Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Look of Silence”–and the Mirror of Guilt

In The Look of Silence, over a decade in the making, Oppenheimer follows an Indonesian man, Adi Rukun, whose brother was violently murdered during a bloodbath under the military regime. In episode after episode, Adi calmly and impassively confronts the aging men who once orchestrated the mass killing that took his brother. He asks them, in simple words, to describe their role and react to the concept of moral responsibility. Many of the scenes are breathtaking.

When these men speak, the impulses of denial and self-justification are ever-present. The strength of The Look of Silence lies in showcasing the human condition to refuse guilt. Part of the shock of the documentary is that Adi is confronting the powerful in a society in which the perpetrators won and still reign supreme. This lies in stark contrast to similar scenes of moral culpability shown in the Nuremberg Trials or the Eichmann capture, in which those being interrogated had lost power and confront their guilt and their victims from a position of powerlessness.

Indonesia is a society still grappling with the living specter of the mass killings of the 60s and 70s (and in the case of East Timor until 1999). Much of the trauma and horror remains just under the surface. In one scene, a woman describes how proud she has always been of her father, who helped rid the country of Communists. When the father is prompted to speak, to describe his role in the events, what he says instantly shocks the daughter. He admits not only killing Communists en masse, but hacking them to death, one after the other, with a machete, and drinking two glasses of blood each night, apparently a local ritual of the killers, to embolden himself. The woman, his daughter, is horrified. With the camera still rolling, she attempts to recover from what she has just heard, to resituate her moral reading of her father and the history she had claimed to be so proud of. She appeals to Adi, asking forgiveness, asks that they be like family, that the ties of community be restored between them. Adi appears to accept.

In another scene, Adi, interviewing his maternal uncle, finds out he was complicit in the killings, having been conscripted as a guard. This is a fact neither Adi nor his mother were aware of. Adi suppresses his shock, and asks his uncle how responsible he feels for his complicity with the bloodbath and murder of Adi’s brother, Ramli. The uncle fervently insists on his blamelessness; he checks nearly all the boxes on the list of legitimation strategies: 1. It wasn’t me, I was just a guard. 2. I was just following orders. 3. I didn’t know what was happening. 4. They were guilty criminals anyway, since they denied God. Check, check, check, check.

Put abstractly, we have the familiar list of moral sidestepping, i.e. non-culpability by: 1. Insignificant role (I was just a tiny cog in a huge machine!). 2. Lack of agency or powerlessness (What could I have done?!) 3. Ignorance of atrocity (I didn’t know that this would happen!) 4. Moral high ground (But they were bad anyway, they deserved it in the end!). The only line missing is the the inevitability argument: if it hadn’t been me, it would have been someone else.

Ask around in the aftermath of any atrocity, and these are the likely denial strategies. The uncle’s ability to move seamlessly from one to another breathtakingly showcases the human tendency to avoid looking in the mirror.

In yet another scene, Adi visits the family of a major killer, the leader of a commando group, who has recently passed away in his old age. Adi asks the family to reflect on the father’s role in the killings, and insists that he does not judge them. The killer’s family is totally uninterested in pursuing the matter, relentlessly repeating a statement of ignorance: we didn’t know, we don’t know anything about this. Adi soon produces a book the father wrote, which describes (and illustrates by hand) in detail the bloody murder of Ramli and others, who were tortured, hacked to pieces, and castrated before being dumped in the river. The family reacts with vigorous rejection–“we don’t know anything about this”–and promptly calls for Adi to leave. Joshua Oppenheimer, filming the scene, intervenes momentarily, producing a film clip of the father proudly presenting his book in the village street and proudly describing his role in the massacre in front of the camera (this was for Oppenheimer’s previous film, The Act of Killing [2013], in which he interviewed the killers and asked them to act out their atrocities). The family again vigorously protests, and pushes Adi to leave, insisting: “We don’t know anything about this.” The will to ignorance and denial in the face of complicity and moral guilt is often insurmountable, it seems.

The film uses several central metaphors to encapsulate its themes. Adi works professionally as an optometrist, testing patients for their clarity of vision and making them eyeglasses, so that they may better see what they look at. In many of the scenes, he is literally testing the eyes of the killers, finding out what prescription they need. It turns out that this was one of the ways he gained access to them, and it served as a tool to humanize the conversation even as it entered spaces of taboo and trauma and horror. Another central metaphor is the jumping beans, which Adi’s mother holds sometimes in her palm, asking: are you really in there? When will you come out? The beans move around, wobbling, clearly hiding an interior content that wishes to force itself out, to emerge. The trauma of the past, the truth, the conflict and tension between those living in the wake of such horror, this is the interior content that threatens, seeks to emerge, to produce, now metamorphosed, something beautiful or frightful. But will it emerge into a healing process or as an open wound leading to new cycles of trauma? Finally, there is Adi’s ancient father, who opens and closes the film. What does he remember? What traumas have sculpted his mind? What is he capable of doing?


The film opens up questions about history, trauma, and public memory. The educational system, we see in one prominent scene, is a prime vehicle for thought control. History and memory is controlled by the state; the pupils are shown scenes of gory violence and told that the perpetrators were “the Communists.” The military dictatorship, they are taught, saved them from this monstrosity. In the words of Orwell, “he who controls the present controls the past.”

