By Peter Robinson
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 403

The Look of Silence

This article is over 6 years, 7 months old
Issue 403

Adi is watching TV impassively, transfixed, as two ageing men describe in detail how they killed his brother, Ramli, almost 50 years before. They are laughing while they act out the murder in the exact spot where it took place by the Snake River in North Sumatra.

They describe how they repeatedly stabbed him but somehow he managed to escape. They had to drag him back to the river, where they made him crouch down so they could slice off his penis with a machete so that he bled to death. After recounting the story they pose for a photo waving “v for victory” signs.

The killers’ boastful tale comes from Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary The Act of Killing, where he interviewed some of those responsible for the Indonesian genocide of 1965-1966. They were militia men or plain gangsters at the time, and are proud of the actions they took to defend the state against the communist threat.

These men still hold power, live in luxury and exert fear — despite the military dictatorship established under General Suharto having ended in 1998.

In this film we follow Adi, a travelling optician, as he confronts the killers. His trade becomes a metaphor. The film is seen through the eyes of the victims who have been denied the right to come to terms with their losses or hold the perpetrators to account. As the softly spoken Adi conducts eye tests on mass murderers, will they be able to see through their own delusions, lies and self-justifications in order to admit what they did was wrong?

Adi’s mother is stoic in the face of his father’s senility and blindness. She worries about Adi’s involvement in the film, saying, “It’s over. Everything is safe now.” We see Adi’s son in a history lesson at school. The crudest government propaganda is peddled as fact. The communists were like animals, savages intent on overthrowing the state.

I would have liked a little bit more information putting the genocide in the context of Indonesian, regional and imperialist politics other than the few brief captions at the start of the film.

This was only one year after the US began to wage all-out war in Vietnam. One interviewee states, “We did this because America taught us to hate communists.” The US did more than that. It provided training, weapons, finance and lists of communists to the Indonesian death squads.

Nevertheless, this is an extraordinary film, a meditation on memory, responsibility and guilt. Long static shots of beautiful countryside and sequences showing the everyday life of Adi’s family are interspersed with the most sickening anecdotes. There is no demand for justice or retribution, just an acknowledgement that what everyone knows took place actually happened.

At the end of the film we are reminded of the bravery of even this when role after role in the film’s production is credited to Anonymous.

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