PopPolitics: How ‘The Look of Silence’ Sounds the Alarm Over Indonesia’s Mass Murders

The Look of Silence Joshua Oppenheimer

Joshua Oppenheimer, director of the documentary “The Look of Silence,” has written that when he set out to interview the perpetrators behind Indonesia’s genocide, “I felt I had wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power.”

As is depicted in “The Look of Silence” and Oppenheimer’s 2013 documentary “The Act of Killing,” the country has yet to reconcile with the past, in which more than 500,000 people were murdered by the military and civilian death squads, starting in 1965, many on suspicion that they were communists.

But there never was a formal investigation into this period, or an effort to bring the perpetrators to justice. Instead, those who carried out atrocities still live in the same villages as families of their victims, and even freely boast of carrying out their acts. Families of victims still fear speaking out under threat of retribution.

Although some parts of the government have tried to establish ways to grapple with this past, “unfortunately there is a kind of shadow state around the military, because the military in Indonesia is formally above the law,” Oppenheimer tells Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM. More recently, there have been crackdowns on commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the mass slaughter, he says.

The Look of Silence,” which will be released for free online next month, focuses on optometrist Adi Rukun, who sets up appointments with some of the perpetrators behind the killing of his older brother in the 1960s. He isn’t looking for revenge but an apology, but that is something he never gets. The moments are captured by Oppenheimer and his crew, who even warned Rukun of the risks.

Oppenheimer says that he wanted to make the movie to explore what the impact was of “50 years of silence and fear and not being able to mourn your loss,” as well as “the long shadow of this unresolved trauma on the present.”

He also notes that Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) has proposed legislation that would acknowledge the U.S. role in the atrocities, including covert activities to bolster the new military regime. His legislation also calls for the declassification of documents from that era, when Indonesia was regarded as a success story in rooting out the Communist menace.

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“PopPolitics,” hosted by Ted Johnson, airs Thursdays at 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT on SiriusXM’s political channel POTUS.