Indonesian genocide documentaries aim to break 50 years of silence

Joshua Oppenheimer produced two films that examine the terrible consequences of Indonesia's 1965-1966 genocide. He discovers that the perpetrators are largely still empowered, while the survivors and the families of victims live in fear and silence.

The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence have started a conversation, filmmaker says

In The Act of Killing, Indonesian genocidaires repeatedly boast of their killings during the 1965-1966 genocide. (DocuPathTV/YouTube)

For 12 years, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer lived and worked in Indonesia, producing two films that examine the terrible consequences of the country's 1965-1966 genocide.

Over a period of six months, more than a million unarmed civilians were killed, being labelled communists or communist sympathizers.

The first of the documentaries, The Act of Killing, follows a number of the men who did the killing — men who remain in power to this day — shows how they re-enact their crimes in chilling detail.

The second film, The Look of Silence, follows Adi Rukun, an optometrist in Indonesia, who confronts the men who murdered his brother, Ramli, in 1965.

Oppenheimer is in Vancouver this week, and joined On The Coast host Stephen Quinn for an interview.

People might not know about the Indonesian genocide or that the survivors and the families of victims live every day beside the perpetrators. How did that happen?

There was a U.S.-backed, Western-supported coup where the left-leaning Sukarno was overthrown and General Suharto took over and established a military dictatorship. They took teachers, the ethnic Chinese, writers, artists, anyone they thought might be opposed to the new dictatorship and labelled them communists and either had them put in concentration camps for well over a decade or had them killed.

The perpetrators have remained in power ever since. There's been no truth and reconciliation commission, and no national reckoning. The perpetrators have been free to write a victor's history. So on the one hand you have survivors forced to live in silence surrounded by the men who killed their loved ones and you have perpetrators, who, at the local level, are noisily boasting about what they did. Every child, still to this day is taught a national school curriculum which celebrates what happened in 1965 as a heroic extermination of the communists and more or less suggests the descendents of the victims need to be monitored for disloyalty.

I want to talk about Adi. When he first came to you and said he wanted to meet the perpetrators, you said no. What changed your mind?

We had at that point edited The Act of Killing but no one had seen it. We realized the production was famous across that region. The vice-president of Indonesia was in The Act of Killing. And because no one had seen The Act of Killing yet, the men who Adi wanted to confront, the men who killed his brother, believing that I was still close to their highest-ranking commanders, they would be unlikely to even detain us, let alone physically attack us.

I also realized that Adi visiting the perpetrators as a human being wouldn't make it easier for the perpetrators. They would have to see him as a human being and therefore all of their victims as human beings, and all of the lies they've told themselves justifying what they've done are predicated on dehumanizing their victims. The best we could hope for is through these confrontations, I would be making clear why Adi can't get that apology and make any viewer feel how urgently truth, justice, reconciliation and healing are needed in the aftermath of genocide.

Adi is forced to confront it with his uncle, who played a role in the death of his brother.

He was guarding his brother in the prison and dispatched his nephew out to be killed. I think that's maybe the most painful thing we filmed. We had not known that Adi's uncle was involved with the killings at all, in fact, Adi had just promised to test his eyes when he was home in the village. Adi asks, couldn't you have done something? The uncle becomes defensive and feels guilty, and falls back on the anti-communist propaganda, and says, if you keep inquiring about this, you might be disloyal, essentially saying, Ramli deserved what happened and you might, too. He had this sea of shame and silence.

The silences in the film are some of the hardest parts to take.

One of the things I'm most proud of and honoured by is the way these two films have helped catalyze a national conversation in Indonesia where before there was silence. The Act of Killing has led the president to finally acknowledge that what happened in 1965 was wrong and there needs to be a truth and reconciliation process. This has been an honour, but in a way, what the film is suggesting, is no matter what truth, reconciliation and justice may come in the future, it will never undo the damage done by 50 years of fear and silence.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: Indonesian genocide documentaries fight against 50 years of silence


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.