Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media

‘The past is never dead’: New film delves into Indonesia's bloody history

‘The Look of Silence’ examines the effects of 50 years of unacknowledged trauma through the eyes of one brave family

“Why should I remember if remembering only breaks my heart?” a former Indonesian death squad member croons, badly, into a karaoke machine at the beginning of “The Look of Silence,” director Joshua Oppenheimer’s latest documentary to delve into Indonesia’s genocidal past.

Maybe for the singer there is reason to forget — he did, after all, take part in slaughter.

But in the film, Adi Rukun, an empathetic optician, sits silently in a slatted wooden chair and watches footage of the singing genocidaire, trying to understand what happened in 1965. His brother, Ramli, was one of an estimated 1 million Indonesians killed in the wave of anti-communist violence that gripped the Southeast Asian nation in 1965-66.

Fifty years on, Ramli’s murder and its effects on Adi and his family form the centerpiece of "The Look of Silence," the follow up to 2012’s "The Act of Killing" — a film that looked at the Indonesian genocide through the eyes of the perpetrators.

This documentary gave Adi, 46, the chance to confront his brother’s murderers and attempt to end the fear he and his parents have endured for decades, Oppenheimer told Al Jazeera ahead of the film’s opening in New York on Friday.

In "The Look of Silence," Adi uses his skills as an optician to get close to perpetrators, often asking questions about the past while he determines the eyeglass prescriptions of mass murderers.
Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media

Ramli’s death was brutal. In 1965, in the Indonesian province of North Sumatra, Rami was released from a political prison and handed over to members of a local paramilitary group. The militia members beat him, sliced him with a machete, stabbed him in the stomach and loaded him onto the back of a truck with other suspected communists.

Despite his wounds, Ramli rolled himself out of the moving truck, escaping the fate of fellow prisoners in the vehicle: being hacked to death and then thrown into Snake River.

More than 10,000 Indonesians were killed along that stretch of water in 1965, a fraction of the estimated 1 million Indonesians slaughtered in the anti-communist purges, which cleared the way for 31 years of dictatorship under General Suharto.

Ramli’s reprieve was brief. He crawled to his parents’ house, only for the militia to arrive the following morning.

The death squad members lied to his mother, telling her they wanted to take him to a nearby hospital. Ramli’s mother relented, giving up her son, fully aware he wasn’t headed for medical care.

The paramilitaries beat, stabbed and left Ramli to die in a field. Ramli continued to yell in agony and call for help. He raised such din that the paramilitary members had to return, where they finally finished the job (supposedly by hacking off Ramli’s penis and letting him bleed out).

Because of the public nature of Ramli’s murder — there were witnesses, and neighbors heard his dying screams — survivors could discuss his death in ways that they couldn’t for the thousands of “disappearances” in the area.

Ramli “was one victim that they could speak about,” Oppenheimer said, and his agonizing death became synonymous in the region with the mass murders.

Oppenheimer, who captured on film Ramli's killers boasting about their murder techniques, made his name with “The Act of Killing,” an Oscar-nominated documentary that showed triumphant Indonesian death squad members dramatizing their slaughters in what Oppenheimer called a “flamboyant fever dream.” (At one point in the film, a genocidaire dons a pink dress, backed up by a chorus line of models sashaying out of the mouth of a giant fish sculpture).

Oppenheimer’s second documentary shifts his focus from the perpetrators to the survivors and families of the victims. And here, the film's hero is Adi, cajoling the very killers of his brother to confront their crimes.

What distinguishes Indonesia from many other post-genocide situations is that the perpetrators remain in power, sometimes celebrated for what they've done. Adi and his parents still live in the same community they did in 1965, as do many of the militia members — some of whom have leveraged their pasts into positions of wealth and power.

A teacher suggests to his pupils that the mass killings of 1965 were warranted because the communists were "cruel" atheists.
Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media

At one point in the documentary, a former paramilitary commander asks point blank where Adi lives, and Adi — out of fear of retaliation — refuses to tell him. It’s a reminder that his probing questions are courageous acts. (After the movie’s release, Adi and his family moved to another part of Indonesia, and many of the people who worked on the film are credited as anonymous.)

“This was a desperate bid to make peace with his neighbors — to somehow end the fear he and his parents have been living with for decades,” Oppenheimer said of Adi. But remorse from Ramli’s killers never comes.

“The Look of Silence” doesn’t just highlight the lies individuals tell themselves so they can live with their misdeeds; it examines how a nationwide deceit that pardons mass murder is passed on through education.

In one scene, Adi’s son is at school, learning about the “cruel” communists, who, his teacher claims, were atheists who gouged the eyes of Indonesian generals.

Perpetrators throughout history have used such small-scale conspiracies (real or manufactured) as pretexts for genocidal actions. In Germany, it was the burning of the Reichstag; in Rwanda, it was the shooting down of a plane carrying the Hutu president; and in Indonesia, it was the assassination of six generals.

Education is “part of the mechanism that keeps the past present,” Oppenheimer said. In Indonesia, it serves to split the population — stigmatizing survivors and “emboldening the perpetrators to continue appealing to this violent past.”

As recently as 2007, Indonesia’s attorney general, Abdul Rahman Saleh, banned and ordered existing copies of 14 history textbooks to be burned. The offending books omitted lines that blamed the Communist Party for the violence and failed to portray General Suharto as the country’s savior.

But after the release of Oppenheimer’s films in Indonesia, the Association of Indonesian History Teachers wrote its own alternative curriculum. For upper secondary students, the equivalent of American juniors and seniors in high school, the curriculum now includes watching “The Look of Silence” and “The Act of Killing.”

After “The Act of Killing” was nominated for an academy award, former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's spokesman called the violence of 1965 crimes against humanity for the first time. It was an about face for the government, who had until then publicly regarded the killings as necessary, even heroic.

So far, 300,000 Indonesians have seen “The Look of Silence” at over 3,500 public screenings, and millions have downloaded “The Act of Killing,” according to Oppenheimer. These two films have become part of a renewed struggle to rewrite the country’s historical narrative. And with this new push, Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, has indicated he could make a formal apology about the mass killings soon.

Whether that compels Ramli’s killers and others to acknowledge their roles in the genocide remains to be seen, but it would be a step toward healing and ending the decades of silence.

“If we don’t look at our past without flinching and we go forward without learning, then we are doomed to … make mistakes again. You can never run away from your past. We are our past,” Oppenheimer said, then added, quoting William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It is not even past.”

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