If you do one thing on 14 June go to see The Look of Silence
In 2013 I wrote enthusiastically that you should go and watch The Act of Killing – an extraordinary documentary that asked members of Indonesia’s ‘death squads’ to re-enact their violence in the style of their favourite films.
It was director Joshua Oppenheimer’s debut feature and one that hit hard, exposing painfully and powerfully the lasting legacy of a culture of denial that glorifies these perpetrators rather than bringing them to justice.
If there was ever a question about how anyone could possibly follow such a stunning debut, Oppenheimer has answered it definitively with The Look of Silence – out in the UK on Friday 12 June.
A companion piece to The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence returns to Indonesia and to the legacy of violence in 1965-66. During this time an estimated 500,000-1 million men, women and children were killed in the context of a failed coup, when the military launched a systematic attack against ‘communists’ and suspected communist sympathisers in the country.
Not one perpetrator has ever been brought to justice.
If The Act of Killing explored the motivations, psychology and glorification of the killers, The Look of Silence flips the focus to the survivors. It is about what it is like to live among those that killed your loved ones, surrounded by perpetrators who boast loudly of human rights abuses while survivors live in scared silence.
The lives behind the statistics: one family’s story
The film centres around Adi, an optometrist born after the killings but whose life has been utterly shaped by them.
In 1965 his brother Ramli was brutally murdered, one of what is alleged to be over 10,000 people killed in the area. Combining the very personal experience of such tragedy with the very public way in which the perpetrators celebrate their actions, the film cuts between Adi watching footage of the killers’ boastful re-telling of Ramli’s death, and Adi speaking to some of those involved.
Half way through the film, he talks to one alleged perpetrator who talks proudly of drinking his victims’ blood – a key technique, he claims, to warding off the madness that could come from administering such violence. This man displays no remorse or shame for his actions. But when Adi questions his justification, he shuts down the interview. He won’t talk anymore: that is the stuff of silence. And it is this culture that Oppenheimer set out to challenge.
In 2012 Indonesia’s National Commission of Human Rights (Komnas HAM) submitted an inquiry to the Attorney General’s Office. It had conducted a three year investigation that found evidence of widespread human rights violations being committed across the country between 1965 and 1966 and continued at a lower level into the early 1970s.
According to the Commission, these findings meet the criteria of ‘gross violations of human rights’, which include crimes against humanity, which violate Indonesian law.
To date no one has been brought to justice. And the failure to address these violations contributes to a wider culture in which perpetrators of human rights abuses are rarely held accountable. Find out more about Indonesia’s human rights record in our annual report
The Look of Silence premieres at cinemas across the country on 12 June
This film and the bravery of Adi and many other survivors is an important step on the journey to justice. It teaches us much about the power of film to tell the stories behind statistics, and reaffirms the importance of film to the global struggle for human rights.
It opens on 12 June, and on Sunday 14 June close to 100 cinemas across the country will screen the film and a live satellite streaming of a Q&A with the director Joshua Oppenheimer, hosted by Louis Theroux. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Book your tickets now
The failure to address the 1965-66 violations points to a wider culture of impunity in Indonesia. The government has also consistently failed to provide justice, truth and reparation for other past grave human rights abuses, including those committed in Aceh, Timor-Leste (then East Timor), Papua and during the 1998 May riots.
Download the briefing below to call on the Indonesian authorities to finally bring perpetrators to justice.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.