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'Indonesia Is Clearly in a Transition': VICE News Talks to Joshua Oppenheimer, Director of 'The Act of Killing' and 'The Look of Silence'

'The Act of Killing' offered a surreal look at the Indonesian genocide. 'The Look of Silence' is the director’s second film on the anti-communist death squads and their carnage.
Photo via Flickr

Joshua Oppenheimer's 2012 documentary The Act of Killing offered a surreal look at the 1965-1966 Indonesian genocide from the perspective of its perpetrators, many of whom boastfully re-enacted their roles in the deaths of as many as many as three million people.

The Look of Silence is the director's second film on the anti-communist death squads and their carnage. This time the camera follows Adi, an optometrist whose brother died in the purges, as he personally confronts incredulous killers — an act previously unheard of.


"I think this is the first time in cinema history, in a documentary, where a survivor confronts a perpetrator while the perpetrator is still in power," Oppenheimer told VICE News.

But paramilitary groups still operate with impunity in Indonesia, and Adi's family is now in hiding. "They are thousands of kilometers from their home in North Sumatra," Oppenheimer said. "I can't say where."

Oppenheimer spoke with VICE News shortly after former furniture salesman Joko "Jokowi" Widodo assumed office as Indonesia's newly-elected president — the first to emerge from outside the military and oligarchy. Jokowi's rival in the election was retired army general Prabowo Subianto, who was once the son-in-law of Suharto, the general who coordinated the communist purge in Indonesia and later presided over a 30-year dictatorship.

Jokowi has promised to fight corruption and institute reforms. Looming over his presidency are members of the old order. Those that positioned themselves to benefit during the genocide today make up Indonesia's contemporary oligarchy. "You can't end corruption in present day Indonesia when people can commit mass murder and torture with impunity," said Oppenheimer. "Everyone will be afraid of them, and no one will challenge them for their economic crime."

Jokowi, whose supporters control less than 40 percent of parliament, is immediately confronted by revanchist elements frustrated with his election. In September, the Indonesian parliament voted to cancel local elections of governors, mayors, and district heads, a move widely regarded as a rebuke to Jokowi, who was previously the directly elected governor of Jakarta. Outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued a decree overriding the vote, but the measure can be taken up again by the parliament.


VICE News: The cancelling of local elections last month struck many as decidedly undemocratic. Jokowi was a product of that opening, which appeared to have been stifled until the reversal by decree.
Joshua Oppenheimer: You can argue that the local elections were extremely corrupt — they were — but the prize of being chosen by a local legislative body as a local executive is so big and tempting that this will surely fuel greater corruption within those bodies as people jockey for influence and buy favors and so forth. It's much easier to buy a legislature than it is to buy a whole province. At least all these corrupt Indonesians have to pay through the nose. It's expensive to run for office.

In The Look of Silence, Adi is an optometrist who was born after the genocide and his brother's death, which was well known in his town and the surrounding region. What did he make of the genocide growing up?
He grew up hearing whispers, hearing fragments of perpetrators boasting. Almost everyone lost at least one person, many lost several. He knew that a vast number of people were killed. He's smart enough to understand it must have happened on a national level. At school they would talk about this alleged coup d'etat planned by the communists. It was used to justify the anti-communist campaign. He could infer that it had happened locally.

His parents were really afraid to talk to him about what happened in any meaningful way. His father I think was totally afraid to talk about it, afraid that he would then talk about it in school and get in trouble for it. I think that his mother was unable to keep silent in part because she saw him as a replacement for Ramli, as she says in the film. Just as you see her talking at Ramli's grave, talking to her dead son in her memory, she also would talk to Adi as though he were Ramli, or tell him stories about Ramli. She keeps repeating how they took him away.


He heard those stories again and again as he was growing up from his mother, but no one could really talk about what happened.

The Act of Killing helped change the discourse in Indonesia, but at the same time it appears in other ways that not much has changed. Adi is in real danger for confronting the perpetrators of genocide, and is now in hiding.
There are different issues at play here. There is the media, which has by and large responded to The Act of Killing very positively and widely, and now talks about the genocide as a genocide. Of course there's a right-wing contingent that has attacked The Act of Killing as you would expect — the media that is owned by paramilitary leaders and retired army generals. But the serious media has been really supportive.

