The heinous massacre of anyone who had been affiliated with the Communist party in Indonesia is the subject of “The Look of Silence,” a documentary directed by Joshua Oppeheimer that was produced by such important documentary and filmmaker names as Errol Morris (“The Fog of War”), Werner Herzog and Andre Singer. It is a joint production from Denmark, Indonesia, Norway, Finland and the United Kingdom that tells a harrowing story every bit as horrible, in its details, as the Holocaust.
Indonesia’s transition to the “New Order” in the mid-1960s, ousted the country’s first president, Sukarno, after he had spent 22 years in power. One of the most tumultuous periods in the country’s modern history, it was the beginning of 31 years of Suharto’s presidency.
Described as the great puppet master, Sukarno drew power from balancing the opposing and increasingly antagonistic forces of the army and the Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI. By 1965, the PKI extensively penetrated all levels of government. The army lost power as the PKI gained it and this led to a coup.
On September 30, 1965, six of the military’s most senior officers were killed by the 30 September Movement, a group from within the army, and the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military. Within just a few hours, Major General Suharto mobilized forces under his command and took control of Jakarta.
Subsequently, over one million citizens who were on lists as being Communists were rounded up, hands bound behind their backs, and either killed immediately or imprisoned until they could be systematically exterminated, much like Auschwitz but in a much bloodier and more primitive fashion. It was a method no less systematic and inhumane testifying once again to man’s inhumanity to man. The PKI, which was officially blamed for the crisis, was destroyed.
The film follows a local optometrist, Adi, age 44, whose brother Ramli was murdered in the anti-Communist purge. His mother and father’s lives were totally shattered by the brutal slaying of their oldest child. As Adi’s mother says, it was only Adi’s birth two years later that saved her sanity.
One interview subject says, “We did this because America taught us to hate Communists.”
The politically weakened Sukarno was forced to transfer key political and military powers to General Suharto, who became head of the armed forces. In March 1967, the Indonesian parliament (MPRS) named General Suharto acting president. He was formally appointed president one year later.
Suharto’s pro-Western “New Order” stabilized the economy.
However, those whose mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and children were brutally murdered for no offense other than affiliation with the Communist party, the memories do not fade. They must live next door to those who murdered their beloved family members. We learn, as the film progresses, that Ramli, was gathered up, bound, and initially imprisoned. Trucks would take loads of 30 prisoners per truck each night and either hack them to death, throwing their remains into the Snake River, or, in some cases, the victims would be buried alive.
One survivor, Kemat, describes how he jumped from a truck with his hands bound behind his back and escaped through a warehouse. He reminisces, “Ramli was screaming for help saying, ‘They’re going to kill us.’”
“Were there any spectators watching the trucks taking people to be murdered?” asks Adi.
“No. Everyone was too frightened to watch,” says Kemat. “I thought, ‘I’m about to die. I’d better accept it. I’m going to be beheaded, my body and head thrown into the river. And then I ran.”
Adi, the protagonist, decided to search out each of those responsible for ordering the murders or implementing the murders of his brother and others (simply for being members of the Communist party). He used his vocation as a traveing optometrist as entrée.
As we learn, “In many cases, entire families were eradicated, and it happens to this day. Some Communists were starved to death in prison or released periodically to be killed by the local citizens.” The group responsible for the executions was Komando Aksi. Adi searches and finds Amir Hasang and Imang, leaders of the Death Squad in one city.
Not only are these perpetrators not ashamed of their actions, Inong, aged 72, who was the leader of the village Death Squad, appears onscreen as a bit of a loon, repeating that he would take two cups to the executions in order to drink human blood from the severed jugular veins.
“If we didn’t drink human blood,” says Imang, “we’d go crazy. Many went crazy. Drink your victims’ blood or go crazy.” He adds, “Human blood is salty and sweet.”
Imang also claims that he “only cut once.” pantomiming the use of a machete to cut a victim’s throat, but then adds, “Once I cut off a woman’s breast. It was just like a coconut inside.” He pantomimes how he would use a machete on a woman, and his wife giggles while he does so.
“But I thought you said you only cut once?” reminds Adi.
Imang becomes hostile. He says, “I don’t like deep questions. It’s over. Everything is safe now. The past is the past.” He also shows a book with sketches depicting how they killed their neighbors. There is absolutely no remorse or regret shown by anyone who, firsthand, either ordered the murders or committed them. The exception is one murderer’s daughter near the end of the film, who murmurs, “Sadistic” and semi-apologizes, saying, “Adi, we apologize. We feel the same way you do. We knew nothing about this.”
