The mechanics of fear

Indonesia's military dictatorship murdered upwards of one million people during an anti-communist purge in the mid-1960s. Joshua Oppenheimer has directed two documentaries about these horrific events. The first, The Act Of Killing, has been universally praised for its original vision and profound effect on Indonesian society. His second film, The Look Of Silence, is set to emulate that success

“When I first arrived in Indonesia in 2001, it was like entering today’s post-holocaust Germany, but discovering that the Nazis are still in power.”

Joshua Oppenheimer is an arrestingly sunny presence with a warm and soft-spoken manner. It’s something of a surprise, given the horrors that his documentaries convey. Oppenheimer has spent over a decade exploring the aftermath of Indonesia’s 1965 military coup, following which more than a million alleged communists, sympathisers and ethnic Chinese were brutally murdered at the hands of state-appointed ‘gangsters’ who acted with total impunity.

“I had no connection to Indonesia until I travelled there to help a group of plantation workers who were making a film about their struggle to organise a union,” Oppenheimer explains.

“There I found that women were routinely dying in their forties from liver disease after spraying a herbicide for which they had no protective clothing. Many people were terrified of forming a union to fight this kind of thing because the spectre of 1965-1966 still loomed large. Their parents and grandparents had been unionists, were accused of communist behaviour and killed for it. I realised that these people, many of whom had become my friends, were dying, not only as a result of their working conditions, but out of fear.”

Oppenheimer’s films attempt to show the consequences of this fear. His Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing from 2012 followed death squad leader Anwar Congo and others responsible for atrocities committed during the genocide. In the film, they’re seen boasting about their murderous misdeeds and, at Oppenheimer’s invitation, they stage re-enactments of their killings.

Oppenheimer followed up with The Look of Silence, turning his focus to the lasting affects these killings have had on survivors and the families of those killed. In particular he follows one man’s attempt to break free of the fear that has engulfed his family. This November, the film took the DOX:AWARD, the highest accolade at CPH:DOX – Copenhagen’s international documentary film festival.

Both films were produced in Denmark, and Texan-born Oppenheimer is now a Copenhagen resident. Seated in the first floor of the Grand Theatre, he speaks about Indonesia with an impassioned eloquence. His insight into the country’s political history and collective psychology is sharp and clear-minded, leaving little doubt that his 13-year relationship with the country has left a deep mark.

“I don’t really see myself as a storyteller, I see myself as an explorer. Good storytellers have command of their stories throughout, and to do that, you need to be the same person from beginning to end. If your whole identity and value system is in flux, then it’s unlikely you’re in command of your story. But I don’t want to be in command. I want to take journeys that will change me. I have been profoundly changed by this journey—my whole idea of what cinema can or should be has been changed by making these two films. The next film I make, the next journey – I don’t know what that is yet – will also be marked by these first films.”

Screenshot from 'The Look of Silence'. Adi (left) confronts Amir Siahaan, one of the men responsible for the death of his brother.

Screenshot from ‘The Look of Silence’. Adi (left) confronts Amir Siahaan, one of the men responsible for the death of his brother.

Hope for the future
It’s not just Oppenheimer and his future filmography that will carry the stamp of these works. 

Back in Jakarta, The Look of Silence is premiering to an Indonesian audience at a sold-out, state-organised event. Earlier this morning, Oppenheimer held a videoconference with 150 Indonesian journalists. That’s a historic shift from just two years ago, when The Act of Killing was first screened in total secrecy.

Since then, The Act of Killing has been seen by millions. A major Indonesian newspaper responded by breaking its silence about the genocide, effectively opening the floodgates for public debate. Oppenheimer’s long journey has not only changed his life, but has, incredibly, set an entire country on a path towards healing. This year saw the election of a new President, Joko Widodo – a man who has drawn comparisons to Barack Obama.

“I hope he’s less disappointing than Obama,” Oppenheimer says laughing.

“But, sure, the comparison is apt in that both had strong grassroots mandates and progressive things that they’d like to do, but both are also beholden to oligarchs. Joko Widodo is the first Indonesian president not to come from the elite or have a military background, or some connection to the Suharto dictatorship. He says he wants to address human rights issues. I’m always, always hopeful.”

