Drafthouse Films/Participant Media

Rohani, an Indonesian woman whose oldest son, Ramli, was killed as a suspected Communist in the mass murders of 1965–1966, in Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary film The Look of Silence


Two extraordinary documentary films by Joshua Oppenheimer, shot in Indonesia over a period of ten years, begin with the same terse statement:

In 1965, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military. Anybody opposed to the military dictatorship could be accused of being a communist: union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and the ethnic Chinese.

In less than a year, and with the direct aid of Western governments, over one million “communists” were murdered.

The army used paramilitaries and gangsters to carry out the killings. These men have been in power—and have persecuted their opponents—ever since.

One might quibble with the numbers: some say half a million were killed, some say two million, but we will never know precisely; only the Germans kept meticulous records of their blood lust. In some places the army took a direct part in the slaughter, but mostly it left the nastiest jobs to local thugs. Exactly what started the violence is still contested: a failed coup by army factions supported, possibly, by the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), or a power struggle inside the armed forces.

What we know for sure is that Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia, had become a major Asian player in the cold war and his erratic behavior seriously worried Western powers. He saw himself as a revolutionary “president- for-life” who would resist Western imperialism and neocolonialism in league with China, North Korea, and the Soviet Union. This led, in the early 1960s, to a military conflict (“Konfrontasi”) with the newly independent Malaysia, which Sukarno regarded as an antirevolutionary cat’s paw of British interests. At home, with the Indonesian economy in some chaos, he edged ever closer to the PKI.

The Indonesian armed forces were mostly fiercely opposed to the Communists. It is at least plausible that the initial coup attempt in 1965 was a way for Sukarno and left-wing sympathizers to consolidate his power and control the army. In the early hours of October 1, six generals were murdered. Having been spared this fate, the young and highly conservative Major General Suharto staged a countercoup just a few hours later. That he was strongly backed, and perhaps actively assisted by the US and Britain, should be no surprise. Lists of known Communists were allegedly handed over by US officials. Most of them were no doubt killed in the orgy of anti-Communist violence that lasted until early 1966. But many victims were poor peasants who barely knew what communism was. Popular prejudice against Chinese merchants led to ethnic pogroms as well. Suharto became president in the following year, the PKI was banned, and Sukarno lived under house arrest until his death in 1970.

The Indonesian mass murders of 1965 and 1966, hailed in the US news media at the time as a great victory over communism, must rank among the worst atrocities of the last century. Under Suharto’s New Order regime, they were effectively buried under a blanket of enforced silence. Worse than silence, actually: Indonesians were taught, in textbooks, movies, monuments, and so forth, that the killers were heroes who had saved the nation from a great evil. Many of the “heroes” of this official story were rewarded with power and money. One former death squad leader interviewed by Oppenheimer in his second film, The Look of Silence, even felt a little peeved that the US government had never bothered to give him any prize—like a family cruise to America, for example. Families of the victims had to survive as best they could and stay mute.

But truth cannot be suppressed forever—not in France, where the official veil of discretion was lifted off the Vichy past, not in Spain or Argentina, and not in Indonesia. Different narratives began to emerge after 1998, when Suharto was ousted after a spate of riots (once again, Chinese were often the victims of violence). Political journals, such as Tempo, ran articles about the 1965 massacres. In 2012, the National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia published a detailed report on the murders, only to be dismissed by the attorney general, a figure of the old regime.1 Oppenheimer, who has made two documentaries on the subject, is part of a new wave of writers and artists finally able to challenge the New Order propaganda, sometimes at considerable risk. Former killers still hold positions of power, especially at a local level, and the army is still a political force. Oppenheimer’s many Indonesian collaborators had to remain anonymous in the movie credits.

