We all know what a communist victory in Southeast Asia can look like. But what would it look like if the “good guys” had won? In his chilling documentaries ‘The Act of Killing’ and ‘The Look of Silence’, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer looks at one place where they did, to the tune of around one million dead, many on the basis of the merest suspicion of adhering to communist ideology.
“I didn‘t know about this until I went to Indonesia to give a lecture to union workers after the dictator Suharto resigned in 1998,” the filmmaker tells me of an Indonesian genocide that is usually lost in the history books next to the debacle in Vietnam. “I found out that a Belgian company made women spread pesticides, but didn’t give them protective clothing and many got very sick or died. The union protested and a military group intervened. [But] in a terrible way the genocide hasn‘t ended. People are still dying.”
In The Look of Silence, you show a clip from 1967 where an American journalist interviews one of the Indonesian militia members. What was media coverage of Indonesia like at the time?
Indonesia was called “the gleam of light in Asia” and admired in the New York Times and elsewhere. Goodyear was harvesting rubber from a slave factory, which was reported but there was no anger. When people were called communists they were dehumanised and the murders were reported as good news.
DEATH THREATS EVERY DAY
The first film ‘The Act of Killing’ is well-known for the graphic descriptions and re-creations the perpetrators make of the events of the genocide. In the second film, you have the brother of one of the victims talk to them.
Adi is looking at them with a humanising gaze and this makes it harder for them. They have been lying to themselves for a long time and now their life collapses. Because they‘ve never been removed from power, they try to sugarcoat their history. The perpetrators always boast about the worst events, because those affected them the most. In a strange way, it shows their humanity.
Will you be making more films about this subject?
I am not done with the subject matter, the lies human beings tell themselves and systemic evil, but my work on the Indonesian military government is done. I knew I wouldn‘t be able to return after ‘The Act of Killing’, but since no one had seen the film yet, everyone thought that I was friends with the most powerful people since I had been interviewing them. So I shot the second one before the first one came out. I was working in Indonesia for a decade and I am saddened than I cannot go back. The Atis are like a family to me and I won’t get to see the kids grow up. I receive death threats on a daily basis.
THE HUMANITY OF MASS MURDERERS
“We drank human blood to stay sane” is probably one of the most striking pronouncements of late.
It was both horrible and an admission of the humanity of the perpetrators—they knew they were so wrong that they were risking their sanity. There was a whole cohort of perpetrators who had destroyed themselves and that I could not meet. We don’t know how many assumed communists were killed. One of the perpetrators confessed on his deathbed that he had killed three million people, but there is no way to verify this.
So what, if anything, can we learn from all this?
We cannot run away from our past; we are our past. Both victims and perpetrators want to run away from it, but we need to understand it, not just condemn it. I think we should look with impunity at our own societies; this should be a mirror and not a window onto an unknown genocide. Iceland has had a lot of corruption that almost destroyed the country. Also, you should remember that everything you buy cheap is because workers in places like Indonesia make these products under terrible conditions. The people I interview in the film are our monsters, they are working for us.
‘The Look of Silence’ will start showing next week at Bíó Paradís.
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