Confronting His Brother's Killers

Confronting His Brother's Killers

By Benjamin Soloway


Because the past is never dead for survivors of genocide.

By Benjamin Soloway

In The Look of Silence, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer documents the unprecedented and unthinkable: Adi, a 40-year-old optician, confronts men who have never been held accountable for their part in the 1965–66 Indonesian genocide, and asks them to take responsibility for what they did.

… the stories of survivors who live in sorrow and dread surrounded by their former attackers.

“If I came to you like this during the military dictatorship, what would you have done to me?” Adi asks Amir Siahaan, an aging death squad commander who ordered the torture and murder of Adi’s older brother.

“You can’t imagine what would have happened,” Siahaan responds. 

Oppenheimer’s first documentary about the deadly purges,The Act of Killing, opened to international acclaim and was nominated for an Oscar in 2014. That film followed perpetrators as they reenacted their own murderous deeds, dramatizing and reinterpreting their memories and dreams. In Indonesia, initial screenings of the film were held in secret, but the film ended up forcing a national conversation about the genocide, and prompted the media to focus on the events of 1965, when landless farmers, union members, ethnic Chinese and others labeled “communist” were targeted by Major General Suharto’s military regime.

The Look of Silence is more unrelenting and less flamboyant than its predecessor, focusing on the stories of survivors who live in sorrow and dread surrounded by their former attackers. Those who carried out the genocide continue to hold positions of power and prominence in Indonesia, and Indonesian schools teach that the perpetrators were heroes in a fight for democracy. 

It is estimated that at least 500,000 Indonesians died during the massacres of 1965–1966.

The film “shows how torn the social fabric is, and how desperately Indonesia needs truth, reconciliation, justice and healing,” Oppenheimer said by email. “Younger Indonesians react with outrage that they’ve been lied to, and recognize in Adi’s dignified example what truth and reconciliation might look like.”

Although The Look of Silence won’t see wide release in English before July, the film has been shown across Indonesia. In contrast with his first film on the subject, a screening of The Look of Silence was hosted by the government  the National Human Rights Commission and the Jakarta Arts Council — in Indonesia’s largest theater. Adi showed up unannounced after the screening and received a 10-minute standing ovation.  

Still, the film faced backlash: Thugs shut down screenings with the cooperation of police, and an official censorship body released a ruling banning public screenings. But the public outcry against censoring the film was stronger than efforts to stifle it.

The film moves at a calm pace, with wide shots that allow the bewitching flora of North Sumatra to envelop the subjects in green. The tranquil setting stands in stark contrast to the shadows of horrendous violence and the great personal risks taken by those involved in the film: Adi has relocated to a different part of the country with his family to ensure their safety, and Oppenheimer can no longer risk entering Indonesia. Most of the crew chose to remain anonymous — making for a powerful visual statement when the credits roll.