The fear remains
Despite his hopes for the future, Oppenheimer has no illusions about returning to Indonesia.  “I’m confident about getting in, but I’m quite certain that I wouldn’t get back out again.” He also believes there’s cause to fear for the lives of several Indonesian friends, who risked everything to help make the films.

“The recent abating of on-the-record threats and boasting bears little relation to whether the perpetrators and thugs, the paramilitary groups and the military, still enjoy impunity to intimidate and harass – and harm.”

Adi is one such friend. Concerns over safety led to the relocation of him and his family. He’s the protagonist of The Look of Silence, an optometrist whose clients are neighbours from both sides of the political divide. In the film, Adi confronts men who were directly or indirectly responsible for the murder of his brother, Rabli. Rabli was one of a large group of prisoners who were escorted by the military to the banks of ‘Snake River’ to be butchered by death squads. Despite severe wounds, Rabli managed to escape, reaching his parents’ house, only to be recaptured, after which his genitals were sliced off and he was left to exsanguinate.

Living and working for lengthy periods in such close proximity to this mass trauma took its toll on Oppenheimer.

“I think the most unpleasant scene in The Act of Killing is when Anwar and Herman [Koto – a fellow gangster] are re-enacting an occasion where a mother had begged Anwar for her daughter’s life. We used a teddy bear to represent the child, and Anwar started knifing away at it and making threats. I could hear his microphone was rubbing, so I stopped filming to adjust it and Anwar said ‘Josh, you’re crying?’ It was the only time in my life I’d cried and not realised it. We continued to film, but I knew I’d glimpsed this monster. I went home feeling tainted by it. I suffered from nightmares and insomnia every night for eight months afterwards.”

Screenshot from 'The Act of Killing'. Anwar Congo is said to have personally killed over 1,000 people by methods such as strangulation with wire.

Screenshot from ‘The Act of Killing’. Anwar Congo is said to have personally killed over 1,000 people by methods such as strangulation with wire.

The road to recovery
Oppenheimer’s work shows that fear resides not only in the survivors, but also in the perpetrators. With The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer’s friend Adi was motivated to confront them—men who had so deeply damaged his family—by his desire to forgive them. Many felt threatened and presumed Adi was seeking retribution, to which they responded with thinly-veiled death threats.

“One of the things that Adi taught me is that you cannot run away from the past. It will be there until you deal with it. Only then can you move on. In looking at the past, we have to separate human beings from their crimes. If they’re still justifying it, they’re still identifying with it. So you can’t separate them. But once they say, ‘I see this was wrong,’ and if you have reason to believe they mean it, then of course the human being must be forgivable. The crime isn’t forgivable. It’s not for us to forgive the crime, that’s only for the victim to do – and these victims are dead. But the human being has to be forgivable.”

Oppenheimer believes that Indonesia’s rehabilitation is far more likely through this process of reconciliation than through any top-down political solution. He suggests that the contribution he has made to the process has been to comprehensively show the devastating, paralysing effect of fear on everyone in the country.

“Fear is the strongest and most devastating emotion. It divides us and makes us selfish and cruel. In the long term, confronting our most painful truths is fortifying, because we overcome the fear of looking at the frightening aspects of our reality that we all know are there, but are too afraid to see. It’s like overcoming any big fear. We all know that our normality is built on violence. And that it sits at arm’s length. We know that everything we buy is produced in exploitative conditions. The suffering of the people who make this [gesturing to a bag] or your shirt – it haunts everything we touch. We don’t want to look at that, but if you do look at it and choose to do something about it, then you won’t live in fear – not in the same way.” M

Facts : The Indonesian Genocide 

In 1965, an attempted coup by communist forces, was thwarted (and possibly organised) by the Indonesian military, fuelling the fear of an imminent communist uprising. This led to the downfall of President Sukarno and the installation of a military government that transitioned into a dictatorship. Throughout this period the government – with the tacit approval of various western powers who feared the spread of communism in Asia – hired thugs to systematically mass-murder at least 500,000 alleged communists, unionists and ethnic Chinese. Indonesia’s first direct election was held in 2004, and the country is only now starting to face the horrors of the dictatorship and start the healing process.


By Mark Walker

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