Indonesians Who Helped Make Documentaries Face Uncertainty

16 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Film examines the 1965 Indonesian Killings.

In the Oscar-nominated 2013 documentary “The Act of Killing” and now in a companion film, “The Look of Silence,” an especially chilling moment comes during the closing credits: In lieu of names, dozens of crew members are listed only as “anonymous.” The first film showed perpetrators of Indonesia’s massacres, which began in 1965 and left hundreds of thousands dead, not only proudly re-enacting the gruesome killings but also living with impunity and enjoying power, even fame. “The Look of Silence,” opening on Friday in New York, offers a glimpse into the agony and discrimination borne by the victims’ kin by following a gentle optician, Adi Rukun, whose brother was killed in that purge, as he quietly confronts the killers and their leaders. With The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer turns his gaze back to his original subjects: the survivors living in a country where killers rule with impunity.Following a failed coup attempt on the Indonesian government by the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965, a horrific purge of Communists from the sovereign state was conducted that included the formation of death squads that conducted mass killings of men, women, and children.The Act of Killing, documentary director Joshua Oppenheimer’s first film about the 1965 genocide in Indonesia, jump-started a national dialogue about an atrocity that had been a toxic secret for decades. The filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer had planned to gather stories from victims’ families for a documentary more than a decade ago, but less than a month into the interviews, his subjects received threats.

He stands in his living room dressed casually, barefoot, and mimes the sawing method he used to murder countless people 40 years earlier, his descriptions punctuated with laughter. Rukun’s brother, Ramli, had been one of the victims of the genocide, having been taken from a political prison one winter night and stabbed in the gut. Largely unknown in the rest of the world, the killings were actively celebrated in Indonesia, where the perpetrators, who are still in charge of the government, described their gruesome deeds in heroic and triumphant terms. Adi, the youngest son, breaks the spell of submission and terror by confronting the men who killed his brother. “I knew that I would make another film, one where we step into those haunted spaces and feel viscerally what it is like for the survivors forced to live there, forced to build lives under the watchful eyes of the men who murdered their loved ones, and remain powerful. He seems every bit the remorseless murderer, but Adi Rukun, who’s watching him on a television screen, isn’t so sure: “Maybe he acts this way because he regrets what he did,” he says. “He regrets killing people.

When the terrified Ramli managed to escape to his parents’ home in North Sumatra, thugs recaptured him and promised his mother they would take him to a hospital. Because he feels guilty – when he re-enacts the killings – he’s completely numb.” Adi is a 44-year-old Indonesian optometrist, and the man on screen is responsible for brutally murdering his brother, Ramli, two years before Adi was born.

Instead, they dragged him to the bank of the Snake River, where they hacked him with machetes before cutting off his penis and dumping his corpse at a nearby oil palm plantation. For the local artisans who accompanied Oppenheimer, a native of Texas, on his village-by-village inquisition, filmmaking was a life-and-limb risk. “Anonymous” is their shield, but it’s also their badge of solidarity—a reminder of the silent majority for which the movie speaks. Like many other leaders of the Pancasila Youth, the paramilitary force significantly responsible for the genocide, Ramli’s killers not only escaped punishment but went on to achieve positions of power within their communities.

It is deeply unsettling to watch mass murderers matter-of-factly act out some of their more horrific deeds, often enlisting terrified locals to reluctantly reenact the tortures, rapes and murder they are still traumatized by. The film’s main character, death squad leader Anwar Congo, though seemingly proud to do the reenactments, even bringing his grandchildren to watch the footage Oppenheimer shot, by the end of the film is riddled with guilt. A quick history lesson: In 1965, the Indonesian military overthrew the country’s government, and thousands of those perceived to oppose the new dictatorship were killed.

Rukun, his family and the films’ dozens of anonymous crew members, all Indonesians still living in their homeland, remain safe. “We tried to get a picture of what kind of danger or threat we might have to face,” said a crew member who anonymously shares directing credits on both films. “It ends up in lots of ‘we don’t know.’ It is not clear whether we face a danger or not. It is more worrying.” The crew member was speaking through Skype, the video disabled, from the home he shares with his family, Indonesia’s most populous island.