At the same time the big problem is impunity. You have absolute impunity for the military, which is fighting to maintain the old narrative, and you have absolute impunity for paramilitary groups that still can operate outside the law. This is the real problem here. You can have elections and you can have civilian politicians who intend or would like to do good things, but so long as you don't have accountability and so long as you have impunity for people who would obtain their political goals through violence, you don't have rule of law. Therefore whatever democratic processes you put in motion to hopefully make the law — it doesn't matter.


Yet Jokowi's election signals that Indonesia is moving out from under the shadow of Suharto…
Indonesia is clearly in a transition. Some things are genuinely democratic. There is freedom of the press, by and large, and you have a critical press. That's something that was impossible under Suharto. You also have less everyday surveillance of people who are suspected by the security services.

I don't think I could have made either of these films during the Suharto years. Somebody somewhere would have suspected what this is really all about and would have stopped us. But I think nevertheless that not enough has changed, because there is still total impunity for some of the most violent and criminal actors in the society, and they will fight to protect that impunity. They have a lot to lose. It's a real political struggle.

What's happened is an opening of what people can talk about. There's been a sea change of how the public talks about their past and the legacy of the genocide in the present. Now people can talk about their problems, but to solve their problems will take a grassroots campaign to hold Jokowi to his promises to address past human rights violations. It will require a progressive grassroots base that remains active and continues to support him, so that there's a political cost for him to not do those things, so that there's a counterweight to the oligarchs and the army who would like him to forget the past. Not to forget the past so that Indonesia can move forward peacefully, but to forget the past so that they can continue to use the past to keep people afraid and threaten further violence.


There are some recent human rights abusers close to Jokowi's team, not just those who were involved in the genocide.
[A. M.] Hendropriyono, who was on Jokowi's transition team, was not just probably responsible for killing my friend Munir [ed. Munir Thalib was a prominent human rights activist who was killed by arsenic poisoning on a 2004 flight. Hendropriyono, the head of Indonesia's intelligence agency at the time, has been implicated in his death] but for massacring an entire village in southern Sumatra. He was subpoenaed over Munir's murder, but he didn't show up at court and nothing happened.

Many Indonesians are rightfully excited about Jokowi taking office and don't want to dampen the spirit of his election, even if they're uncomfortable with some of these guys.
We all want to support him. This is a very good example: he chose [previous Vice President] Jusuf Kalla, who you know from seeing The Act of Killing, as his vice president and running mate.

I was pretty disappointed, even though I know that Jusuf Kalla is not the problem. The fact that Jusuf Kalla says in The Act of Killing that "we need gangsters to be able to beat people up and do our dirty work" tempts one to feel that that makes him a quintessential mafia boss himself. But actually any Indonesian politician who is called to address that crowd has to put on the Pancasila Youth [a paramilitary organization dating to the genocide] jacket on cue and has to pander to them. In fact, we went to film that conference not expecting Jusuf Kalla to turn up, but expecting the president [Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono] to turn up. He was supposed to address that crowd, and that would have made a better scene if it had been the president of Indonesia. Something else came up and he sent his vice president.


But the point is what the scene shows really is not that the vice president of Indonesia is terrible, but that the system is so bad overall that even one of the more moderate politicians like Jusuf Kalla has to speak in that way, praising violence and thuggery to this group. I was disappointed that he chose Jusuf Kalla not least because one sort of fantasizes about a thorough cleaning of the house after that dirty laundry. I didn't therefore endorse Jokowi in any sort of public way, and I only did so when I noticed that people from Prabowo's campaign started saying, "Watch The Act of Killing to see who Jusuf Kalla is." Then I started speaking very strongly against Prabowo and endorsed Jokowi as strongly as I thought I could.

That takes some chutzpah. Prabowo's people were saying, "See what Jokowi's vice president did?" when Prabowo was the former son-in-law of Suharto?
Yes, and far worse. We don't know what Jusuf Kalla did in 1965. We know that Jusuf Kalla was part of that generation of anti-communist activists — whether he was involved with killing people or an apologist for the killings, I have no idea. The point is exactly that there was a lot of chutzpah for the Prabowo team to try and use The Act of Killing in that way.

How can the forces of the old guard be held in check?
We need to build the grassroots base of support that Jokowi can rely on to do the things he wants to do, and get away from the feeling of disempowerment that many Indonesians will have after 50 years of either dictatorship or corruption and violence. Indonesians of course feel disempowered. They like to think of politics as a sort of "palace intrigue," a fight between elite factions.


