Adi Rukun interview: The subject of a haunting new documentary on meeting his brother’s killers

Adi Rukun was born two years after his brother Ramli was brutally murdered in the Indonesian genocide of 1965 and 1966 which claimed around one million lives under the guise of eliminating the country of communism.

Rukun, who is the subject of Joshua Oppenheimer’s haunting documentary The Look of Silence, has risked his life to become the first family member of a victim in the country to confront any of the perpetrators of the mass slaughter.

The killers have never been brought to justice. Their actions helped bring about the military dictatorship of President Suharto, many still hold positions of power across the country and nobody in Indonesia has dared speak of the atrocities for many years.

Rukun, a softly-spoken optometrist, is transformed into a hero by his actions in the film. He says that it was seeing the injustice meted out by the military in his country that led him to speak out.

Rukun is transformed into a hero by his actions in the film (Teri Pengilley)

Rukun is transformed into a hero by his actions in the film (Teri Pengilley)
“I am not well educated and only went to high school, but I saw this injustice, and the government not doing anything. I thought there should be someone who is brave enough to talk about this.”

It is also because of his extremely close bond to his mother who, unlike others who felt that talking about the killing was taboo, spoke to him constantly of his gentle elder brother. Her description was at odds with the government propaganda about the killings.

“When I was little I didn’t have any friends,” he tells me. “My mother was the only friend I had and that is why she always told me about my brother and how he didn’t deserve to be killed.

“It was in my head all the time.”

Rukun, who is in London for the UK opening of the film, which has already been showered with awards, including the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice International Film Festival, is calling on the Indonesian government to hold a Rwanda-style truth and reconciliation commission to give the families of the victims, still stigmatised by what happened, a sense of justice.

“The government legalises this,” he says. “If the government doesn’t do anything it might happen again.”

He does not want revenge: “I don’t want to retaliate, otherwise it will never finish. It will just keep going on and on.”

The Look of Silence is a follow-up to Oppenheimer’s surreal Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing, in which the American-born, Denmark-based documentary-maker filmed a number of Indonesian death squad leaders recreating their violent acts as movie stars in their favourite film genres.

Rukun met Oppenheimer when he came to his village in North Sumatra to film, and on watching the first documentary he knew he had to take action. He asked Oppenheimer to film him meeting his brother’s killers. Oppenheimer refused at first, believing it was too dangerous. They were only able to complete the project because it took place before The Act of Killing was released.

As soon as filming on The Look of Silence ended, Rukun and his family were forced to move to another part of Indonesia after receiving a visit from some of the killers and also from the military.

As an optometrist, Rukun, 47, was able to meet the killers by visiting them in their homes to test their eyesight. While doing so, he quietly probes the part they played in his brother’s murder. Frightened for his safety, Rukun’s wife and elderly mother both told him to leave the “past in the past”. Given the danger he had put himself in, is he glad he made the film?

Rukun was able to meet the killers by visiting them in their homes to test their eyesight (Teri Pengilley)Rukun was able to meet the killers by visiting them in their homes to test their eyesight (Teri Pengilley)
“I’m very happy, as before I met Joshua I was thinking about this all the time but now it is like a dream come true for me,” he says, smiling. “It’s really moving to see how people react to the film.”

His son, 16, and daughter, 11, are now settled in a much better school than before and his wife now supports his decision to tackle the country’s past.

Already the film has had an impact within Indonesia. Although it has been banned by the censors, the film premiered in Jakarta with 3,000 people in attendance and it is being shown in special screenings around the country. It is also being discussed in the media, and the day before his interview with The IoS there was a meeting between government officials, the Human Rights Commission and some victims of the killings.

Although the topic of the film is gruesome, there are humorous moments with Rukun’s family, and the lasting impression from the film is the deep love between them.

Rukun says he has no personal ambition for himself beyond opening his own optometrist shop. His main wish is for the killers to “admit what they have done, after that we can live together in harmony”.