by Hassan Abd Muthalib

They’ll take suggestion as a cat laps milk.
– Shakespeare

It’s when they are in a group that it’s scary.
– Yasmin Ahmad

In 1968, the CIA Directorate of Intelligence noted in a report about the 1965 coup in Indonesia, that:

In terms of the numbers killed, the anti-communist massacres in Indonesia rank as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th Century … the Indonesian coup is certainly one of the most significant events of the 20th Century, far more significant than many other events that have received much more publicity.

In 1965, six army generals were kidnapped in the coup and were purportedly killed brutally by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). This led to a counter-coup by army General Suharto who subsequently deposed Sukarno as President of the Republic of Indonesia. More than five decades later, declassified information has revealed another side to the story, supporting the contention of the CIA report above – of how almost a million members of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), their symphatisers as well others who were accused of being communists, were brutally massacred, imprisoned or ostracized by death squads. The complicity of foreign nations, specifically the United States, Great Britain and Australia, became evident. Their justification: that the Domino Theory could come true. Southeast Asia had to be free of the communist ‘scourge’.

The documentary, The Look of Silence by Joshua Oppenheimer, is but one of many films that have looked at this blot in Indonesian history. Among them are:

  • The Year of Living Dangerously (Peter Weir, 1982)
  • Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (Treachery of G30S/PKI, Ariffin C Noer, 1984)
  • Puisi Yang Tak Terkuburkan (Undeclared Poems, Garin Nugroho, 2000)
  • Shadow Play (Chris Hilton, 2002)
  • 40 Years of Silence: An Indonesian Tragedy (Robert Lemelson, 2009)
  • The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer/Christine Cynn, 2012)


The first three films were narrative features while the others were documentaries. (Shadow Play can be accessed at: The Year of Living Dangerously was a Hollywood feature; Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI was the ‘official’ version made during the Presidency of General Suharto and was screened in cinemas, while Puisi Yang Tak Terkuburkan, is a dramatized version of the events as seen from the perspective of those who were detained and waiting to be killed. In the lead was an actual detainee who survived to tell the story.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence (2014), is a finely-structured documentary film that, in its gestalt (form), looks like a narrative feature. It depicts Adi, an Indonesian ophthalmologist, who views a video of the documentary, The Act of Killing. Together with Adi, we see some of the footage of interviews by those who were involved in the mass killings by death squads. Adi’s brother, Ramli, was one of those who were killed inhumanely in his village with his penis cut off and thrown into the nearby Snake River. We follow Adi as he journeys to interview some of them who are still alive. Included is his own uncle who had been assigned to guard those who had been taken prisoner, waiting to be dragged away to be killed. In between, we see Adi with his aged mother who continues to live in silent grief of the death of her son. His father is senile and remembers nothing, thus sparing him the agony with God-induced amnesia.

Applying the Cinematic Approach to The Look of Silence

Oppenheimer’s decision to give his film a narrative film look is perhaps to show how today, the line between fact and fiction has become blurred. What happened in Indonesia in 1965 reads like something straight out of fiction. In his stylistics, Oppenheimer distancse us from the horrors that were perpetrated. They are not shown but are described by the perpetrators calmly. His camera does not move but also calmly records everything. Adi is similarly calm as he watches the video of The Act of Killing. There is no visible emotion on his face. The same calmness also exudes from him as he sits talking to his mother and then his wife. And at the end of the film, Adi and the television set (always having shown them separately), are finally shown in proximity in a beautifully-lit two-shot, almost like a realist painting. Adi has truly come to terms with what had happened to his brother. But for the audience, Oppenheimer does not give the same closure.

The final scene is a repeat of the shot of the trundling trucks in the darkness of the night that was shown at the beginning of the film. Silently the trucks carry the doomed prisoners to their death. In this shot, Oppenheimer tells us that the story has not ended. There may be other such mindless massacres in Indonesia in the future because some of the killers of 1965 still hold the reins of power. The fear and loathing of communists still pervades, and it is officially sanctioned by the State. It is for that reason that many of the Indonesians involved in the production of The Look of Silence and The Act of Killing have opted to credit themselves as ‘Anonymous’ in the credits of both films.

