By Willy van Rooijen


The poignant documentary ‘The Act of Killing’, in which perpetrators proudly speak about the mass killings of 1965 in Indonesia, received an Oscar nomination last year. Its follow-up, ‘The Look of Silence,’ is even more intriguing. Willy van Rooijen was present at a screening in Bali, shortly before the documentary was officially banned. “The film can soothe the victims’ trauma.”

Sanur, Bali – “I’m in total shock! Such cruelty. And the killers drank the blood of their victims in order not to go mad. I didn’t know any of this.” The Balinese student sitting next to me was still shuddering right after the end of the movie.

It was December 10: the International Human Rights Day. The youth centre Taman Baca (the reading garden) in Sanur, Bali, screened the second documentary of US director Joshua Oppenheimer. Just like his previous film ‘The Act of Killing’, which was nominated for an Oscar for best documentary, ‘The Look of Silence’ tells the story of the mass killings in 1965 and 1966 in Indonesia of people accused of being leftist (see box). An estimated one million people were killed in that period, and approximately the same number of people were jailed for years without any legal process.

The Look of Silence’ contains less shocking scenes compared to its predecessor, but is in some ways more gripping. The film was favourably received by the Indonesian media and general public. In a major movie theatre in Jakarta, some 2,000 people came to watch it in two days. The main character Adi Rukun (44) received a standing ovation for ten minutes. However, in late December the Indonesian censure body banned the public screening of the film (see box).

The film tells how Oppenheimer showed shots he made in previous years to optician Adi, whose brother Ramli was one of the victims of ‘1965’. The film reels show how school director Amir and religious leader Inong went with Oppenheimer to the banks of the Snake River in North Sumatra. There, under directives of the military, they butchered hundreds of people, and tossed the bodies into the river. They tell the story not just without shame, but also with pride: “We defended the state, and killed those communists because they were faithless.”

As an optician, main character Adi measures people’s sight in their homes. The film shows how he visits Inong, who goes to the mosque five times a day, and other elderly perpetrators. During the measuring, Adi pauses from time to time to calmly but incisively ask questions about the murder of his brother Ramli, who at the time was a member of a leftist trade union of plantation workers in North Sumatra.

At first I didn’t want Adi to participate,” Oppenheimer said after the screening at the youth centre via Skype. The director is persona non grata in Indonesia. “You are crazy to want to meet those perpetrators, I said to him. Much too dangerous. But Adi persisted. We did remind him every time during the interviews that he should try to contain his emotions.”

White person’

Would the perpetrators have been as candid with an Indonesian director as they had been with a bule (white person)? “I think my nationality did make a big difference,” Oppenheimer said. “They were able to shamelessly boast in front of me, an outsider.”

Oppenheimer was excited that his film was screened in some 450 locations in Indonesia on International Human Rights day. “I’m sorry I can’t be present,” he said in fluent Indonesian. From the crowd, someone jokingly called out: “Ditangkap (arrested)!”

The person shouting from the crowd was Alit (1961), the founder of the cultural centre. Alit’s father was killed in Bali in 1965 by his uncle, who lived next to the family house. Particularly in Bali, victims and perpetrators often were residents of the same village, or even part of one extended family—some living next to each other. Some 15 years ago, Alit had the words Taman 1965 (the garden of 1965) etched on the threshold of his family home. “This is so that anyone passing by the house is able to see it, because the killing sprees in Bali and elsewhere in Indonesia has been kept silent for too long. The younger generation is completely ignorant of what had happened in the past. That is why I really wanted to screen The Look of Silence. No, it’s not boldness,” Alit explained as I spoke to him later at the youth centre. “The truth needs to be told, even if it is not easy.”

At some places in Indonesia the screenings did not get realised. One example is at the largest university in the East Java city of Malang, where the military intervened. Lieutenant-Colonel Gunawan Wijaya, who gave the orders, said the film would only cause unrest. “I don’t know what the film is about, but I cannot allow screenings that spread forbidden ideologies such as communism,” he was quoted as saying in the media.

Some members of the military intelligence seem to be milling around in the youth centre in Bali, trying to secretly take photos of the public. However, they did not intervene. “Oh, it’s normal that intel (military intelligence) are present. Who knows, they might even learn something,” an elderly man in the audience said. Alit: “I’m convinced that they will get us some other time.”

In contrast to ‘The Act of Killing,’ where the perpetrators take centre stage, ‘The Look of Silence’ focuses on the perspective of the victim, even though the film does contain some shocking revelations from perpetrators. One of the survivors among the audience in Bali was Wayan, who was member of a leftist student association at that time. He was arrested and detained for two years. After his release he was unable to attend school and could not find official work. He survived by working as a driver and construction worker, he said later on in his house in Denpasar, Bali’s provincial capital. “I even worked in Bali Beach Hotel in Sanur, where in 1965 scores of leftist interns were killed.”

