The end credits of Joshua Oppenheimer’s extraordinary documentary duo The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are populated by crew members named only as Anonymous; Assistant Directors, Drivers, Makeup Artists, Producers - all listed as Anonymous. A tiny moniker that denotes a huge act of courage for the Indonesian crew members who participated in Oppenheimer’s daring cinematic act of defiance.
The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence have lifted the veil off Indonesia's 1965 genocide -- a military coup, veiled in a victors’ history, which led to more than a million government-sanctioned murders in less than a year. Oppenheimer’s films confront the perpetrators of this genocide, men who still hold powerful positions in the country, men who forged a mythology of glory and honor that has shrouded the truth for half a century. The stories are impactful and devastating for any viewer, but for those listed as Anonymous, they are also personal. After having the opportunity to engage in a moving hour-long talk with Oppenheimer, I jumped at the chance to exchange emails with his Co-Director, one of the Anonymous.
What is your experience with the issues at the forefront of these films? Of course, the institutionalized impunity of the killers and culprits has affected and shaped the entire nation, but how has the genocide and subsequent government indemnity impacted your life specifically?
I first learned about what happened in Indonesia 1965 when I was in 6th grade. The history lesson in the class didn’t tell us anything about the anti-communist mass killing, instead the teacher told us about the kidnapping and the killing of the generals, in the same tone, same way as you can see in The Look of Silence. It’s still taught the same way today. In this lesson, there are some questions which I had to answer by “Very Much Agree”, “Agree,” “Doubtful”, “Disagree” or “Very Much Disagree.” One question that I remember as my homework is something like “We must dissolved Indonesian Communist Party because they were involved in the kidnapping and the killing of the generals.” I asked my father to help me with this homework, and he gave me many reading materials and told me a different story from what I read in the textbook. So I put “doubtful”, practically to all the questions, and prepared some notes to explain why I answered that way for the discussion. The next day, I was surprised that there’s no discussion, the teacher told us answer for each question, and I got a very bad grade. That’s where I learn that there’s something wrong with the national history lesson taught at school.
When I was a teenager, I also learned from my mother that one of my aunts has never been married throughout her life because her fiancé was missing in 1965, but this matter has never been discussed openly in our family. I learned more about the genocide in my university years, and also from my father’s book, which was hidden at the attic of our house. My father is a journalists who lost his job because Soeharto’s military regime government banned his newspaper, simply because it was too critical.
I was one of thousands of students who stood face to face with riot police in 1998, urging the New Order military dictatorship to go. I was not one of the student leaders who delivered heated speeches to the crowd; I was only a supporter, who felt that this moment might be historically important. After more than three decades in power, General Suharto had finally stepped down. I soon realized that although the top leader of the regime has been toppled down, the regime itself has not ended.
Later on, after finishing my university studies (I studied ecology), I worked with an NGO, doing research and trying to help poor forest farmers to get the best from the state forest in their village, and I found that the farmers are poor. One of the reasons, is because they don’t have a strong organization to promote and to protect their interest. The more I learned about the poverty in Indonesia, the more I learned about grass root organizations that were banned, and members of farmers’ union who became victims of 1965 mass killing. I learned that the regime built after the 1965 mass killing not only exterminated communists, but also weakened people’s political power, and made them easy to be exploited by big companies -- a theme that was also explored in Joshua Oppenheimer’s first movie in Indonesia, The Globalization Tapes.
A few years later, a friend introduce me to Joshua.
What is your job in production? How much were you on the ground during filming? If you were, what was the experience like for you coming face to face with the men who inflicted so much harm?
At first my job was to do translation for non-Indonesian crew members, and as a general helper in the production. I became sound-recordist, cameraman B, and in one or two occasions, became director when Joshua was not in Indonesia, but mainly my job was the production manager of the film project. Later in the post-production, I also helped in managing 1,000 hours of the footage we’d shot since 2004, and also in editing. I practically was on the ground during every stage of the filming.
It’s really hard for me coming face to face with those killers who can boast their evil deed as something heroic. But at the same time, for a bigger purpose, to learn why they become so boastful, I cannot confront and challenge them right away, so I have to repressed my emotion and feelings. But the more I’m involved in the film project, the more I learn something, that works of art can help break the silence and create a window of opportunity for a reconciliation with our past. This is one reason why I kept on filming and help making both films.
How much has your life changed since the release of The Act of Killing?
Apart from becoming busier distributing and campaigning for both films, and also campaigning to rectify the history lesson at school, I still work as a campaigner for an environment NGO whenever I can spare my time for it.
What is your emotional response watching The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence? Are that parts that hit uniquely close to home for you, or that are particularly difficult to watch? Are there some that are cathartic?
The most difficult thing to watch is probably Anwar and the mutilation of bear doll scene. It’s something that I don’t want to see twice. I know it’s a bear doll, but what really terrorize my mind is not what I see, but what imagine really happened, the thing that we don’t really know. It’s shocking since the shooting, and for me, it’s a question of how powerful our imagination is, as it can raise hope for a better future, but at the same time, imagination is also the thing that create justification for the perpetrators to justify the evil things they did. Only by imagining that the mass killing is necessary—or even heroic—a mass murderer could do his job.
