The act of forgetting: Two films on Indonesia make for charged viewing in Cairo

In the year following the 1965 military coup that brought Indonesia’s former President Suharto into power, the country erupted into an orgy of communal violence.

The targets of the massacres were the Indonesian Communist Party, one of its largest political parties, which had organized workers and farmers across Indonesia and were pushing for land reform and otherwise threatening the traditional elites. Communist leaders were accused of murdering some generals and plotting to overthrow the government. Ethnic Chinese got swept up in the resulting massacres, as did intellectuals, trade unionists and anyone who got on the wrong side of local power brokers and gangsters.

With logistical support from the military — and from foreign entities like the CIA — local death-squads killed an estimated 1 million civilians across the Indonesian archipelago.

For generations afterward, the Communist Party was demonized as an existential threat to the Indonesian state, while the massacre was written out of local history books. As Irish political scientist Benedict Anderson once said, modern Indonesia has a mountain of skeletons buried in its cellars.

Two recent films by US-born documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer, both playing this week at D-CAF as part of Rasha Salti’s hard-hitting film selection, aim to rattle those skeletons.

In The Act of Killing (2012) Oppenheimer invites the perpetrators of the massacre to recreate the murders they committed, saying he will produce a feature film dramatizing their exploits as executioners. The Look of Silence (2014), more conventional but no less disturbing, centers on the family of one of the victims. Both films have swept prizes on the festival circuit.

The tone of The Act of Killing is set when Anwar Congo, a small-time gangster, or preman, turned 1965 executioner, invites the film crew to a rooftop that was the scene of countless murders. Dapper in a lime green shirt and white trousers (later in the film, upon reviewing the footage, Anwar himself comments that he looks as though he is dressed for a picnic), he adopts the air of a proud homemaker dispensing household hints while demonstrating how a wire garrote can be used for a quick and tidy execution.

The executioners’ movie, excerpts of which appear inside the documentary, looks like an absurd pastiche of film noir, spaghetti western and Indonesian melodrama, in which Anwar and his compatriots play both victims and perpetrators. But things occasionally get real. In one scene, a bit actor hired to play a victim reveals that his stepfather was murdered, in all probability by Anwar or his friends, and his surviving family run out of town. The preman and associates attempt to smooth over the awkwardness with offers of cigarettes.


Much of the film’s comic relief, such as it is, comes from Herman Koto, a local preman, paramilitary member and unsuccessful parliamentary candidate. Corpulent and buffoonish, Herman animates the film-within-the-film with his high-camp aesthetic and costumes that look like they were raided from the set of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

For Anwar, the horror of what he’s done comes home when he plays the victim in an execution scene. Deeply shaken, he asks Oppenheimer if his victims felt like he did. “No,” the filmmaker says. They felt immeasurably worse because they knew they were going to die. Later, Anwar is shown retching and stumbling at the rooftop execution site, and it’s a testament to Oppenheimer’s skill as a filmmaker that the audience is left with an uncomfortable sense of sympathy.


The Act of Killing

Even the clownish Herman has his moments of soul-searching, but not so Adi Zulkadry, Anwar’s fellow executioner in 1965. According to Adi, Anwar is haunted because his mind has been weakened by guilt. Adi tells the camera that his own mind is too strong and healthy for such suffering, aided by a iron-clad sense of moral relativism: Communism was evil and needed to be destroyed, and in any case, war crimes are defined by the winners and he was on the winning side.

This sentiment appears to be shared by the grotesque cast of paramilitary leaders, corrupt businessmen, pro-government journalists and local and national politicians who happily mug for the camera and hail Anwar, Adi and their fellow travelers as heroes.

It is also a main theme of the second film.

The Look of Silence, which lacks the frenzied pizazz the central conceit and larger-than-life characters brought The Act of Killing, is much more conventional in technique and story line. It centers on Adi Rukun, who learns the gruesome details of his brother’s fate through footage, captured by Oppenheimer, of the perpetrators boasting.

Where The Act of Killing shines light on the rot pervading even the highest levels of Indonesia’s political culture, The Look of Silence is a quieter reflection on the damage both killing and impunity continue to have on families and communities.

