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In a darkened university classroom in east Jakarta, 50 or so students stared straight ahead, silent, as a shrivelled, twitchy old man recounted on screen how he killed, often gruesomely, a half-century before.
“Human blood tastes both salty and sweet, did you know that?” said Inong, the murderer, digging up buried memories of his own savagery during Indonesia’s mass killings of 1965-66.
Around a million people were murdered in the so-called anti-Communist purges, killings that laid the ground for three decades of authoritarian rule under the dictator Suharto, who then suppressed any inquest into or impartial account of what happened during those massacres.
He wasn’t alone in keeping the secret: the United States knew about the bloodshed. But, embroiled in the Indochina wars of the day, the United States wanted Indonesia as a Cold War ally in southeast Asia and bought into the murderers’ line that they were attacking local Communists.
Inong appears in director Joshua Oppenheimer’s latest film, The Look of Silence, which was given a rare airing in capital Jakarta earlier this week. Despite bans, other low-profile screenings have taken place in Bandung and Makassar in recent weeks.
Oppenheimer’s 2012 film on the same subject, The Act of Killing, was nominated for an Oscar and has been lauded as one of the most surreal yet hard-hitting documentaries ever made.
One of Inong’s victims was Ramli, who was mutilated and murdered by a riverbank. Standing on the same waterfront in 2004, Inong and wrinkled accomplice Amir Hasan acted out their killing to Oppenheimer on camera.
Oppenheimer later records 40-year-old optometrist Adi, Ramli’s younger brother, watching the footage of the old men recounting their misdeeds.
In the course of the film, Adi goes on to treat the fading killers, in confronting them about murdering his brother. Adi puts on them the goggle-like assessment spectacles that optometrists use – as if the bereaved younger man is trying to force the wizened old butchers to see, at last, what they did wrong.
Both The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence focus on northern Sumatra, where the violence was by all accounts among the worst of anywhere in Indonesia.
Oppenheimer first came to the island in 2001 to shoot a documentary about how palm oil plantations were ruining the environment and contaminating the people. “I discovered that what was damaging my friends was not just poison, but fear,” he recalls, after hearing about the bloodletting decades before.
The Look of Silence is austere by comparison with the earlier film – shot in a lush pastoral interspersed with darkened, shadowy rooms where the light falls on the faces of the speakers.
“They were companion pieces to each other, The Act of Killing a flamboyant fever-driven film, The Look of Silence a precise poem about what fear does to a community,” Oppenheimer told The Edge Review.
For the students engrossed in The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer’s innovative methodology even overshadowed the movie’s dark substance. “I was more focused on the technique than the message,” said film student Rio Edison. “But I liked how the director focused on one character to tell the story.”
As Adi watches his brothers’ killers recount their bloodlust, all you hear are insects in the night. In The Act of Killing, the central characters dance in drag and appear on talk shows to glorify their misdeeds – maintaining a mask of denial about the blood they spilled.
The only people not in denial, it seems, are the families of those who suffered and died, though most are muted by fear and the enforced silence that comes from living side-by-side with the men who killed their loved ones decades ago.
The killers are sometimes lauded as heroes and feel no compunction about bragging about their exploits a half century later. But, for all the bravado, their macabre metadrama can be seen as a subconscious attempt to purge themselves of the horrors they perpetrated.
And even though much of the footage for both The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence was shot a decade ago, Oppenheimer is still astonished at what ensued once the camera rolled. “It was as if I had wandered into Germany 50 years after the fall of Hitler to find that Nazis were still around, boasting,” he said.
But if Germany retains guilt about and openly examines its past, the same cannot be said of official Indonesia. Recent scheduled screenings of The Look of Silence have been stopped by local police or lawmakers after the Indonesian Censorship Institute (LSI) refused to approve the film, arguing it could prompt sympathy for communists.
The National Human Rights Commission (KOMNAS-HAM) is trying to get it off the blacklist, while Oppenheimer says some of his Indonesian friends hope to give President Joko Widodo a copy of the film.
“It is possible that he has seen it, I guess, though not that we know of. I guess it would not be politically expedient for him to say if he has,” the director says of the President.
Muhammed Nurkhoiron, commissioner at KOMNAS-HAM, said that the film censor refused to accept the commission’s latest request to reconsider the ban on The Look of Silence.
If the censor continues to spurn discussing the movie, Nurkhoiron told The Edge Review that “we will send this report to [the] president.”Show