One scene that gives me a relief, more than anything, is when Adi hugged the daughter of the perpetrators, and also the father, the man who was involved in the killing of Adi’s brother. It’s a very simple gesture, but it’s also in a very small scale, a thing that what human being can do to make peace with the dark past. I didn’t expect that when I was shooting it. I shot that scene with tears in my eyes.
Has the release of the film, and the truths it unearthed, changed day to day life? Or has it caused a noticeable change on a broader cultural level?
Both films, I think, together with other important works, including the National Human Rights Commission’s report on 1965 gross human rights abuse, has helped Indonesians break the silence about their history, and they could start to discuss it openly in their small circles of families, friends or communities. They could start the discussion by watching both movies.
We get many mails from Indonesian viewers who are touched by the film, and often it inspired them to learn more about their own history and found out that they’re part of the victims’ families. More Indonesians now realize that they’re part of the forgotten dark national history, and realize that this dark history has not been the past, it still haunts them in the present, and there’s something we must do to make it a past.
One person who watch The Act of Killing in a closed screening in Central Java wrote an email and asked if we can give him a free DVD of the film. He planned to screen it in his village. We sent them a copy of the DVD for free. Months later he wrote us back telling that he has screened it in 8 villages close to mass graves of 1965 genocide. At first he only screened the film in one village, but the villagers there, many of them are victims’ family or survivors, told him to screen it in other village. He told us that villagers learned that they’ve been a victim of stigmatization all this time, and the film may encourage viewers to see what’s wrong with the country.
What really touched me is when he told us that villagers around the mass graves, for the first time, cleaned the mass grave and sent a prayer openly, at the end of the fasting month. This may be a very small gestures that villagers, survivors, and victims’ families can do to show that they’re not afraid anymore. That they don’t want to live in fear anymore. That it’s the time to see that their family members, the victims of the genocide didn’t deserve what happened to them.
Can you talk about the decision to remain Anonymous? What would be the cost if that anonymity was compromised?
The film crew discussed how to write our names in the credit title so many times in Indonesia with many human rights activists, and also lawyers. There are legal consequences to be involved in this film project, especially when it comes to co-director and producer position. In Indonesia, we can be sued for libel or tarnishing Indonesian reputation (see for example). But what really worrying is the extra-legal consequences that thugs could have harmed us to terrorize anyone involved in the film so no one would dare to see the film in Indonesia. But we don’t really know what might happen to us, and that’s really worrying: that we don’t know.
After a long discussion, we decided to put “Anonymous” as the name for every Indonesian involved in the film.
Why did you think this was a story that needed to be told, to the point even that you were willing to risk your safety to be a part of the production?
I learned my nation’s history better when I found out that there’s something wrong, hidden, and dark about our history. We learned that millions of Indonesians have been victims of colonization injustice, and millions others died fighting for an independent state that promised to protect people’s human rights. But that promise is not fulfilled, yet. Just 20 years after Indonesian’s independency, another millions become victims of crimes against humanity. Today, 70 years of independence, free from colonization, 50 years after the mass killing, the state has not uttered apology to the victims. Impunity happens and all the perpetrators get away with impunity, the architect of the mass murder is planned to be anointed as national hero, the victims still do not get the rehabilitation and the recompensation they deserve, history lessons have not been corrected, and millions of victims families still face stigmatization and discrimination. In just a few days, Indonesia will celebrate its 70 years of freedom and for me it’s the time to question what independence means to us. Personally, it’s also a time to question the meaning of one single life, my life, in comparison to millions of lives that were lost and still struggling to give meaning to that freedom we are all fighting for.
Does your family know about your involvement in the films? Are they proud of you? Scared for you?
Only very few, close family and friends know my involvement in the film. I could say my father, mother, brothers, one or two uncles/aunties, but not even cousins know what I’ve been doing the last decade. Not one of my neighbors know.
Those who know about my involvement in the films are very supportive, especially my father. Friends worried about my safety, sometimes even more than I worry about myself, the first time The Act of Killing made news in Indonesia. They offered us protection, or a safe house, for us to move for a while, at least until the negative response faded away. They said something like, “Well, if, hope this won’t happen, but if some of those thugs know who you are and where do you live, and they threat you in any way, just give us a call, we’ll pick you up from the back door, take you to the safest place.” But so far, and the reception is even better with The Look of Silence, we didn’t need their service of rescuing me.
Has anything surprised you about the international reception of the films?
When we were making the film, we knew that we were making an important film, but we didn’t expect that the international reception could be this overwhelmingly positive.
When the film was nominated for an Oscar, there was so much coverage and so many wonderful editorials in the Indonesian press that the government finally felt they needed to respond. Not a very positive response, and I have to respond to government response who said that the film is some kind of ‘foreign plot’ to tarnish Indonesian reputation. This kind of polemic in Indonesian press, I believe, has helped Indonesian breaking the silence about our dark past and helping put our step in a pathway to reconciliation.
Every time the films win an award, the film and the issues of impunity that it raises become news in Indonesia, and that encourages ordinary Indonesians to find the courage to hold their leaders to account, both for historical crimes against humanity and for present-day kinds of corruption – which they get away with, of course, because they know that the ordinary people whom they’re supposedly representing are too afraid to do so. So every time we win an award, that fear diminishes bit by bit. It’s palpable.