Aside from this one lone young woman, who appears to be about Adi’s age, nobody else—especially those who actually committed the crimes—shows any remorse or expresses regret. In fact, the head honcho at the time, Secretary General of Komando Aksi, expresses the opinion that he should be thanked for his actions and perhaps receive a free trip to the United States—perhaps to Disneyland—maybe a cruise.
It’s nearly impossible to believe how callous the killers are.
We also learn that children in school are indoctrinated with propaganda that teaches them things such as, “The Communists had to be killed because they were sleeping with each others’ wives.” The entire schoolteacher snippet is ludicrous in justifying the mass murder of 1,000,000 people.
Adi tells his small daughter and son that what they are being taught is all lies. One teacher actually says, “Some of the Communists want to be killed.” The teacher adds, “The Communists were cruel, so the government had to repress them. Their children could not work for the government or be in the Army.” [Actually, after the actions of Komando Aksi, there weren’t that many Communists left alive.]
There are extensive film clips of the Death Squad leaders explaining in great detail (and often with laughter) how they would systematically murder men, women and children. Their excuse, “I was only following orders.”
We learn that Adi’s brother, Ramil, who was then a young Communist male, was initially stabbed repeatedly in the shoulder and stomach (The Death Squad members laugh at the memory of his intestines spilling from his stomach.) He managed to crawl through the rice paddies back to his parents’ house, where he asked his mother to help him and make him a cup of tea. While she attempted to attend to his grievous wounds, the Death Squad Komando Aksi members—who received the names of their victims from the Army—returned to her house and promised to take her son to the hospital. She begged to go with him and offered two cows to barter for Ramli’s life; they refused.
Rather than taking Ramil to the hospital, he was taken back to the Snake River where he was stabbed repeatedly and then flung into the river, where he clung to foliage and begged for help. They fished Ramli out and cut off his penis. (The men demonstrated how this maneuver could be done from behind, with a push of the boot to the victim’s butt to push the corpse to the ground where the body would bleed out.) The victims’ bodies were then thrown into the Snake River. (Villagers would not eat any fish from the Snake River for two years, knowing that the fish had been feeding on human remains.)
Those in power made it appear that the people were rising up spontaneously to exterminate the Communists, in order to protect the image of the Army nationally and internationally. This was not true. The Komander Aksi members got lists of 500 to 600 victims’ names nightly from the Army and acted on that information.
When the Secretary General of Komander Aksi is seen onscreen, he seems completely unconcerned about his role in ordering the purge, saying, “That’s politics. Politics is the process of achieving your ideals.” This man continues to be head of the Legislature, since 1971 and says, to Adi, in a threatening manner, “Do the victims’ families want the killings to happen again? Sooner or later, it will happen again.” The message to Adi (who refuses to divulge his last name or city of origin): “Drop it!”
Throughout the film, the insistent messages are these:
1) The past is past. Forget about it. Don’t speak of it
2) I was only following orders.
3) Revenge for these murders will be taken by God after death.
One of the most revealing moments comes when Adi visits his Uncle (his distraught mother’s brother). He learns that his uncle was a guard and, in fact, in charge of guarding Ramil the night he was killed. Adi’s uncle is now 82 years old. The uncle protests, “I was just a guard. They came and took truckloads of 30 at a time. I was just told to guard the prisoners. I did not help! I did not take a machete and murder people!”
But, objects Adi, couldn’t his uncle have tried to defend his own nephew, Ramil?
“I did it to defend the state. Better just to follow orders,” says the elderly uncle.
When Adi later tells his mother that her own brother was complicit in the savage death of her son, Ramil, she is shocked at the sadistic news, saying, “I never knew this before.”
Some notable quotes from the film that illustrate Point One (above):
#1) “Because Joshua makes this film all the wounds are open. Forget the past. You want us to be open, but how can we be? I don’t want to remember. It’s covered up. Why open it up again? What are you trying to do? Just leave it? Let it go. Leave it to God.” (From various speakers)
The revenge motif (Point #3 above) is voiced this way, “It’s up to God to punish those who hurt our friends and family. It’s not up to us.”
This mini-Holocaust makes you instantly think of Auschwitz and the Nazi Death Camps, and those who made it obviously do not feel safe in Indonesia even now.
Nearly all the end credits (other than Joshua Oppenheimer) are listed as “Anonymous” because those who contributed video and reminiscences to this film still fear retribution. “The Look of Silence” is a joint production of Denmark, Indonesia, Norway, Finland and the United Kingdom and it’s an eye-opening film.