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October 23, 2014
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A brother seeks answers in Look of Silence

Actor Adi Rukun, director Joshua Oppenheimer and producer Signe Byrge.
By Jill Lawless
AP
Haunting documentary follows perpetrators of a 1960s massacre in Indonesia

VENICE — What is it like to look into the eyes of the men who killed your brother and went unpunished?

It’s almost impossible to imagine, but The Look of Silence provides a glimpse at an answer.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s haunting documentary follows Adi, whose brother died in mass killings in Indonesia in the 1960s, as he tracks down the perpetrators — seeking not revenge, but understanding.

His quest is both heroic and brave. The men behind the violence, in which hundreds of thousands died, remain powerful and untouchable. Their victims — trade unionists, alleged communists, and Chinese — are still demonized, their families cowed into silence.

“Of course I was afraid,” said Adi, a soft-spoken ophthalmologist in his 40s who travelled thousands of miles from his home in Java for the movie’s premiere yesterday at the Venice Film Festival.

“But fear was a part of my everyday life, and the everyday life of my family, for so long that it wasn’t a totally new thing,” he said in Indonesian as Oppenheimer supplied translation.

The Look of Silence is a companion to Oppenheimer’s Academy Award-nominated The Act of Killing, which tracked down former death squad members and found them unashamed, unrepentant and willing to describe — even to re-enact — their brutal murders.

The killers’ brazen and bizarre behaviour made that film a sensation, both internationally and in Indonesia, where the slayings — sanctioned by longtime military dictator and US Cold War ally Suharto — remained a taboo topic.

The followup, one of 20 films competing for the Golden Lion at Venice, is quieter but just as shocking. Adi, who like many Indonesians primarily uses one name, is a compelling protagonist, calmly determined to break the silence.

Oppenheimer lingers on his quizzical, open face as the now-elderly killers — some of them customers whom Adi fits with eyeglasses — describe how they slit victims’ throats, hacked up their bodies and even drank their blood, considered a precaution against going crazy.

Adi was born two years after his brother Ramli was killed — his mother had prayed for a new child to replace her lost son — and grew up in a family wracked by loss and fear.

“My mother would talk about it with me a little bit, because I was the replacement,” he said in a Venice luxury hotel jarringly at odds with the horror he was describing. “But no one else in the village, in the community, none of the other survivors’ families, had the courage to talk at all about what had happened.”

When the family visited his brother’s grave, “we had to do it in secret. If we were seen going to the grave, we could be arrested.”

Oppenheimer, a Denmark-based US citizen who began filming survivors’ stories more than a decade ago, said he always knew The Act of Killing would need a counterpoint, focusing on the victims rather than the killers.

He said recording the interviews in which Adi confronted the killers “was much more frightening than filming The Act of Killing.”

The director took rigorous precautions, taking an extra getaway car to the interviews to avoid being followed and bringing only Danish crew members.

Many of the movie’s Indonesian crew are listed in the credits as “Anonymous.”

The perpetrators reacted to Adi’s questions with evasion and sometimes anger, but — somewhat to Oppenheimer’s surprise — they never grew violent. He thinks they were shocked “by the fact that Adi is saying the unsayable.”

The Act of Killing opened up debate about the killings in Indonesia, prompting an admission of regret from the government. But truth and reconciliation are a long way off. The new movie includes a scene of a primary-school lesson — Adi’s son is one of the pupils — in which the victims are demonized and the killers extolled.

Adi said meeting his brother’s murderers had brought relief, though none expressed regret, “and maybe they never will.” But, he said, “at the very least they now realize that all of us know what happened.” And, he said, he never felt the desire for revenge.

“I really, honestly want us to be able to have reconciliation and forgiveness,” he said. “Because if these kinds of events are always met with revenge, the world will never be safe for anybody.”

@Jilllawless
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