This is a stunningly well-done documentary about a terrible subject, the mass murders in Indonesia which took place in 1965 and eradicated around 600,000 men, women and children after a coup which overthrew President Sukharno. That this was carried out by Indonesian citizens against themselves ranks it along with better known cases of mass insanity like Rwanda and Cambodia under Pol Pot. How such horrific actions can be incited amongst a population inhabiting an archipelago of thousands of islands is difficult to imagine. That there were outside influences is abundantly clear. But still it is unimaginable that such a cataclysmic event could occur based on political ideology. The Sukharno government was aligned with China and Communism. And that was reason enough for the CIA to involve itself in aiding and abetting the ouster of the Sukharno regime. The bloodbath that followed was based on purging the country of communists and suspected sympathizers, a term so broad as to include nearly anyone.

The Suharto regime which was installed militarily after the coup was made up of those who took part in the atrocities. The death squads and their commanders have been rewarded and given all of the positions of power. They were not held accountable for their terrible deeds and are unrepentant - essentially holding the truth hostage. The whole country and the rest of the world has maintained relative silence about this unimaginable nightmare.


Joshua Oppenheimer first went to Indonesia in 2001 to document the plight of the palm oil workers and their efforts to unionize in a film called The Globalization Tapes. While working on that project he met and talked to so many people who had horror stories to tell about the 1965 massacres that he decided to come back and make a film which told their stories. He devised a unique point of view. Rather than recount the victim’s stories he chose to have the perpetrators re-enact their crimes in whatever cinematic genre they wished. They cooperated with shocking candor and lack of remorse. This film was called The Act of Killing (2012) and I must admit to being too appalled by the grisly trailer and the premise to actually want to see the film. So regretfully I did not.

In The Look of Silence, which takes a narrative form - the metaphor of seeing and not seeing or not seeing clearly is dramatically evoked by the use of the opthamologists device for testing vision. Told from the point of view of Adi, as he seeks to find out exactly what happened to his brother Ramli, who was a casualty of the violence before he was born. It seems that everyone is in denial, including his parents. He was able to gain access to so many villagers by travelling door to door to offer free eye exams. Again, many of them describe the events and their part in them with extraordinary matter-of-factness. They have somehow managed to depersonalize what they saw and did and cooperated for the most part with the film crew. Although there are a few who seem to have twinges of conscience and push back, there are a pair of death squad leaders who seem to remember those days as their glory days with some degree of pride and nostalgia, posing proudly in front of one of the sites where they carried out some of their despicable tasks. It is completely unsettling.


Before releasing The Act of Killing, the director filmed The Look of Silence, realizing that he would not be welcome back after the release of the first film. The Act of Killing was premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2012 and immediately received an enormous amount of attention which forced the government of Indonesia and it inhabitants to acknowledge that part of their history which had been repressed for so many years. In 2014 the film was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category. It was shown in Indonesia in 2014 on International Human Rights Day and has had 480 public screenings across the country. With the release of The Look of Silence it will be that much more difficult to ignore the injustices of this ugly period of history and it will provide the antidote to that much quoted axiom: “History is written by the victors.”

by Belle McIntyre

Watch the trailer here:



Bruce Conner at Paula Cooper Gallery