Joshua Oppenheimer On ‘The Look Of Silence’ And Australia’s Role In The Indonesian Genocide

“I’d like, above all, viewers everywhere in the world to acknowledge that we can’t run away from our past.”

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The word “reckoning” comes up a lot when talking to documentary-maker Joshua Oppenheimer. His first film, The Act of Killing (2012), alerted the world to the unresolved legacy of the 1965 Indonesian coup, in which up to a million people were slaughtered and the military government of President Suharto was installed. Oppenheimer’s second film, The Look of Silence, released in Melbourne last week, makes sure we cannot look away.

Oppenheimer began his two-film project while talking with victims of the 1965 violence over ten years ago in Indonesia. He couldn’t convince them to speak for fear of reprisal – the coup’s leaders have never been indicted. He was encouraged, instead, to interview the killers directly; he found they were eager to share their stories, and even reenacted their crimes in the styles of their favourite mobster films. In the process, the film became a psychological-political profile of the effects of national killing.

Now, The Look of Silence follows a humble optometrist, Adi Rukun, as he tests the eyes of the elderly in his town. Adi’s brother was killed in the 1965 bloodshed, his optometry clients are the killers – still alive, still in power – and during his consultations with them, Adi gently but directly probes them with questions about their role in the violence. Suffice to say the film is deeply confronting; it has already been widely acknowledged as a crucial work of non-fiction storytelling.

In its only use of archival footage, The Look of Silence directly raises the issue of US complicity in the atrocities, showing an NBC news report from 1965 parroting the Indonesian army’s position, justifying the coup and its aftershocks as a necessary battle against communism.

What Did Australia Know?

That brief archival snippet made me wonder about Australia’s knowledge. After all, we are Indonesia’s neighbour and diplomatic partner.

Australia supported the Suharto regime that established itself [in the 1965 coup],” says Oppenheimer over the phone. I hope that Australians would demand that the records pertaining to Australian participation in the genocide would be made public. We have an effort like that in the United States where I’m working with Senators to demand that the US declassify the documents that show its role and take responsibility for those crimes.

One diplomatic communication unearthed by historians in a 2012 book, The Army Para-commando Regiment and the Reign of Terror in Central Java and Bali by David Jenkins and Douglas Kammen, shows clearly that the Australian embassy was keeping tabs on the killings.

Then there is the casual tone of then-Prime Minister Harold Holt’s infamous quote in July 1966, cloaked in anti-communist rhetoric: “With 500,000 to a million communist sympathisers knocked off…I think it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place.” Classic political language designed to disguise; not a word spoken of the children beheaded or entire villages disappeared.

A softer form of complicity also materialised at the level of weak media reporting. University of Wollongong scholar Ross Tapsell found that day-to-day news reportage of the Indonesian genocide between 1965-66 was both extremely limited and, at times, quite distorted. The local press “failed to give accurate numbers of the victims, rarely identified the perpetrators, and gave no indication that a large-scale massacre was occurring in Indonesia.” There is further evidence the Department of External Affairs tried to influence reportage on the crisis.

Oppenheimer says the issue of complicity becomes clearest when you consider the events in East Timor ten years on. After colonial Portugal relinquished East Timor in 1975, Suharto invaded the region and Australia turned a blind-eye.

A profit motive belied the complicity: There was oil and gas in the sea between Australia and East Timor,” says Oppenheimer, which the Suharto regime gave control of to Australia. When Jakarta invaded East Timor and started killing people, Australia was the first country to recognise the legitimacy of Suharto and Jakarta’s sovereignty over East Timor. They did that for millions of dollars worth of oil. We’re talking about murder, we’re talking about a third of the population of a country being killed.

I tell Oppenheimer my fear that his films have been received in Australia with a kind of self-satisfied Western moralising, as if the wrongdoing happened somewhere over there. “I had the feeling in Australia, when I talked about what I’d learned, that they’d act like they knew it already,” he said.

And in the United States, I feel something similar about torture, when again and again, the same revelations are stated in the media. There’s a kind of national process of wringing our hands and debating whether it’s important to have some form of justice. This national discussion of reckoning is really important, but the issue is raised in a ritualised telling of the story and ritualised agony, and this is what the writer Mark Danner has called a ‘frozen scandal’. The telling of the story creates an illusion that we never move past.”

Can Films Go Beyond Just Raising Awareness?

The Look of Silence is more than a memorial to the victims of a national trauma. It is a film that wants to have an effect on world politics. How does social change actually happen, and what’s the relationship between film or art and political impact?

Filmmaking is not the same as activism,” he says. “I think the purpose of art is to force the audience to look in the mirror and confront issues they know are true but are too uncomfortable to think about, to let the trial begin. When you make visible the forces that everyone knows are responsible for your most intractable problems but that no-one can talk about, everything changes. The continuation of those forces has depended on their ongoing invisibility. The moment they’re made visible, things don’t work in the same way. One film can’t change everything. It simply opens the way for activism that had not been possible previously.”

Texan-born and Denmark-based, it’s Oppenheimer’s status as an outsider that has allowed him to penetrate the atmosphere of silence and fear that stopped Indonesians from talking about these most intractable problems. Indonesia required a foreigner’s eye to reveal what had become acceptably familiar at home.

Apart from the NBC clip, Oppenheimer’s stories avoid the conventional trappings of journalistic documentary-making, instead revolving around character psychology and plot-twists. With this approach, Oppenheimer has accomplished what journalists and academics could not: he turned the narrative about a genocide into a narrative about the people affected by genocide. By making us care, he put the story back into the popular imagination.

“The risk, inevitably, is that people [in the West] see the film, they leave, they think ‘this is terrible and we know this and we feel good about ourselves for thinking about how and governments can be and we don’t have to do anything’.”

I do my very, very best to make my films not as windows onto a far-off country, but as a mirror through which we see ourselves. And then I hope the film will lead the viewer in their spare time to look up online, what was the Australian government’s role in this?”

I believe that Australia will go through the same reckoning, I tell Oppenheimer, the same national soul-searching as Indonesia, but that the issues that trigger it will be the Indigenous dispossession that colonial Australia was founded on and the present-day treatment of asylum seekers.

Yeah, I think it’s about the treatment of migrants,” replies Oppenheimer, and of course the treatment of Indigenous Australians, yes. In the USA, I always say we should treat [the Indonesian genocide] as America’s history, because we participated in some way in these crimes.

I’d like, above all, viewers everywhere in the world to acknowledge that we can’t run away from our past,” he says. William Faulkner said that the past is not dead, it’s not even past. And we have to find the courage to stand still for a moment, turn around a hundred and eighty degrees, and look at the past and accept it and try to understand so that we can finally turn back and face the future knowing ourselves for the first time.

This is the real reckoning of Oppenheimer’s films and their implications for Australia: coming to terms with immense trauma, moving on while the past holds on stubbornly, reckoning in the same way that Germany reckons with the Holocaust. Personal and political grief, micro and macro, together.

I hope that viewers all over the world will be able to look at these films and ask, how is my own society, my own family, my own community, shaped by impunity.”

The Look of Silence is in very limited release at Cinema Nova, Melbourne, from November 26, and will be on DVD and digital platforms in March 2016.

Lauren Carroll Harris has been published in Guardian Australia, Metro and Meanjin. She tweets from @LCarrollHarris.