Two images stand out from Oppenheimer’s documentary. The first (a reenactment) early in the film is a night shot seen from an extreme distance. It shows the silhouettes of suspected members of the PKI being forcibly loaded onto trucks. The trucks then trundle slowly, faceless and impersonal, towards the camera. The shot is extremely long – 80 seconds in all. The other image is a static shot of a steel bridge over the Snake River into which many bodies of dead communists had been thrown in. It is a gothic image; the bridge stands, bluish in the approaching dawn, a silent sentinel, and a witness of the atrocities committed in the name of the State.

In both scenes, the silence is foreboding, pregnant with the unspeakable horror that has taken place. There are other scenes that give the same feeling: the entrance to a paddy field devoid of human beings; the characterless entrance to a small town with featureless buildings, and leafless stumps of palms standing starkly against a blank sky. It is as if the pain and suffering of those killed and the stench of death is still present in the landscape. Time will erase the memories of all that happened but how does one remove it from the land on which human blood was spilt?

Oppenheimer has opted for a structured form strongly using the language of film in his documentary portrayal. It is similar to what the German documentary filmmaker, Marcus Wetter, has done in his two films on Palestine, Heart of Jenin and Cinema of Jenin. Whereas Vetter opted for a mostly cinema verite approach to tell his story, Oppenheimer instead goes for a visibly-structured look in the style of a classical narrative film. He consciously applies patterning and organization by using narrative devices such as ellipsis and selectivity to fit that patterning and organization. In short, Oppenheimer makes use of the art of cinema to take his documentary to a higher – more erudite – level.
The narrative structure provides contrasts to differentiate the ‘protagonists’ (the victims and their families) from the ‘antagonists’ (the killers and their families) in their character, manner and speech. The cinematographic style supports this by contrasting visuals: Adi and his mother are at times framed against lush greenery; so, too, when he has a talk with his wife outside their house; there are repeated scenes of Adi’s father being bathed or shaved by both Adi and his mother. There are, however, no such homely and familial scenes at the houses of the killers. Their manner and character is distinctly different from that of Adi and his family, thus showing the gulf between victims and perpetrators.

Adi’s interviews with those who were directly or indirectly involved with his brother’s death are conducted in a calm manner. There are many instances of silence in which both the interviewee and Adi just sit and look at each other. These scenes almost look like they are directed. Oppenheimer was lucky to have had these moments on camera as they contribute to the narrative style of his film. This approach involves the audience in what is taking place on screen, making them question what is going on in the minds of Adi and those whom he is interviewing.

The Banality of Evil

In 1992, Hannah Arendt published a book entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. It was based on a series of newspaper reports she had written on the trial of the Nazi, Adolf Eichmann, who was one of those responsible for the death of millions of Jews during World War Two. What astonished her was how banal were Eichmann’s motives in ordering the killings even though he had excelled in the meticulous planning of the killings. He was not anti-Semitic. All he wanted was to move up the Nazi bureaucratic grades.

This same banality can be seen in the interviewees in The Act of Killing that Adi is watching, as well as when Adi does his own interviews. Two of the men on the video, with absolutely no sense of remorse, demonstrate animatedly how they tortured and killed communists and kicked them into the river. At the end, they fall silent; one of them then says resignedly that, after all, that’s what life is all about. In the next instant, they smilingly pose for photographs. Another death squad member (after singing a karaoke song), smilingly demonstrates how he choked the throat of a communist, ripped open his stomach and cracked his skull against a rock. One man demonstrates how he stabbed a woman and kicked her into the river. Another had cut off the head of a woman and brought it into a shop. Still another says he killed the sister of someone who could not do it himself. Adi’s uncle smiles sickeningly all through the interview. He shows no remorse or regret at having done nothing when even his own nephew was taken away to be killed.