Eka Kurniawan is one of the young Indonesian fiction writers dealing with the murderous past.2 History, in his novel Beauty Is a Wound, is reimagined as a kind of ghost story, influenced by shadow puppet plays, comic books, folk tales, and even the gory horror films that are so popular in Indonesia. Kurniawan, born ten years after the massacres, is in many ways a literary child of Günter Grass, Gabriel García Márquez, and Salman Rushdie: in his work, history is told through a variety of odd characters who tend to fly off into the air, or emerge from their graves fully alive, or start their lives as pigs. This can be a tiresome mannerism; my disbelief was not always suspended. But the ghosts, loaded with so much unresolved horror, are often chillingly believable.


It has become rather a cliché to think of Indonesia as the land of spirits and ghosts, of guna guna, or black magic. The greatest Dutch novel about the country in colonial times, Louis Couperus’s The Hidden Force,3 dabbles in this, but really as a metaphor for the Dutch failure to grasp hidden currents in native Indonesian society. Kurniawan’s ghosts are more in the tradition, common in Asian literature, of wronged spirits coming back to life to exact vengeance. Rape is a pervasive theme running through the book—by the Dutch colonial masters, by Japanese soldiers, and by Indonesian soldiers and mobsters.

The original crime is committed against a young Indonesian woman, Ma Iyang, who is taken away from her lover, Ma Gedik, and forced to be the concubine of a Dutch plantation owner. Their beautiful Eurasian (“Indo” in Dutch colonial parlance) offspring are the victims of rapacious men in the savage times that follow: the Japanese occupation during World War II, the years of violent struggle for Indonesian independence in the late 1940s, and, of course, the bloodbaths of 1965–1966.

Ma Gedik’s vengeful spirit returns to haunt everyone involved in these brutal episodes. But there are other, less visible ghosts too. Dutch visitors to the imaginary Javanese town where the novel is set are warned about “communist ghosts.” The local military commander, whose history bears some resemblance to Suharto’s—trained by the Japanese during the war, fighting the Dutch after the war, a killer of Communists in 1965—is tormented by ghosts:

For years after the massacre he experienced terrible insomnia, and then when he did finally fall asleep, he suffered from sleepwalking. Communist ghosts were out to get him all the time….

In the end, Ma Gedik’s ghost is finished off by Dewi Ayu, daughter of Ma Iyang and the Dutchman who raped her. In order to perform this last act of killing, she too comes back from the dead as a ghost. Ma Gedik’s last words to her are: “You may have succeeded in killing me, but my curse will live on.” These words are echoed at the end of the book by one of Dewi Ayu’s daughters, lamenting the years of rape and murder. “We are like a cursed family,” one of them sobs. “We are not like a cursed family,” her sister says, “we are truly and completely cursed.”

The family, it is strongly implied, is Indonesia, a country as beautiful, and as much abused, as the “Indo” children and grandchildren of the Dutchman and his native concubine. It is a bleak but fitting response to many years of covering up the horrors of a blood-soaked past. Beauty Is a Wound is not a perfect novel.4 The rather awkward translation makes it difficult to judge the quality of Kurniawan’s prose style: crude slang words are embedded in clumsy sentences. But despite the postmodern literary grandstanding, he manages to bring history to life without burdening his text with heavy-handed political messages. The sources of violence, in his novel, run deeper than politics. Politics are an excuse for unleashing man’s worst instincts. At his best, Kurniawan finds the perfect mix of metaphor and realism.

Maman Gendeng is the boss of the local gangsters, or preman, a word that is said to be derived from “free man.” Convinced that his daughter was raped by a dog, Maman Gending decides to kill all the dogs in town:

His thugs began to spread out in large groups, carrying their deadly weapons. A number of them carried pellet guns, others had machetes and unsheathed swords….

And so the most horrifying dog massacre began, almost like the massacre of communists that had taken place eighteen years before…. The thugs easily slashed open the dogs that were roaming in the streets, hacking them to pieces as if they were going to turn them into satay meat….

He was indeed truly furious at everyone in the city, except for his cronies, but his daughter was also sort of like an excuse. He had in fact held a grudge against the people for quite a long time, knowing for sure that they all looked down on him and his friends as unemployed goons who passed their time doing nothing but drinking beer and fighting.


