seeing how a system such as this leads to the death and endangerment of the same people today?

The film, unfortunately, presents no solution. Where The Act of Killing ploughed through the darkest of human journeys in order to show a man accepting the worst parts of himself, The Look of Silence offers no reconciliation, because Adi Rukun has no such luxury. But it isn’t pessimistic. It doesn’t present a problem that can’t be solved. Instead it takes a microscope and examines the problem at the closest possible proximity until you can see every detail of its structure. It lays bare the thoughts and perspectives preventing a nation from healing and moving towards a better future, at both the individual and governmental levels, and it points the finger at the exact spots where this façade would likely crack if struck at the right angle, and with the right amount of force.

The Confederate Flag issue is but one of several examples of why a film such as this needs to be seen by American audiences. Perhaps a more apt example would be the treatment of Native Americans, and how people refuse to admit the myriad of problems they face (from names of sports teams, to an entire culture being all but erased from existence) - and even if we only talk about anti-black racism in this instance, the most recent case being discussed is that of Sandra Bland, a woman whom some people believe deserved to die because she talked back to a police officer. There are too many of these examples for me to list right now, too many problems that have gone unsolved and have become part of a bigger problem, but they all seem to stem from the same place: the refusal to recognize collective responsibility, or in some cases, any responsibility at all. According to the film, there can be no reconciliation without admission of guilt, and there can be no such admission until there’s recognition of complicity. Complicity in a society that inherently subjugates, a society that cannot and will not let go of that tendency unless we recognize it for the vicious flaw that it is. Indonesia, America, and anywhere else you can think of. We share a bloody history, and we can’t wipe that slate clean by pretending the blood doesn’t still line the streets. Because that’s what silence looks like.

The Look of Silence opens across various cities in the United States between now and September, and if you’d like to sign the petition to end the silence by declassifying the documents related to the events, you can do so here.