Oscar-Nominated Director of 'The Act of Killing' Continues His Quest for Justice in Indonesia

Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media
'The Look of Silence'

'The Look of Silence' is Joshua Oppenheimer's more hopeful follow-up to his searing 2012 expose of the violent 1960s Indonesian massacre and its decades-long repercussions.

A version of this story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The history of the 20th century was punctuated by mass murders. For 50 years, one of the least known of these — the mid-'60s massacre of more than 500,000 Indonesians — remained shrouded in a silence that finally was pierced in 2012 by Joshua Oppenheimer's powerful, Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing. Now the director has built on that film with a second, more hopeful chapter.

The massacre was precipitated by a failed 1965 communist coup that was so ill-organized it collapsed almost immediately and involved barely a dozen fatalities. The country's military, Islamic militias and death squads organized by major landowners used the unsuccessful putsch as an excuse to begin an extermination campaign targeting alleged communists, leftists and union members across the archipelago. Eventually, Christians and ethnic Chinese also were targeted; somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million people were killed — often hacked to death — and another 1 million imprisoned. Though the United States denies it, reports at the time alleged that American intelligence agencies provided the killers with lists of communists.

The Act of Killing was banned in Indonesia but was made available for free on YouTube. Oppenheimer's follow-up, The Look of Silence, documents one family's quest to track down their child's murderers and a surviving son's confrontation with his brother's killers. It has been shown more than 1,000 times in Indonesia and has set off calls for a special commission to further lift the veil of silence. New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall has introduced a Senate resolution calling on the U.S. to acknowledge its involvement.

Oppenheimer spoke to THR about his film’s impact on Indonesia — where he says the public has become “increasingly vocal and fearless in their call for truth and reconciliation” amid threats from police and the slaughter’s perpetrators, who are still in power.

President Barack Obama recently received Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the White House, where the matter of the mass killings was not on the administration's list of talking points. Does that trouble you?

Obama wrote in Dreams From My Father about growing up in Indonesia, in Jakarta right after the genocide. His mother was so frightened by the deepening corruption that she took Obama and his sister away from Indonesia back to the United States. She felt it was not a good environment for her to raise her children. I have a hunch that Obama may have seen the film, but his administration talks about Indonesia as a strategic partner for the United States economically and geopolitically in terms of balancing out the growing influence of China. As the world's largest predominantly Muslim nation, it's also an important partner in our struggle against Islamic terrorists.

The Act of Killing

What sort of public reaction has the movie received in the United States?

There's been a call across the country and a petition now with tens of thousands of signatures asking senators to pass the resolution, drafted by Sen. Tom Udahl of New Mexico, asking the U.S. to declassify all the documents detailing what our role actually was in Indonesia in 1965. Until we can be honest about our own human rights violations, our rhetoric and our demands that other countries improve their human rights records will rightfully appear to be a hypocritical ruse for advancing American political and strategic and commercial interests. If the U.S. were to acknowledge it’s role, then the Indonesian government would have to respond.

This is your second film on the massacres. Has there been a cumulative impact?

The Look of Silence entered the space opened by The Act of Killing. It created this huge debate in Indonesia, and it energized the call for a truth commission to get to the bottom of what happened. But that debate has alarmingly triggered a backlash from the shadow state that ultimately has sovereignty in Indonesia. When you have a country where the military is formally above the law, then the military is the law. There's a struggle ahead to get at the very least the government acknowledging that its power and the oligarchs' wealth are the spoils of plunder, mass murder and torture. Nobody, particu­larly the most powerful people in society, wants their power and wealth exposed in this way. But what the film continues to do is to keep the pressure on the military and on the perpetrators. It’s not going away as the public becomes increasingly vocal and fearless in their call for truth and reconciliation. We’ve got the attention of the government.

You’ve been working on this issue for 12 years. How did it first come about?

It was an accident. In 2001 I was just starting to become interested in non-fiction filmmaking. I was asked if I would be interested in teaching a group of workers on a palm oil plantation in Indonesia how to make a film documenting their struggle to organize a union. I didn’t know anything about Indonesia — or documentary filmmaking — at the time. But I said I would go and learn. I arrived on this Belgium-owned plantation at 26 years old in a remote part of north Sumatra where foreigners never really travel.

On this plantation the women workers had the job of spraying the pesticides and the herbicides. They weren’t given any protective clothing and many of them were dying of liver failure. When the workers brought this up with the company that made the pesticides, the company responded by hiring this paramilitary group to threaten and attack the workers. The workers then dropped their demands, even though this is "a matter of life and death for them." they said. They explained there had been a mass killing there in 1965, with their parents and grandparents either killed or put in concentration camps simply because they were members of the National Plantation Workers Union.

This was your first time hearing about the killings in 1965?

Yes. The workers were afraid that what happened to their relatives could also happen to them because the paramilitary group from 1965 is still in power. At that point I realized what was killing these women — and what was keeping the cost of palm oil very cheap — wasn’t just things like pesticides or shortcuts in workers’ health and safety, but also fear. After we made their film, they said to me, "Why don’t you come back and make a film about why — after 40 years — we are still are afraid." I said yes and returned.

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