Oppenheimer’s first film, The Act of Killing, is precisely about such goons, and the ghosts that haunt at least some of them.5 He not only managed to get a number of preman, members of the paramilitary Pancasila Youth, former death squad leaders, and others who took part or were complicit in the massacres of 1965 to talk; he did something more interesting, and controversial: he asked them to reenact their atrocities in a kind of film inside a film. They are the directors of their own fantasies and nightmares. It is a most disturbing exercise, for we get a direct view into the minds of mass murderers.


What makes these performances even more unnerving is the part of the victims. Sometimes, they are played by the killers themselves, switching roles. In one horrible instance, the torture victim is acted out by the stepson of a man who really was murdered in 1965. He tells the story of his stepfather with an eerie giggle, to hide his discomfort. Under mock torture, he begins to drool with fear, begging for his life; he becomes his stepfather. In another brutal reenactment for the cameras, a village is raided, with actual villagers playing the victims of rape and cutthroat killings. Children can’t stop weeping once the filming is over. One woman is so distressed that she almost faints.


Drafthouse Films/Participant Media

A musical reenactment scene from The Act of Killing

Oppenheimer has been accused of being prurient, an exploiter, of taking the stories of homicidal thugs at face value. But this is to misunderstand what he was up to. The exact truth of what happened in 1965, and the politics behind the massacres, are not the points of his investigation. Instead, he is interested in how former killers manage to live with their past, and how their braggadocio, backed by government propaganda, has shaped Indonesian society since.

The main reason he was able to get these men to reenact their crimes is that they had never been treated as criminals. Officially, even the worst perpetrators among them were hailed as heroes. Oppenheimer has stated in interviews that coming to Sumatra, where both of his films were shot, was as if he had “wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power.”6 With this difference, however: Oppenheimer, whose own relatives were killed in the Holocaust, would hardly have been trusted by Nazis. The Indonesian killers trusted him because he was an American, and America, as one of them says in Oppenheimer’s second movie, had taught them to hate Communists.

Some of the murderers and their accomplices are wealthy businessmen or politicians. One is a newspaper editor, in whose office people were tortured and killed. Others are petty criminals, still shaking down terrified Chinese shopkeepers in the Medan marketplace. Their grotesque performances for Oppenheimer’s camera of torture, rape, and murder might seem ghoulish, a form of pornographic sadism. The “actors” are almost childishly eager to show exactly how they strangled their victims with wire or cut their throats.

In some ways, the reenactments are a form of pornography, with the actors taking pleasure in their own recollections. One of the most chilling statements comes from a brutal-looking character reminiscing about raping young girls with impunity. It was “hell for them,” he recalls, “but heaven for me.” And yet the scenes of simulated cruelty have a serious purpose. They tell us more than we might like to know about common human behavior.

One thing seems clear, if anyone needs to be reminded of this: collective violence is rarely spontaneous, or the result of deep feelings of hate among ordinary people. That is what the men who give the orders would like us to think. A former commander claims precisely that in Oppenheimer’s film. But it is an evasion of his own responsibility. One of the perpetrators admits that the “Communists” were not all bad people. Indeed, says another, the killers may have been crueler than their victims. There follows an earnest discussion about the difference between cruelty and sadism. The men agree that what they did was cruel, perhaps, but not sadistic.

Most of the killers have only a very hazy idea of what a Communist is supposed to be: “They don’t believe in God” is one common explanation. “They sleep with each others’ wives” is another. The main thing is that the murderers were given official license to do anything they liked to human beings who were designated as “bad people,” unworthy of life. It was permissible, even righteous, to burn down their houses, steal their goods, rape the women, and kill them all.

Not everyone will take part in such savagery, but many people will. How one lives with it afterward is the question. The answer depends to a large degree on the capacity to put oneself in the place of the victims. The Act of Killing is really a documentary film about the human imagination. In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt was wrong about Eichmann; he was a fanatic, not an unthinking bureaucrat. But I believe she was right to link moral collapse to what she called a “criminal lack of imagination.” This has very little to do with cultural refinement or education.

