Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Cinematographer: Lars Skree
Composers: Seri Banang & Mana Tahan
Two years ago I watched the Academy Award nominated documentary The Act of Killing by director Joshua Oppenheimer. The film revisited the events surrounding the Indonesian killings of 1965 and 1966, during which hundreds of thousands of people were murdered after accused of being communists. The murderers were government approved men who referred to themselves as gangsters, and these men proudly cleansed with venomous joy their country of people whose ideologies didn’t match their own, partly because of American influence and propaganda of the evils of communism. In Oppenheimer’s movie the gangsters retold their crimes and some of the men decided to stage the murders over again, in pantomime form with performance and dance, glorifying the gruesome behavior and rendering them in all their grotesque and sickening glory. The documentary was an incredible feat in storytelling and journalism and was extremely effective in its showcasing of these monsters. So affecting that it took me four sessions to get through the entire film, which can be found on Netflix, as it was, for me, impossible to stomach in one setting. Having to watch something in pieces due to subject matter has rarely happened to me, and I can count the times on one hand, which shows the lasting power this movie had. The Indonesia of Eat, Pray, Love this was definitely not.
In the new documentary The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer returns to Indonesia and the 65-66 killings but with a completely new perspective and story, the component that was sorely missing from his previous film. The two documentaries were actually conceived together from the beginning and it shows as they are completely complementary to each other. Neither is repetitive and they are complete unto themselves, but together they are stronger and indelible. In this second documentary we are finally provided with the perspective of the victims of all the horror that occurred back then. Adi Rukun is a middle aged optician whose older brother was amongst the victims of the killings. Adi had not been born yet but his brother’s death has still marked his life in horrifying and heartbreaking ways. His parents, still alive, live each day carrying the burden of having lost their child yet living in a world that prefers to forget the events and erase any memory of what occurred. Adi confronts many men who single handedly murdered his brother while administering eye tests, his resolve is to get answers and his patience, levelheadedness, and patience are astounding.
The documentary is in essence a study on a nation’s ability to forget and complicit willingness to sweep any troubling memory under the rug. Each country has chapters in its history that it would rather forget, as facing these would be an admission of error, which could be interpreted as a sing of weakness. We see this happening even today in the US and other western countries when people resist any wrongdoing by asking why events should be brought up now that they are long over and in the past. Sometimes being more removed from an event, such as those depicted here, forces us to confront or at least consider answering that question in ways previously dismissed.
Oppenheimer does also something quite fascinating in this documentary, by tapping into an unexpected feature that clearly permeates Indonesian society. There is a level of magical realism to the narrative, and I don’t believe it is accidental. From the age of Adi’s parents who, according to the still lucid mother, have lived over 140 years. Adi’s father, on the other hand, believes he is a teenage in spite of his ID marking him as being 104 years old. Even the tales of the murders and killings, as grotesque and disgusting as they are, are told in fairytale style and with such nonchalance it reminded me of the ways in which Garcia Marquez weaved his South American tales to the point that the lines between reality and the supernatural hardly matter. In the end all Adi and his family want is for their pain and sorrow to be acknowledged, for someone to apologize and to admit wrongdoing, some closure. I don’t know if closure is ever really possible, but for their sake, and that of every victim’s family and surviving witness, I hope for respite. That’s my own little magical suspension of disbelief, because in a world where something like this can occur and be championed, I need something to hold onto too.