In 2013 (The Act of Killing) and 2015 (The Look of Silence), Joshua Oppenheimer, a Danish filmmaker released two of the most frightening and shell-shocking documentaries as of late. The former documentary focuses on the leaders of one of North Sumatra’s most notorious death squads (Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry); both of whom are offered to star in a movie, which is used to re-enact their murders. The latter documentary sees an optometrist, confront the men who killed his brother during the genocide, asking them for an acknowledgement of their responsibility.
At the crux of both documentaries, the filmmaker attempts to break the perpetual silence surrounding the genocide, directly and indirectly confronting the perpetrators. However, according the Oppenheimer, the cuts of the genocide are much deeper than we thought:
“It has been moving to witness audiences around the world discover, through moments of identification with Anwar Congo, that we are all closer to the perpetrators than we like to believe. There is a scene in The Act of Killing in which I accuse Adi Zulkadry of committing war crimes, and he responds by accusing the west of hypocrisy, noting that the US slaughtered the native Americans.”
Between 1965 and 1966, anti-Communist Indonesians had executed a surplus of 500,000 civilians. Most of which were either advocates or affiliates of the Communist Party (PKI), which saw an unprecedented rise in power in the years leading up to the killings. Although most massacres were orchestrated by the Indonesian army, many civilians were similarly goaded to wipe away the “filth”. The mass genocide arose after a coup d’état, which saw the killing of six army generals, and the formation of a revolutionary army.
The annihilation, for the lack of a better word, of the PKI, would bring Suharto to power. The new regime would adopt a form of crony capitalism, in lieu of Sukarno’s leftist nationalistic policies. This saw Indonesia’s politics undergo a paradigm shift, as the head figures portrayed the events as an Indonesian struggle for power; justifying the onslaught that subsequently occurred. This horrendous twist of events, was further used to instill political and cultural restrictions on the country’s populace. Furthermore, the deluded evil intentions of the PKI were used to persecute any remaining Indonesians, sympathetic towards the Left. Some of these would be incarcerated for as long as 10 years, and would face a restriction of civic rights following their release. Many of their family members would also face cyclical harassment, even if they were born after the genocide.
However, following the Suharto regime, investigators have been able to slowly unpick the actual happenings of the Indonesian killings. Alas, this is a very strenuous process, since the pool of informants has grown slim, whilst physical evidence of the events has been corroding and communities remain hostile towards investigators. Researchers have at times even faced physical harassment. Nonetheless this hasn’t stopped individuals like Joshua Oppenheimer from slowly unspooling the truth.
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