Suggestion is a psychological process whereby a person’s thought and feelings are guided by another, resulting in him doing something that he will not normally do. The death squads were told that the communists had no religion and slept with each others’ wives (but some of the killers were not averse to taking over the wives of those killed!). To the simple minds of the village folk, the purported behavior of the communists was evil. They readily took these cunning suggestions “as a cat laps milk.” General Suharto, in collusion with foreign powers, manipulated the people and turned them into a mindless group. And as a group – proving Malaysian filmmaker, Yasmin Ahmad’s contention – they became scary. As a group, they became automatons, driven by only a single objective – to kill. The army just stood by, having the villagers – and the world – believe that it was a ‘people’s struggle’.

Amir Siahaan, the commander of the Snake River death squad says in Oppenheimer’s television interview that he signed a list of about 600 communists to be killed over three days and nights. Some were even buried alive. Clearly to him, the communists were not human; their lives did not have value even though many had been neighbours and had families. He even has the temerity to say that he should be given a paid holiday to America because it was the Americans who taught them to hate the communists. To Adi’s question at his house, he admits he is now well off, living in comfortable quarters, all from some of his ‘friends’ who provided it for his ‘services to the State’.

M.Y. Basirun, a former Secretary-General of Komando Aksi (Action Commandos) who is now the Speaker of the Regional Legislature reiterates to Adi that it was ‘a people’s struggle’, that ‘the people hated communists.’ In this, he clearly reveals his pro-government stance. And like a true politician, he emphatically says that the people whose relatives had been victims would not have elected him if they hated him! He begins to get upset at Adi’s probing questions and gives a veiled threat: that if questions about the killings keep getting raised, ‘those things’ might happen again. (Interestingly, the same thing keeps recurring in Malaysian politics relating to the bloody May 13, 1969 incident whenever non-Malays raise questions that are deemed sensitive!)

But what was most horrifying is the drinking of the blood of victims in the local belief that the killers will not go mad if they did not. This is the most significant aspect of the massacre, something truly macabre that is usually associated with demonic rituals. Two of those interviewed by Adi speak of doing so without any feelings of revulsion. I do not think any mass killings in any part of the world in history can compare to what happened in Indonesia in 1965 – how a government, in a sense, ‘hypnotized’ segments of the populace to become inhuman, to kill neighbours, friends and relatives and drink their blood! It is this that is indicated as ‘significant’ by the CIA report mentioned at the beginning of this essay, that it was “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th Century…” and that “ the Indonesian coup is… far more significant than many other events that have received much more publicity.”

Oppenheimer contrasts all the above with a scene of Adi walking with an old man who survived the killings. They make their way through the undergrowth to the Snake River. All along the way he mutters prayers to the souls of the dead. He calmly tells Adi that there is no point in digging up the past, that the perpetrators of the killings will be given their just punishment by God. He is as banal as the inhumane killers. However, his ‘banality’ is a result of his being human, having come to terms with all that has happened. He has made his peace with God who is, in reality, the real Giver and Taker of life. Oppenheimer shows us (cinematically), that there is indeed a wide gulf between the killers and the victims.

The Communist as Bogeyman
In the post-War period, the communists became the bogeyman for keeping the populace of many countries in check. And the significant aspect of this is that it was done so easily, especially in countries where the media is totally under the State’s control. All one had to do was accuse someone of being a communist and he would be hauled up and incarcerated, resulting in trauma and ostracisation for his family. The infamous McCarthy era in America is a prime example of how ordinary lives could be disrupted or destroyed because of the communist bogey. The threat of communism was played upon by every American administration using covert and overt suggestion – and even working together with Hollywood to demonize the communists through film.