If Jokowi is going to be able to fulfill precisely that aspect of him that inspires so much hope — namely that he's not from the elite — then he needs a popular base and we have to build that for him, so that it becomes costly for him to renege on his promises on human rights. We need to keep the pressure on, and in a supportive way. I definitely agree with what Allan Nairn said to Amy Goodman during the presidential campaign: that Prabowo is a killer and Jokowi is surrounded by killers. But Jokowi is also surrounded by some very good people — people who really have their heart in the right place and are supporting him for all the right reasons.

To what extent does this grassroots network exist?
I think what one needs is a popular movement. It's not there at the moment. There are obviously human rights organizations working tirelessly to draw attention to these issues. Our hope is to get Jokowi to see The Look of Silence and get him to feel he has to do something.

Hopefully the film will be a tool for other human rights activists and lend moral authority to the argument that something needs to be done, and will make the demand more compelling. But I don't know that the movement at the moment exists.

What about the likelihood of ending the exemption of punishment in Indonesia over past crimes?
Legally, military leaders' impunity is enshrined in law. Any crime they commit can only be tried through military courts. So that has to be changed as a law, and to change it there has to be real mobilization. There needs to be a manifesto for government accountability and rule of law. There has to be a kind of real political movement that takes to the streets that pushes for this kind of change. Of course there's hope still in Jokowi because he's seen as a man of the people, if you like — someone who goes to meet with ordinary people. The only problem is, if he feels he can't deliver on the things he promises…. It's hard to look people in the eye when you know you're lying to them. If he withdraws, then that would be a real pity. But it's hard for him to deliver on his promises if there is no political support for them.


Jokowi has acknowledged the genocide. That's a significant step forward.
He's made a promise that he will address Indonesia's past human rights abuses, including the genocide. Exactly how that is interpreted is open to debate, but he has said that it's time to address the 1965 killings. That's one reason why I will tirelessly continue to argue for the American government to acknowledge its role in the killings. I'm working with lawmakers in Washington. I think that would send a message to Indonesia that this is no hypocritical Western finger-pointing, this is actually an acknowledgement that we need to look at the past.

How aware are Indonesians of American involvement in the genocide?
Younger Indonesians are profoundly aware. 1965 has been deliberately presented as a mysterious shadowy period in Indonesian history, and anything mysterious or shadowy is easy to attribute to the CIA. In this case, evidence has leaked out and real serious scholarship has come out over many decades now that the CIA was really deeply involved — and so was MI6 and Australian and Japanese intelligence.

So people are very aware, to the point where Prabowo was able to talk about CIA involvement, American manipulation, neocolonial manipulation of Indonesia — ironically, because he is America's man in Indonesia. He has been and would have remained so if he hadn't adopted that nationalist tone, grooming himself for the presidency.

The decisions and crimes of various leaders have resulted in millions of deaths, many of them in Southeast Asia. Last month I saw Henry Kissinger being asked for his opinion on the Islamic State. It seems that alleged American perpetrators of war crimes will never be held accountable for their violations or meet with their victims. The proximity between victim and perpetrator is much closer in Indonesia, but that sort of confrontation is seen as beyond the realm of possibility in the United States.
I think you're absolutely right about the parallel. Just as Prabowo had the chutzpah to represent himself as the person who would stand up to foreign interference, just as the vice president during The Act of Killing said we need our thugs to beat people up and then went on to become the head of the Indonesian Red Cross, Kissinger was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, and Obama was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize while at war. He went and gave one of the most peculiar Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speeches ever, because he's apologizing for war and even arguing for war in his address.

I think the parallel of the impunity in Indonesia and in the United States, both for crimes the US committed in Indonesia — and in El Salvador and in Iraq and in the Southern Cone and across the global South — and crimes we committed at home, including an economic crime of enormous scale… these are very apt parallels, and I think some of the same hurdles that you are perceiving for us confronting our leaders in the way Adi does are not so different in Indonesia. The sense that it's hopeless or it's impossible is born out of a sense of powerlessness….

I think powerlessness is often kind of a manifestation of long-term fear. You're afraid for so long, you forget you're afraid. It just feels hopeless. I think apathy is very often a symptom of fear.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford

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