An optometrist by trade, Adi travels around his area with Oppenheimer, checking eyeglass prescriptions while gently, and with exquisite courtesy, questioning the men responsible for hacking his older brother to death.

While filming The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer allowed the perpetrators of mass killings to present their own, self-aggrandizing and self-exonerating accounts as they saw fit. In contrast, Adi asks deeply probing questions about morality and personal responsibility.

It is clear that Adi quite literally asks the questions Oppenheimer didn’t. In more than one interview, the subject turns to Oppenheimer behind the camera with a look of betrayal. “I don’t like you anymore Joshua,” says the wife of one death squad member, when forced to confront her own hypocrisy and culpability. Another former death squad leader, without prompting and with evident relish, expounds on the taste of human blood and the texture of a woman’s severed breast, but sputters with outrage when asked whether acts like blood drinking and dismemberment are compatible with Islam.


The Look of Silence

At times, the interviewees become threatening. One paramilitary leader is initially happy to reflect on the wealth and power that has flowed to him as a result of helping organize the massacres. “If you do good, you are rewarded,” he says. On learning Adi’s brother was a victim, the man demands to know where he and his family live, reminding him that asking such questions before 1998 (when Suharto was forced to resign) would have resulted in “unimaginable” things. Another interviewee accuses Adi of “communistic activity.”

Over and over again, Adi is told that the past should stay in the past, that he is opening up old wounds and endangering his loved ones by stirring up dark forces. His journey makes it clear that the perpetrators of the massacres are still very much in power, and they do not care to have their carefully constructed heroic narratives challenged.

This is reinforced when the credits roll: I cannot spot a single Indonesian name among the credits for either film. Everyone from co-directors to drivers are listed as “Anonymous.” Adi and his family have also reportedly moved to the other side of Indonesia since the film was made.

D-CAF is playing the films as a double header, and Tuesday will be the last chance to see them. Watching them back-to-back, while revelatory, is also an excellent way to ruin an evening. At a time when people in Cairo don’t need to look further then our own neighborhoods to feel awful about the state of humanity, do we really need a trip to the cinema to depress ourselves further?

Neither film is without flaws. The Act of Killing has been criticized for providing virtually no context in which to place the perpetrators’ often warped accounts. This funhouse-mirror-view of history amplifies the massacres’ horror, but we learn little about the political and social circumstances in which they happened. It could also be confusing for people unfamiliar with the history.

And while I have no qualms about the unflattering portrayals of the unrepentant rapists, murderers and hypocrites, the scenes that paint an unblinking portrait of Adi’s blind, senile father were a sour note in The Look of Silence. I assume there is meant to be a deep metaphor about blindness and forgetting, but watching him, elderly, confused and nearly nude, made me feel complicit in stripping the final shreds of dignity from a man who has already faced unimaginable indignities in his long life.

Despite these shortcomings, watching both films is worth the pain, not only for their quality, but because they provide a fascinating lens through which to view recent events in this country. Direct parallels with Indonesia and Egypt are tempting — Indonesia’s preman to Egypt’s baltageyya, communism to terrorism — but probably lazy. As Anderson points out in an exhaustive essay on the subject, the unique characteristics of North Sumatra, where Oppenheimer’s films take place, made it different from even other Indonesian provinces.

Yet in essence Oppenheimer’s films are about an act of violence that cemented a new political order, the role of propaganda in justifying and ultimately glorifying that violence, and the way ordinary people can support atrocities if they believe their way of life is threatened.

Oppenheimer’s work reveals how the massacres and society’s refusal to deal with them have hollowed out Indonesia’s political system and left deep, unhealed wounds. For those who watched in horror almost two years ago as previously genial neighbors, and even relatives, cheered on as the military killed hundreds in Rabaa square and then erected a memorial to themselves, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence make thought-provoking viewing.

Both films will be screened at Zawya on March 24: The Look of Silence at 6:30 pm and The Act of Killing at 9:30 pm.

Isabel Esterman 

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