In 1945 in Malaya (later Malaysia), the British who had abandoned the country when the Japanese army invaded Malaya , returned unashamedly after the war, thinking the populace would welcome them wholeheartedly. They did not expect the resistance from the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) and Malay leftist parties. The MCP was the first Malayan party to demand independence for Malaya. This was the reason for the leftist parties to work with them. Though the British had given arms to members of the MCP during the War and fought the Japanese alongside them, now the MCP was their enemy.

With the collusion of the right-wing parties, the British banned the MCP and the left-wing parties. This led to the armed struggle dubbed the Emergency. Physical warfare (police and army) and psychological warfare (newspapers, radio and film) led to the MCP and the left-wing parties to be branded as Public Enemy Number 1. The power of suggestion that was used in the Indonesian coup in 1965 was utilised earlier by the British. The effects of this method was enumerated to me in an interview with the Secretary-General of one the left-wing parties, Wan Khazim Wan Din whose father had been jailed by the British. Wan Khazim told me that the Malay right-wing party that collaborated with the British went around the villages and told the simple country folk that the Malay left-wing parties had abandoned their Muslim religion and had become communists. Relatives stopped coming to Wan Khazim’s house. Even his own grandfather believed the stories and chased Wan Khazim out of his house. Unable to stand the situation in his village, Wan Khazim left for Singapore and found work at the film studios of the Shaw Brothers. Wan Khazim was but one of the many whose lives and those of their families were destroyed.

The communist bogey gets resurrected every now and then to make Malaysians remember ‘the evil communists’. Even films about the communists are banned even though no communists are even shown, as in Amir Muhammad’s The Last Communist (2006). The same fate befell Fahmi Reza’s 10 Years before Independence (2007) which was a revisionist history, with interviews by the left-wing independence fighters. A screening of the film at a government-sponsored university was cancelled at the eleventh’s hour. Amir’s next film, Radio Days (2007) was also banned for showing the communists, now old and aged, living in the south of Thailand. In limbo for some years is the feature film, The New Village (2013), that was alleged to be promoting the communists because it portrayed the MCP and the Malayan People Anti-Japanese Army as independence fighters – which was the actual fact.
(Fatem however, has the last laugh. The leader of the MCP, Chin Peng, died on September the 16th. This date coincides with the celebration of the formation of Malaysia. So, in a sense, when the date is celebrated, it is also a remembrance of the passing of Chin Peng! )

In Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, there is a present-day scene of a teacher in a classroom who tells his students about the ‘evil’ communists who killed the generals during the 1965 coup. In a clever use of shots during editing, Oppenheimer alludes to the students not really believing what the teacher says. Some appear bored or are listless. They, disinterestedly, mouth and complete the teacher’s words that he purposely leaves hanging so as to have the students give closure to it. In this way, the image of the communists as the enemy is ingrained into students. It is the same in Malaysia. The killings of the MCP in the history books/films is highlighted but never the even more brutal and even higher number of killings by the Japanese forces during the occupation of Malaya between 1941 and 1945.
Adi knows that he cannot reveal the name of his village even when asked by those he interviewed. Many of them are still in power and fear and loathing of the communists are still being imposed upon the populace. Adi’s mother and wife warn him about his safety. As in a narrative film, Oppenheimer builds tension in some of the interviews. Adi is accused by one interviewee of being ‘political’ with his questions – that he could be one of ‘them’. The sons of a woman who is interviewed start to become aggressive when their mother becomes upset with Adi’s line of questioning.

It is not only Adi who is cautious in his approach. Many of the Indonesian crew in Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence wanted to be credited as ‘Anonymous’ for fear of reprisals by those who still believed that the PKI was behind the killing of the six generals in 1965. It all sounds like fiction to those who have not experienced or been part of ‘”one of the mass murders in the 20th century”. It was a “significant event” where humans drank the blood of their victims and could nonchalantly say that it tasted ‘sweet-salty’!

In this, Oppenheimer is telling us that truth is certainly stranger than fiction. And that is why his cinematic approach has taken this form in The Look of Silence.

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