But, ultimately, the movie spotlights the dysfunctional psychology beneath all their swaggering bravado. “We never boast out of pride; we boast out of insecurity,” said Oppenheimer, the recipient of a 2014 MacArthur Genius Grant, who now lives in Copenhagen, Denmark. “We’re like birds who puff out our feathers to make ourselves look bigger, because we feel small. He told the audience there that ever since the genocide, the perpetrators have shown no remorse. “The victims’ families, our families, were regularly taunted by the perpetrators and their families,” he said. “So they would talk openly about the killings in front of us and even though we were the relatives of their own victims, they weren’t reluctant to speak about it. With his smooth-shaven head and muscular body, he looks a bit like a Buddhist monk, radiating a supreme self-confidence that seems to be not so much arrogance as moral certainty. He never ventures to North Sumatra, 1,000 miles away, where both documentaries were filmed, and steers clear of screenings and in-person interviews as well as any place where the paramilitary might surface. And that awful afternoon of filming for me is the genesis of my last two films.” Recent political change in Indonesia has allowed challenges to the story of heroic killers saving the nation.

Most of Silence revolves around Adi, an optometrist, gaining access to the perpetrators, usually under the guise of an eye exam, and grilling them with blunt questions about their involvement in the genocide, often going as far as demanding on the spot that they take personal responsibility. Sometimes they would arrive in tears — not because they were afraid to talk — but because the only times they’ve been summoned by any outsider was to be called to do forced labor by the military. Northwestern University political scientist Jeffrey Winters, who’s spent years researching the events in Indonesia following the 1965 coup, says Oppenheimer’s two films have been part of that change. “The pendulum is swinging now in Indonesia in the direction of asking, ‘How did we kill all these people and why did we kill them? Among his points: why his films have had such a broad impact in Indonesia, why we sometimes brag most about the worst things we have done, and why the path to redemption must start with empathizing not just with the people killed in genocides but with those who do the killing.

And how have we lived side by side without confronting this historical horror as a people?’ ” Winters says. “And that process is underway now and there’s no doubt that Joshua’s movies are moving that process forward.” “My job is working as an optician,” Rukun explained at the film festival. “It’s my career. Usually, he says, guilt stops a person from doing something evil, because they don’t want to feel badly about their actions – “I know I would be hurting myself; I would be tormented.” But once they’ve done something really wrong, guilt becomes something that needs to be suppressed. “It may lead you to cling to, and create, stories, justifying what you’ve done,” he says. “Guilt is maybe something that protects us from hurting each other, until we do. The tragedy nearly destroyed his parents; his mother—who spends most of her days caring for her elderly and increasingly senile husband—is open about the ways she tried to mold the son she gave birth to afterwards into the one she lost. And then I’m not sure it plays such a constructive role any more.” Through filming the murderers, Oppenheimer came to believe the boasting was a way of coping with their shame. “It’s a sign these men know what they’ve done is wrong, individually, but they cannot bear to feel that guilt,” he says. “I think all of these men are haunted by horrific, unspeakable images, nightmares, miasmic terror, and because they haven’t been removed from power, they therefore still have available to them a victor’s history which celebrates what they’ve done. “They try to sugar-coat the rotten and bitter memories with the sweet rhetoric of a victor’s history, which would celebrate what they’ve done.

Here, the director includes a few blatantly manufactured shots of Adi watching that footage, the imagery clearly composited onto a blank television screen. You can make a film that is deliberately crafted to be a campaign tool, but then it has to fit the message and the demands of the campaign, precisely and strategically, and it can therefore be less impactful. They said, ‘Please don’t give up, don’t go home; try to film the perpetrators.’ I was afraid to approach the perpetrators, but when I overcame that fear I saw that each and every one of them was open.

Those are the bitter memories that haunt them.” Making this film, he adds, has taught him that the past is inescapable. “It’s not just that it’ll catch up to us; we are our pasts. It’s like a secular definition of karma.” At one point, while confronting a former army leader, Adi says: “Every killer I meet, none of them feel responsible.