The most interesting figure in The Act of Killing is a mobster named Anwar Congo. A dark-skinned dandy in dapper suits mimicking the heroes of his favorite Hollywood gangster movies, Anwar is not an educated man. In the early 1960s, he was a young punk who made his money scalping tickets at a local cinema. His main gripe with the “Communists” was their attempt to boycott American films.

The influence of the movies can be seen in all the cinematic reenactments of Anwar’s torture scenes, when he menaces his victims with the mannerisms of a deeply malevolent Hollywood gangster. His reimagined killings take place in the lurid lighting of a film noir. Weirdly, on a TV talk show, Anwar mentions Sidney Poitier as his favorite movie star. But his models are closer to Charles Bronson or Lee Marvin. The license to kill in 1965 allowed Anwar and thousands of others like him to think of themselves as movie heroes, and no longer as goons in a dusty Indonesian backwater.

The preman killers recall drinking the blood of their victims to stop themselves from going insane. Anwar, for one, is still pursued by the ghosts of his victims in frequent nightmares. This, too, is part of the film within a film, with Anwar’s nightly tormentors dressed up as horror film characters. What this suggests is that concealed behind the swagger—he dances the cha-cha on the spot where he tortured his victims to death—there lurks a guilty conscience. Oppenheimer has said in interviews that he regards this as usual among former killers. I’m less sure of this. Anwar may be rather exceptional.

Adi Zulkadry was one of Anwar’s fellow murderers. Adi is better educated, a rich businessman in Jakarta now, who takes his miniskirted daughter shopping in luxurious shopping malls. When he returns to his old killing haunts to help in the reenactments, he seems almost embarrassed to be associated with his old gangster cronies. But he tells Oppenheimer over and over that he never loses any sleep. There is no reason to feel guilty, he says. Right and wrong, after all, are relative concepts: Did the Americans not feel justified in what they did in Iraq? “We were allowed to do it,” he argues, “and the proof is we murdered people and were never punished.”

Oppenheimer is very good at holding the camera in close-ups, registering the nervous twitches, the sudden winces of embarrassment, quickly covered up by yet another evasion of the truth. Adi’s face betrays nothing. He is like a slab of stone, gazing into space as his daughter is being pampered in a beauty salon. We cannot really know what another person is thinking or feeling, but it looks as though Adi feels nothing at all.

The same isn’t true of Anwar. His grisly performances end in an extraordinary denouement. In a particularly harrowing scene, he plays his own victim being tortured by his old self. Reviewing the scene many times at home on a monitor, he insists that his young grandsons watch his torment with him, as though playing the victim could somehow redeem him. Isn’t it sad, he says, to see grandpa being beaten up. The children squirm. But Anwar considers out loud what the victims must have felt, how they lost every shred of human dignity. Soon after, back on the actual torture scene, we see him convulsing in a fit of retching. Anwar may have been a killer, but he has the imagination to see the horror of his own behavior.

The problem with The Act of Killing is a bit like that of the Auschwitz Trials, held in Frankfurt from 1963 to 1965. The Hessian state attorney general Fritz Bauer wanted to hold up the trial as a mirror to all Germans. Punishing the brutes who did the dirty work at Auschwitz was only the beginning; making all Germans take moral responsibility was the more important aim. Alas, however, the lurid stories in the German press about monstrous deeds committed by devilish men made it far too easy for “decent” people to maintain their comforting distance. Bauer considered the trials a failure.7

Like Bauer, Oppenheimer meant his films to be an indictment not just of individual killers, but of a corrupted society built on violence and death. In his words, “everybody is somehow a collaborator,” not just in Indonesia, but in countries that encouraged and abetted the massacres too.8 He has pointed out that his fellow Americans live in a country whose former vice-president continues to praise torturers as patriotic heroes. We are closer to the killers than we would wish.

