Friday, December 12, 2014

The Many Faces of Silence in Indonesia


photo: The official poster of “The Look of Silence,” which is currently screening nationwide in Indonesia. Courtesy of The Look of Silence

“The Look of Silence” is a recent documentary that examines the mass killing of alleged communists in Indonesia in 1965 through the eyes of one of the victim’s families. It is a sequel to the Oscar-nominated “The Act of Killing,” by director Joshua Oppenheimer. The purge, which followed an attempted coup in September 1965 that was blamed on Indonesia’s Communist Party, is one of the darkest but least discussed periods in Indonesian history. Private screenings are currently showing across Indonesia.

A wrinkled, frail man is staring at the camera. His eyes – framed by optometric lenses – are glassy, not really in focus. Inong, that’s what people call him.

In another scene a much younger man named Adi stares in silence as he listens to a man talk about how he butchered people accused of being communists. Adi’s brother was one of the victims.

“The Look of Silence” portrays the legacy of a sadistic mass-murder in an otherwise picture-postcard village on the island of Sumatra in northern Indonesia. The killings, which happened in Indonesia about 50 years ago following a coup attempt and the killing of several senior generals, are portrayed in school textbooks, as well as various historical records, as a process that was necessary to clean the country from the “stain” of communism.

Many of the victims’ families and the murderers still live close to each other, but the fear of being labeled a communist, and possibly killed, drove many into silence. Former president Gen. Suharto rose to power at this time and ran Indonesia with an iron fist for the next 32 years. His repressive New Order government drove many of the victims’ family members to collaborate with those in power.

But Adi, a middle-aged man who was born two years after his eldest brother, Ramli, was dragged from his house and mutilated, tries to defy decades of silence by confronting his brother’s murderers.

Adi’s work as an optometrist allows him to talk to and question customers whom admit to committing the murders. In doing so, he has to be prepared not only to hear of the violence that his family has experienced but also to risk danger. Some are still proud of what they have done. Some of them are wealthy and have high positions in government and when they find out that Adi’s brother was one of the victims, they threaten him on camera.

Inong, the admitted former leader of the village death squad, seems almost powerless while Adi helps him find suitable lenses – a rather intimate moment as Adi has to get close to him and even touch his face every now and then. But this intimacy quickly turns sour as Adi tries to challenge Inong’s sense of heroism regarding the killings.

The film reveals that while the victims have remained silent out of fear and grief, the perpetrators have continued to tell their story – producing a one-sided view of history.

For some of us, silence can be beneficial; to keep us happy and oblivious to other people’s suffering; to forget that our enjoyment is possible because others have suffered. But for people like Adi and his family, silence has been transformed into a harrowing ghost.

“The Look of Silence” shows the many faces of silence: their silence, our silence, and the awareness that silence is never innocent. The Wall Street Journal

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