Many of Wayan’s well-educated fellow sufferers ended up working in the tourism industry as guides, as they were unable to work for official institutions. In relative terms, the largest number of killings in 1965 and 1966 occurred in Bali: between 80,000 and 100,000 people. In ‘The Look of Silence’, a Balinese said in an NBC television report: “Bali is more beautiful than ever without communists.”

Wayan is happy with both films of Oppenheimer, but thought that ‘The Look of Silence’ was even better than its predecessor because it gets closer to the victims’ feelings. “Because of that, I think that the film could soothe the trauma of many victims.”

He saw the film at a private screening in Denpasar, organised by the granddaughter of a Chinese Indonesian who was killed at that time. “We asked Adi, whom to our surprise was present during the screening, how he found the courage to do what he did. He said: ‘I could not believe that a good person such as my brother was killed. And because I discovered that all the stories about the 1965 coup and the role of leftist organisations in the event were all lies.’”

In the meantime, Adi, his wife and their two children have moved from their home in North Sumatra, where the film was shot, to another location in Indonesia. He finally declined the invitation to come as a guest for the Movies that Matter Festival in The Hague, as he did not want to be in the spotlight following some of the violence that occurred at previous screenings.

Bitter memories

The slender and energetic Mamik (1946) owns a small shop in Yogyakarta, Central Java. In addition to that, she is the motor behind Kipper, a group of women who – like her – were victims of the Soeharto regime. She was incarcerated for a decade at the women’s prison of Plantungan.

When I saw the film, all the bitter memories came to the surface again,” she said in her shop. In tears, she said how she and other women were tortured, raped and humiliated. “I am not angry, but very sad, in my heart and in my head.”

As the representative of Kipper, Mamik had a meeting with newly elected President Joko Widodo, on occasion of Human Rights day. Like many others, she has high expectations of Jokowi, the nickname of the new president. She handed him a book about the battle for human rights and against impunity.

The perpetrators were used by the military and the state, and that’s why I expect recognition from the current government,” she said. “Jokowi said during his election campaign that he would respect human rights. We hope he will keep his promise.”

Historian and publisher J.J. Rizal supports her sentiment. “The film is a wake up call for President Jokowi,” he said in the Jakarta Globe daily. Rizal said that public enthusiasm for the film proves that Indonesians now realize “how important it is to speak openly about our dark past.”

We have waited for films such as ‘The Act of Killing’ and ‘The Look of Silence’ all our lives.”

Meanwhile, the high expectations for President Jokowi’s human rights policy have yet to become reality. Indonesian human rights organisations have questioned how the president’s earlier promises of upholding human rights go hand in hand with the realisation of the death penalty of six people earlier this year, including Dutch citizen Ang Kiem Soei. In any case, this came as a big disappointment for people like Mamik and Wayan.


BOX 1: Banning as “it does not promote” Islam

Public screenings of ‘The Look of Silence’ has been banned since December 29, 2014, in Indonesia. The official reason given for the banning is that it does not promote faith, and the unity and integrity of the nation. Moreover, the censure body said, the film cannot be seen as “objective,” as the main character Adi Rukun is the child of a former PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) member.

Because of earlier screenings, this film has actually reached a wider audience than ‘The Act of Killing’, Joshua Oppenheimer’s first film that dealt with the same subject. ‘The Act of Killing’ was only shown in private screenings in Indonesia.

At some 25 screenings of ‘The Look of Silence’, intimidation and protests were present, particularly in Java. During the screening at the Gajah Mada University in Yogyakarta, some twenty masked men, claiming to be Islamists, disrupted the event. They wanted to prevent the screening because it supposedly promoted communism, “a known enemy of Islam.” University officials accused the police of not taking any action against the masked men. Planned screenings in other locations in Yogyakarta were cancelled due to threats made by so-called anti-communist groups.

BOX 2: Coup attempt

The murder of six generals during the night of September 30, 1965, appeared like a prevention of a planned coup by some of Indonesia’s military top. The actors announced the following day that they had stopped the generals from seizing power. However, this coup attempt was not resolute, and quickly a powerful general, Soeharto, succeeded in reigning in the rebellious military units and secured them under his command. The then popular PKI was then blamed for the rebellion.

Soeharto then focused on eliminating the communists and their sympathisers. Throughout Indonesia, killing machines consisting of regular citizens were formed to carry out executions. Since then, the mass killings have never been properly investigated. The authorities in Jakarta have little to say on the subject. The actual number of victims is difficult to estimate. Indonesian security officials speak of some 500,000 deaths. According to Amnesty International, that number is at least one million.


From an article published in Wordt Vervolgd, the magazine of Amnesty International.

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