But Oppenheimer’s intention is somewhat undermined in The Act of Killing by the grotesque parade of killers on show, one of them in full drag, most of them absurd in their theatrical poses. It is of course true that the orders to kill were usually given by more conventional men, in or out of uniform. We see one of these in the film, the deputy minister of sports, a bland-looking fellow watching members of the paramilitary Pancasila Youth pretending to burn and rape and kill their way through an imaginary village, screaming for the blood of their victims. After the screaming is over, he sheepishly tells Oppenheimer that he wouldn’t want people to get the wrong impression. His men are not savages: “We must exterminate the Communists, but in a humane way.”

Oppenheimer’s second film, The Look of Silence, is a quieter, less flamboyant work and all the stronger for it. The focus is on one family, whose eldest son, Ramli, was hacked to death as a suspected Communist. His mutilated body, like that of many others, was dumped in the Snake River, not far from Medan in Sumatra. Ramli’s father was devastated by the killing; he lost his teeth, then his eyesight, and most of his hearing. Ramli’s mother still fumes in silence, telling herself that the killers will surely be punished in the afterlife.

The main figure in the film is the second son, Adi, born two years after his brother’s murder. Adi is an ophthalmologist, which fits the story so perfectly that he could almost be the protagonist in a novel: he does everything in his power to see things more clearly, and coax others into seeing things more clearly, including some of his brother’s killers, whom he interrogates even as he is screwing on lenses to measure their eyesight.

Part of the drama in Oppenheimer’s documentary technique lies in the way he shows his subjects watching themselves on film. This is what helped to spark Anwar Congo’s imagination. We watch Adi as he gazes, not so much in disbelief as in horrified fascination, at images of his brother’s murderers cheerfully reenacting their hideous deed. After he was stabbed in the back with a machete, Ramli’s stomach was slashed. He managed somehow to crawl back home, but the killers picked him up again the next morning, shoved the severely wounded man onto a truck, and dragged him by the feet to the Snake River, where they cut his throat and sliced off his genitals.

Adi’s aim in talking to the men involved in this ghastly murder is not to offend or wreak vengeance. His hope is more noble, and heartbreaking. What he wants is at least a glimmer of remorse, as though a sign of regret might relieve his despair about humanity. But instead of remorse, he is met with angry excuses, even threats. What would have happened, he asks a former death squad leader, if he had approached him in this manner during the Suharto years? “You can’t imagine what would have happened to you,” the man snarls.

Unlike many of the killers in the first movie, however, most of the perpetrators in The Look of Silence look like perfectly ordinary middle-aged men, polite, helpful, even friendly. A kindly former village schoolteacher, Amir Hasan, is happy to show Oppenheimer a comic book, entitled Dew of Blood, with his own graphic drawings of the horrors he committed. Among the pictures is an illustration of ghosts rising from a well where the dead bodies were dumped. Another illustration shows just what Amir and a friend named Inong did to Ramli, on the edge of the Snake River. Amir is not at all remorseful. He is proud.

Even Adi’s own uncle, a thin, quiet-spoken man, turns out to have been an accomplice. He was one of the guards at the political prison where his nephew was held before being dragged off to his death. The uncle’s excuses echo the words of countless ordinary men all over the world whose hands are soaked in blood: he just followed orders, he had no choice, he wasn’t responsible, he never saw any killings, what happened happened, there is no point in opening old wounds, and so on and on.

Adi keeps staring, at the brutal kitsch in the comic book, at Amir and Inong acting out how they cut off Ramli’s genitals with a machete, at the men mouthing their threats, lies, and lame excuses, and is numbed into a state of intense sadness. Meanwhile, his brother’s killers, ever cooperative, go through the motions of Ramli’s death over and over, making sure every detail is registered on film, meticulous historians of their own crimes. Once the filming is done, they pose for a photograph on the edge of the Snake River, right on the spot where Ramli was cut to pieces, and they smile for the camera giving the thumbs-up sign, chilling in its banality, and horribly familiar.