In one sense, Oppenheimer’s sneak-attack methods aren’t so different than the ambush filmmaking practiced by Michael Moore, albeit with much more artfulness and at much greater risk. That’s when I understood somehow that they were dying not just because of poison, but because of fear.” After the ensuing documentary about the workers, “The Globalisation Tapes,” was released in 2003, the laborers urged the filmmaker to make a documentary about “why we are still afraid,” Oppenheimer said. He immediately agreed and began a series of clandestine interviews, hiding his camera whenever a car passed by in the remote rural region. “But within three weeks, the army came to the people I had interviewed and threatened them not to participate in the film,” he said. To make it possible for this to happen, Oppenheimer told the killers he was bringing along Adi, who is an optometrist by trade, for his follow-up interviews with them and that in appreciation for cooperating he would test their eyes and give them as many pair of glasses they desired free of charge.

I filmed [the two of them] going down to the river, taking turns playing victim and perpetrator, pretending — and I emphasize pretending — to be proud of what they’ve done and leading me to the spot where they killed 10,500 people. The lionized thugs Oppenheimer films in Silence are technically less powerful than the “stars” of The Act Of Killing—they’re regional leaders, not national politicians like Anwar Congo—but they’re no less ghoulish in their nostalgic pride, cackling about chopping up bodies and drinking human blood. And I didn’t want to talk or think about that.” But now, having thought about it, having talked about it, you no longer can ignore it and you are compelled to somehow address it.

You’re trying to wash your hands of it.” This sentiment parallels that of Hannah Arendt in her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, an account on the trial of Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann. Oppenheimer called one particular meeting, between Adi and killer Inong “the most important thing I’ve learned doing these films” as it showed “the human capacity for evil depends entirely on our ability to lie to ourselves.” Oppenheimer tracked down Inong and learned he was one of Ramli’s killers. Oppenheimer even filmed Inong describe in detail how Ramli was murdered, footage that Adi would later watch. “It was almost like the stories were dangling in the air to both impress and frighten Adi,” said Oppenheimer. “He said ‘Everyone in my community is afraid of me,’ and you understand through these stories he’s telling that he wants to keep people afraid. They respond with predictable antagonism—deflecting blame, accusing Adi of “talking politics,” making veiled death threats—but the sound of an unspoken rule being violated is deafening. “Do you want revenge?” someone asks Adi late into the movie.

But Rukun’s extremely pointed confrontations with the perpetrators proved dangerous — so much so that the optician would arrive to interviews without his ID card. He’s talking with these test lenses on and he kind of looks like a demon. “All the perpetrators are human and they therefore know the difference between right and wrong,” said Oppenheimer. “So they need an excuse, and cling to it forever after they commit the crime. While the doctor insists that’s not what he’s after, there’s a distinctly vengeful slant to some of his crusade, particularly the moment where he confronts the surviving family members of a dead perpetrator—a man who celebrated Ramli’s murder in ghastly picture-book form—with the horrible knowledge of what their father and husband did in ’65. The filmmakers, in turn, would empty all numbers from their telephones and switch cars after each interview in the hope that they would not be followed.

One about the lies, the fantasies, and the stories that the perpetrators tell themselves so they can live with themselves; the second about the terrible consequences of those lies when imposed on the whole society and what is it like to live in that society. What matters is that Adi’s campaign of open discussion, his determination to address the elephant in every room, ultimately scans as a good-faith attempt at building a new Indonesia—a country ready, ideally, to address and atone for its past mistakes. Oppenheimer, an American then living in London (and now in Denmark), first visited Indonesia 14 years ago to help plantation workers dying of a chemical herbicide film their efforts to unionize.

But for Indonesia’s younger citizens, like the gangster’s daughter who apologizes on behalf of her unapologetic father, reconciliation seems possible. The filmmaker, for his part, acknowledged that it is no longer safe for him to return to Indonesia, and that he continues to receive death threats from perpetrators who have been offended by his films. But haltingly, they began telling him of the grisly murders and disappearances that the paramilitary group had carried out decades before. “I realized what was killing my friends was not just poison, but fear,” Mr.