The film also asks us to consider our own public memory. Have we looked into our own mirror? In one striking line of the film, one of the powerful killers reminds Adi that the American’s “taught us” to hate “the Communists.” The reference is likely to be missed by the typical American viewer, who probably knows little about his governments crucial support for the Indonesian dictatorship during the period of its worst atrocities. Once Suharto came to power, Indonesia quickly climbed to the position of one of the worst human rights violators on the planet. US support for the regime remained strong–and played a determinant role–throughout the period. While this is by now well known, during the period, the US role in supporting Indonesian atrocities was at first largely suppressed. What is surprising to some in the US is the fact that their government displayed no qualms about supporting the decades of brutality and war crimes of the Indonesian regime, constituting some of the worst crimes of the post-WWII era.

The US role has been most extensively documented by the National Archives Project here.

A sample 2006 report from Washington Post: “U.S. political and military support for Indonesia was vital to its ability to invade East Timor in December 1975 and to sustain a brutal 24-year occupation that cost the lives of at least 100,000 people [actual figures are much higher, at least 200,000. –N.], parts of a Timorese inquiry made public Tuesday show.”

Chomsky summarizes succinctly here, from 6:30-8:00.)

NPR summarizes the history:

Suharto’s regime was widely regarded as one of most corrupt and brutal of the 20th century. He came to power after a group of left-wing army officers and leaders of the Indonesian Communist Party tried to seize control in Jakarta. Suharto narrowly escaped the fate of many of his fellow generals who were assassinated during the uprising. In the coming days, he rallied loyal troops and crushed the uprising, massacring hundreds of thousands in the process….

During his years in office, Suharto brutally dealt with dissenters and was accused of siphoning off billions of dollars of state funds for himself, family and close associates.

… During the Cold War, Suharto’s anti-communist credentials made him a key U.S. ally; he enjoyed close relations with several U.S. administrations. In 2001, declassified documents confirmed a long-held suspicion that in a December 1975 meeting with President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Suharto was given the green light to invade the breakaway region of East Timor.

The NPR article doesn’t bother to list the dead from this invasion, armed and green-lighted by the US, which is over 200,000. Discussing the US role–not complicity but active and determinant support–for these crimes apparently lies beyond the moral standard of NPR.

But beyond the specific horrors of the US-supported Suharto regime in Indonesia, Americans have plenty of mirror-gazing to do. The truth and reconciliation process, the grappling with moral culpability, the willingness to apologize and pay reparations–these tools of delving into one’s past have not been used. The victims of US crimes must usually remain silent, or content themselves with a brief nod toward “our errors.” This certainly goes for the grand crimes of the native American genocide and the centuries of brutal chattel slavery; the Japanese victims of US atomic bombs; the 3-4 million Indochinese killed by American aggression in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam; without speaking of the consequences of US actions in Latin America. It is only by our willingness to look into the mirror, to admit our guilt for these crimes, that we will be positioned to prevent such crimes in the future.

Published Commentary on Look of Silence

Washington Post

“What does 50 years of living in fear do to a human being?” Oppenheimer asked an opening-night crowd in New York. The question was rhetorical but brought the director around to an oft-cited quotation, from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” …

As the filmmaker discovered as he met dozens of perpetrators living freely with no repercussions, Indonesia was something like Germany after World War II, but with the Third Reich still in power. “ ‘What if Nazis had won?’ may not be the exception to the rule, it may be the rule itself,” he said, speaking in an earlier conversation. “I knew I’d make a second film about what it’s like for survivors to have to live in such a regime.”


“Why should I remember if remembering only breaks my heart?” a former Indonesian death squad member croons, badly, into a karaoke machine at the beginning of “The Look of Silence,” director Joshua Oppenheimer’s latest documentary to delve into Indonesia’s genocidal past.

Maybe for the singer there is reason to forget — he did, after all, take part in slaughter.

But in the film, Adi Rukun, an empathetic optician, sits silently in a slatted wooden chair and watches footage of the singing genocidaire, trying to understand what happened in 1965. His brother, Ramli, was one of an estimated 1 million Indonesians killed in the wave of anti-communist violence that gripped the Southeast Asian nation in 1965-66.

Fifty years on, Ramli’s murder and its effects on Adi and his family form the centerpiece of “The Look of Silence,” the follow up to 2012’s “The Act of Killing” — a film that looked at the Indonesian genocide through the eyes of the perpetrators….

Ramli’s death was brutal. In 1965, in the Indonesian province of North Sumatra, Rami was released from a political prison and handed over to members of a local paramilitary group. The militia members beat him, sliced him with a machete, stabbed him in the stomach and loaded him onto the back of a truck with other suspected communists.

Despite his wounds, Ramli rolled himself out of the moving truck, escaping the fate of fellow prisoners in the vehicle: being hacked to death and then thrown into Snake River.

More than 10,000 Indonesians were killed along that stretch of water in 1965, a fraction of the estimated 1 million Indonesians slaughtered in the anti-communist purges, which cleared the way for 31 years of dictatorship under General Suharto.

Ramli’s reprieve was brief. He crawled to his parents’ house, only for the militia to arrive the following morning.

The death squad members lied to his mother, telling her they wanted to take him to a nearby hospital. Ramli’s mother relented, giving up her son, fully aware he wasn’t headed for medical care.

The paramilitaries beat, stabbed and left Ramli to die in a field. Ramli continued to yell in agony and call for help. He raised such din that the paramilitary members had to return, where they finally finished the job (supposedly by hacking off Ramli’s penis and letting him bleed out)….

“This was a desperate bid to make peace with his neighbors — to somehow end the fear he and his parents have been living with for decades,” Oppenheimer said of Adi. But remorse from Ramli’s killers never comes.

“The Look of Silence” doesn’t just highlight the lies individuals tell themselves so they can live with their misdeeds; it examines how a nationwide deceit that pardons mass murder is passed on through education.

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