Joshua Oppenheimer has produced "The Look of Silence," a documentary sequel to his Oscar-nominated "The Act of Killing," about anti-communist death squads in Indonesia.
Credit: Brendan Smialowski

JAKARTA, Indonesia — “Communists are cruel. Communists don't believe in God,” the teacher instructs his class. “The communists were cruel, so the government had to repress them.”

“If you rebel against the state, you go to jail. So let's thank the heroes who struggled to make our country a…?,” he asks.

“Democracy!” the children chorus back.

This scene — a gentle but not uncommon brainwashing of the next generation — takes place in 2012, in a classroom in Indonesia. It is exposed in of "The Look of Silence," documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s sequel to his internationally acclaimed and Oscar nominated "The Act of Killing."

The communists the teacher is referring to weren’t just sent to jail. They were hunted down, tortured and executed. At least one million communists or alleged communists were murdered in 1965-66, at the beginning of dictator Suharto’s rule.

Suharto’s regime collapsed 30 years later, in 1998, but the mass killings were never investigated. The claim they were “justified” is still common. The perpetrators are free men, some are actually still in power.

“I knew from the start of my journey that there was another, equally urgent film to make,” said Oppenheimer. He wanted to look at what it was like to be a survivor — the relative of a victim, “forced to build lives under the watchful eyes of the men who murdered their loved ones, and remain powerful,” he explains.

“That film is 'The Look of Silence,'” he said.

The movie follows Adi, a 40-year-old optician, in his quest to meet those responsible for the murder of his brother Ramli. Oppenheimer met Adi in 2003, when he came to Indonesia to investigate the mass killings. He says that, perhaps because he was born after the killings, Adi was not afraid of digging into the past.

For "The Act of Killing," Oppenheimer interviewed dozens of perpetrators who were remarkably frank about their crimes, even willing to re-enact them. One day, as one of them was cheerfully describing, in gruesome detail, how he would drag terrorized victims to Snake River before slitting their throats and dumping their bodies into the water, Oppenheimer realized the man in front of him was one of Ramli’s killers.

Adi wanted to see the footage, and then footage of other perpetrators. In the five years it took to shoot "The Act of Killing," Adi “would watch as much as I could find time to show him. He was transfixed,” said Oppenheimer.

“He would react with shock, sadness and outrage. He wanted to make sense of that experience. Adi wanted to meet the men involved with his brother’s murder.”

These encounters, shown in "The Look of Silence," sometimes have a threatening feel to them. “If I came to you like this during the military dictatorship, what would you have done to me?” asks Adi to one of the perpetrators, now a politician.

“You can’t imagine what would have happened,” he answers. 

Others result in what the Indonesian co-director says the movie is about: “truth and reconciliation.”

In one scene, the daughter of one of the perpetrators listens, horrified, to her father recall how he would drink the blood of victims so he “wouldn’t go crazy.”

“I'd bring a glass. Slit their throats. Collect the blood… Two glasses were enough.”

“If your brother was killed, please forgive my father,” the daughter says.

“It's not your fault that your father is a murderer,” Adi answers.

“This movie is about breaking the silence, and helping millions of Adis in Indonesia,” said the Indonesian co-director, who remains anonymous like the rest of the Indonesian crew, to protect their safety.

“'The Act of Killing' opened space for discussion, and 'The Look of Silence' is filling up that space, for us to realize that we’re all the families of victims and perpetrators.”

He says he hopes the movie will reach the “new generation, who have been brainwashed since they started going to school.”

Often in the movie, those annoyed with Adi’s questions would brush him off with “the past is the past.” At the packed movie premiere in Jakarta in early November, the audience seemed not to want to let the past rest.

“It’s the first time we’ve heard the stories of the victims’ families,” said 73-year-old Kamanto Sunarto.

Anin, a 21-year-old student, believed the movie would “encourage others to tell their stories, and Indonesians to seek the truth about ourselves, and our history.”

“At school,” said 44-year-old Yessy, “we were told the Communists were wrong, and that the killers did what they did for the country.”

"The Look of Silence" team now has to decide whether to submit the film to the censorship committee, the only way for it to be shown in cinemas.

The premiere was organized by the National Commission on Human Rights, an official body. The team says this is already a sign things are moving in the right direction.

Oppenheimer says the success of "The Act of Killing" made it possible for the country and the media to talk about the past in a new way. “[The] screening probably couldn’t have happened without 'The Act of Killing' coming first.”

The National Commission on Human Rights hopes to show "The Look of Silence" to Indonesia’s new president Joko Widodo on Human Rights Day, Dec. 10.

“The state needs to investigate what happened. It’s time for recognition and reconciliation,” commissioner Muhammad Nurkhoiron said.

Adi received a standing ovation at the premiere, and was clearly moved. “I hope the movie will help improve public knowledge of the mass killings, and eliminate the stigmatization victims of the massacre face,” he told the audience.

Coincidentally, the premiere took place on Indonesia’s Heroes’ Day.

“Happy Heroes’ Day,” a member of the audience tweeted. “Today my hero is called Adi.”

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