2 Films That Relive The Horror Of The 1960 Genocide That Killed Over A Million Indonesians

Posted on November 3, 2015 in Culture-Vulture, Staff Picks


Editor’s Note: In 1965, under the military regime of General Suharto, Indonesia became the site for a massacre of genocide proportions when over a million ‘alleged’ communists were killed so that Suharto could establish his dictatorship. Documented and alive in the living memory of both the survivors and perpetrators, Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2 documentaries ‘The Act Of Killing’ and ‘A Look Of Silence’ take the viewer on a chilling journey that looks into what those people who went about killing others were thinking, to those survivors who live under the spell of ‘silence and fear’. Following are excerpts from an interview with the director himself:

This interview was originally published on the DIFF blog, here

How did the idea for the films come about? Did you have a clear idea at the outset of how you wanted the films to turn out?

I first went to Indonesia in 2001 to help oil palm plantation workers make a film documenting and dramatizing their struggle to organise a union in the aftermath of the US-supported Suharto dictatorship, under which unions were illegal. The Belgian company could get away with poisoning its employees because the workers were afraid. I quickly learned the source of this fear: the plantation workers had a large and active union until 1965 when their parents and grandparents were accused of being “communist sympathizers” (simply for being in the union) and put into concentration camps, where they were exploited as slave labour and ultimately murdered by the army and civilian death squads. Survivors lived in fear that the massacres could happen again at any time. After we completed the film (‘The Globalisation Tapes’, 2002), the survivors asked us to return as quickly as possible to make another film about the source of their fear – that is, a film about what it’s like for survivors to live surrounded by the men who murdered their loved ones, men still in positions of power. We returned almost immediately, in early 2003, and began investigating the 1965 murder of Ramli that the plantation workers spoke of frequently.

I was introduced to Adi, Ramli’s younger brother, and together we began gathering other survivors’ families in the region. They would come together and tell stories, and we would film. I think early in the process I was gathering stories from many people because nobody had ever researched what happened during the genocide in North Sumatra. As I made ‘The Act Of Killing’, I started with many perpetrators but ended up focusing on one. With ‘The Look Of Silence’, I was trying to immerse the viewer in this silence born of fear, so that they would be able to feel what that does to a family, to a life. After we finished editing ‘The Act Of Killing’ but before it was released, I went back to start filming, making the second film with Ramli’s family. At that point, Adi said that he didn’t want to resume what we were doing a decade ago, which was gathering survivors together to talk about what they experienced. He said he wanted to meet the perpetrators who murdered his brother and presided over the massacres at Snake River. He wanted to know if the perpetrators could acknowledge that what they did was wrong. This, he said, would allow him to separate the person from the crime, bringing victims some sense of forgiveness and closure. In this way, Adi felt, his family could escape the prison of fear in which it had been living for half a century.

What impact have your films had in Indonesia? Is there any move towards a Truth and Reconciliation kind of process?

‘The Act Of Killing’ had the impact the survivors hoped for when they first encouraged me to film the perpetrators. It has been screened thousands of times in Indonesia and is available for free online to anyone in the country. This has helped catalyse a transformation in how Indonesia understands its past. The media and public alike are now able, for the first time without fear, to investigate the genocide as a genocide and to debate the links between the moral catastrophe of the killings and the moral catastrophe of the present-day regime built, and still presided over, by the killers. For a long time, the Indonesian government ignored ‘The Act Of Killing’, hoping it would go away. When the film was nominated for an Academy award, the Indonesian president’s spokesman acknowledged that the 1965 genocide was a crime against humanity, and that Indonesia needs reconciliation – but in its own time. While this was not an embrace of the film, it was incredible because it represents an about-face for the government: until then, it had maintained that the killings were heroic and glorious.

‘The Look Of Silence’ was able to enter the space already opened by ‘The Act Of Killing’, and show just how torn the social fabric is and just how urgently truth, justice, reconciliation and some form of healing is needed in Indonesia. The weeks after its Indonesian premiere saw 950 screenings in 116 cities in 32 out of 34 provinces across Indonesia. Screenings were organised by cinemas, universities, film clubs, NGOs, religious organisations and community groups. Repeat screenings are held daily, and as of June 2015, new bookings are still coming in at a rate of 20 a week. However, the massive impact of ‘The Look Of Silence’ inevitably provoked a backlash in a way that ‘The Act Of Killing’ did not. Within a few days of the release on December 10, the police and army began to organise groups of thugs who threatened to attack screenings and thus 31 screenings were cancelled in this way, from major cities to remote villages.

In January, we managed to get a copy of the film to Indonesian President Joko Widodo. His government recently introduced a truth and reconciliation bill into parliament. The bill is inadequate – it provides no legal mechanism for bringing genocide commanders to justice, and the Attorney General argues that the truth commission should not even publish the names of the commanders. Human rights activists and the media have come to support truth and reconciliation since the premiere of ‘The Act Of Killing’, urging that the processes for implementing truth and reconciliation should be more credible and robust.

How has the making of these films and the success they have had impacted you personally?

One thing that touches me is the number of people who come up to me at festivals, certainly Indonesians and say how their parents have opened up to them about things they could never talk about before. And it also happens again and again that people come up to me or contact me from other countries, like Pakistan, and tell me that as a result of this, they are looking at an atrocity and an unresolved mass violence in their own family or in their community, in their country. And that’s exactly how I hoped the film would work: not as a window into Indonesia, but as a mirror for all of us.

You can read the full interview here

‘The Act Of Killing’ is being screened at the Dharamshala International Film Festival on Friday, Nov 6 at 12:45 PM; and ‘A Look Of Silence’ on Sunday, Nov 8 at 11 AM.