Right wing paramilitaries in Indonesia murdered more than a million people after a coup in 1965. Yet those in government who sanctioned the killings have never lost power.
Their victims included Communists and people who happened to come from a Chinese background.
For his shocking 2012 documentary The Act of Killing director Joshua Oppenheimer tracked down some of the killers.
The Look of Silence is a sequel that looks at the events through the experience of Adi, the brother of one of the victims.
In many ways it is a much more straightforward film than its predecessor. Both are intentionally sickening to watch, but Adi gives a human dimension.
In The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer got killers to meet up and reminisce. While the official line is that the Communists carried out all the violence, it’s shocking how open the paramilitaries are about what they did.
The film starts with people who were murderous street thugs, but works up the chain of command to the uniformed paramilitary Pancasila Youth.
It currently has three million members and government ministers address its rallies.
But the film then descends into the minds of the thugs, by getting them to make a film re-enacting what they did.
It includes surreal musical numbers sung by gangsters who are accompanied by women in sparkly outfits.
Whatever this was meant to show, the thugs’ film removed the victims from the equation. The Look of Silence rectifies this omission.
Adi is an optician, trying to improve sight—and here also hindsight. He was born just after the massacres in which his elder brother Ramli was killed.
He goes to people’s houses to check their eyes, and as he works he chats. One early patient comments, “You ask too many questions.”
Oppenheimer gets him to question thugs who took part in the massacre. The camera often lingers on Adi’s impassive face.
“We exterminated Communists for three months day and night,” proudly says the head of the local death squads.
Adi confronts the local militia’s commander, now a politician, who claims the violence against Communists was spontaneous.
Adi points out that militia took people from political prisons under police escort to be executed.
He coldly replies, “Do you want this to happen again? No. Then don’t make an issue of the past.”
There is an occasional glimpse of compassion. The “look of silence” comes when one woman is filmed as her father says he drank the blood of Communists he killed. She laughs with embarrassment then tries to find a way to talk to Adi.
But the image that remains is not the deluded street thugs but the cold, calculating eyes of the politicians.