Adi takes the same approach during his interviews, but the stakes are greater: these people are responsible for his brother’s death, and he doesn’t shy away from that. So we are going to break our silence on the killings and we are going to do it in a big way, where we cover your film extensively but we’re also going to show that your film is a repeatable experiment that could have been made anywhere in the country.” He sent 60 journalists all over the country to look for perpetrators who would boast, and everywhere they went, within seconds of asking people “Who was killing here?” they could find the names, because the killers were boasting. I think it was from Adi that I first heard this sense that one ought to be able to separate the human being from the crime and forgive the human being, at least as an ideal. I’d also say that if you understand what Adi is trying to do — to find peace with his neighbors — you have to recognize that these are not interviews. It’s not Adi interviewing them — it’s Adi confronting them, trying to break a silence borne of mutual fear that’s been dividing them and imprisoning everybody for half a century.

And then when the film was nominated for an Academy Award, the government finally spoke out and said, “Look we know what happened in 1965 was a crime against humanity. There were billboards announcing it around Jakarta, and it was hosted by two government bodies, the National Human Rights Commission and the Jakarta Arts Council. Oppenheimer said that one reaction he especially treasured came from the filmmaker Werner Herzog, a producer for both films. “He said, ‘Joshua, art doesn’t make a difference — long pause — until it does.’ ”

There’s a performative element here that reminded me of the ISIS videos that have appeared within the last couple of years; militants straining to devise ever more cruel means of killing. So now teachers can say: “This is the official history that we have to teach you, and now here’s the truth.” And for upper secondary school students, it includes watching the two films.

And for those other audiences, you’ve often talked about how it’s very comfortable and easy to empathize with the victim in films made from the victim’s point of view, but we’re actually a lot closer to the perpetrators— Yeah, right. Did you worry that this film might let Western audiences off the hook by making it too easy to sympathize with the victims and condemn the perpetrators?

And Adi approaches them with such humanity and empathy that, although we have perpetrators and survivors in one film, it resists the escapist narrative that there’s good guys and bad guys. It put her in the category of people who were sort of complicit in what was going on because someone they loved was caught up in it— Also, that it [being a victim and being a perpetrator] is within the same family. I think the thing I wanted to say, before we kind of went off on a tangent, is that Adi approaches the perpetrators as human beings, and their reactions are filmed with precision and intimacy—these recognizable, inevitable human reactions. When Adi comes into someone’s home and says “You killed my brother, can you take responsibility for this?” we see panic, shame, guilt, fear of one’s own guilt, leading to denial, leading to anger, leading to threats.

If you and I boast, we do it because we’re feeling small, and like birds we puff our feathers up to look bigger than we are, or than we think we are. While he’s retching at the end, he’s still repeating to himself: “I killed because my conscience told me to do it.” We see that he’s not redeemed; he’s destroyed.

Otherwise, we’re condemned to say, “Well, there’s monsters among us and all we can do is somehow neutralize them,” and then we become like them. I don’t want my children to inherit this from my father and my mother.” And then he said, “I think if I go and confront the perpetrators, they’ll greet this as an opportunity to find forgiveness from one of their victims’ families and they’ll want to acknowledge that what they did was wrong and want to stop this manic boasting.” He said, “I think this will be my chance to make peace with it.” I told him I didn’t think it would happen. But I did tell him that if I was able to capture these very human reactions we talked about earlier—the guilt, the panic, the anger—I can show why Adi fails to get that reconciliation.

I can make visible this previously invisible but omnipresent feeling of a gulf that’s dividing everybody, and make it impossible for everyone who sees the film not to support truth and reconciliation at some point, and some form of justice. The men Adi wanted to meet were regionally powerful but not nationally powerful, and they would know that I was close to their superiors, or think I was, and they would therefore not dare to detain or physically attack us, because they wouldn’t want to anger their bosses or the people in power. And since he’s an optometrist, he’ll test your eyes, and if you need glasses we’ll give you as many pairs of glasses as you need.” (laughs) That was how I set up these confrontations.

For safety reasons, Adi’s whole family would be waiting at the airport with their bags packed, ready to buy a ticket if anything went wrong during one of these confrontations. Normally I would use an all-Indonesian crew when shooting, so everyone understands the language, but I wouldn’t bring any Indonesians on these shoots who didn’t need to be there.

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