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'The Look of Silence': Will new film force us to acknowledge role in 1965 Indonesian genocide?
Democracy Now - August 3, 2015
Amy Goodman: We spend the hour today with the award-winning filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer. In 2012, his debut feature film, The Act of Killing, stunned audiences by unmasking the perpetrators of the mid-1960s genocide in Indonesia, when the military and paramilitary slaughtered up to a million Indonesians after overthrowing the government. That military was backed by the United States and led by General Suharto, who would rule Indonesia for decades. Joshua Oppenheimer spent more than eight years interviewing the Indonesian death squad leaders and worked with them to re-enact the real-life killings. The film went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary.
In his new film, The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer revisits the scenes of the crimes while focusing on the victims of the genocide. The film follows one family as it attempts to confront the murderers, many of whom are still in power since there has been no official reconciliation process in Indonesia. This is the trailer for The Look of Silence.
Unidentified: [translated] No, I don't think it's a big problem.
Adi Rukun: [translated] But a million people were killed.
Unidentified: [translated] That's politics.
Adi Rukun: [translated] Mom, how do you feel living, surrounded by your son's killers? In our village, the mayor, the teachers, they were all killers. Are your neighbors afraid of you?
Inong Sungai Ular: [translated] They're scared of me. They know they're powerless against me.
Adi Rukun: [translated] My story is, my brother was killed, too.
Amir Siahaan: [translated] Adi, where did your brother live?
Adi Rukun: [translated] I'm sorry, I won't tell you.
Amir Siahaan: [translated] Just tell me. It's OK.
Unidentified: [translated] If you keep making an issue of the past, it will definitely happen again.
Adi Rukun: [translated] If I came to you like this during the military dictatorship, what would you have done to me?
Amir Siahaan: [translated] You can't imagine what would have happened.
Amy Goodman: That's the trailer for The Look of Silence. The Oscar-nominated director Joshua Oppenheimer was in New York for the release of the movie. He came by the Democracy Now! studio on the day The Look of Silence was released. I started by asking him about the title of the film.
Joshua Oppenheimer: The Look of Silence really defines a project, for me, which was to show what this invisible thing, silence, a silence born of fear, looks like. What is it like for human beings to have to live for 50 years afraid? Trying to give vision to that silence and to that fear was what kind of defined the film's project. And I had the title long before I had the title The Act of Killing, in fact. And then, of course, there's this other layer of meaning, because it follows one survivor of the killings, Adi Rukun, the main character in the film, as he goes and visits the men who killed his brother, still in power, and tries to get them to take responsibility for what they've done, while testing their eyes. And so emerges – he's an optometrist. And so emerges this kind of metaphor for blindness, which was also there for me in the title. The men are willfully blind to the meaning of what they've done, and he's trying to help them see. Amy Goodman: So now let's step back, and give us the political context to this story. Talk about Indonesia.
Joshua Oppenheimer: So, in 1965, there was a military coup, sponsored and supported by the West – the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan – with the United States taking a key role. And there was the charismatic first president of Indonesia, a populist, left-leaning populist, named Sukarno, and the founder of the Non-Aligned Movement, the movement within the – during the Cold War that was trying to chart a kind of third way, an independent path neither aligned with the Soviet Union nor the West. He's the president, Sukarno, who – the president who led Indonesia out from Dutch colonialism. He's the founding father of Indonesia. He was overthrown in a military coup where, within like six months, somewhere between half a million and three million people were killed. Every opponent of the new – or potential opponent of the new military dictatorship – trade union leaders, intellectuals, teachers, the ethnic Chinese, members of the farmers' cooperative, leaders of the Indonesian women's movement – were rounded up, put in concentration camps, and then a great many of them dispatched out to be killed.
Amy Goodman: And talk about your first film, what you covered there, and what you're covering with this film.
Joshua Oppenheimer: So, in 2003, I began my work on the 1965 genocide and, more importantly, its present-day legacy. It's the current regime of fear and thuggery and corruption. And I began that work, actually, in collaboration with Adi Rukun and his family, the family at the center of The Look of Silence. And they would gather survivors to tell me their stories. Some of them had never talked before about what they had been through. And when they would come to tell me their stories, they would arrive crying already, just at the thought of speaking about what they'd experienced. And they would, in this very vulnerable state, share with me what they had been through.
But after three weeks, the army came and threatened all of the survivors not to participate in the film. And Adi responded by calling me to a midnight meeting in his parents' house and saying, "Please don't give up. Try to film the perpetrators." I went, afraid at first, to approach the perpetrators, but when I did, I found that they were open – not just open, but they were immediately boastful about the worst details of what they'd done. When I showed this back to Adi, he said, "Continue to film the perpetrators." And then, so did the rest of the Indonesian human rights community, saying, "Film the perpetrators and expose the terrible the scent that the genocide hasn't really ended, because the perpetrators are still in power and millions of people's lives are still being destroyed by fear and silence." And so, I then spent seven years working with the perpetrators.
And what begins with them taking me to their places where they killed and launching into spontaneous demonstrations of how they killed gradually evolved into something much more surreal, maybe even a much vaster project, where to try and understand why they're boasting, why they're open, for whom they're boasting, how they want to be seen, how they really see themselves, I gave them the chance – or I asked them to dramatize what they had done, in whatever ways they wish, in order to show essentially the lies, the fantasies, the stories that the perpetrators tell themselves so they can live with themselves, and the terrible consequences of these lies on the whole society.
Amy Goodman: Joshua Oppenheimer, talking about his new film, The Look of Silence. We'll be back with him in a minute.
Amy Goodman: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation with the award-winning filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, director of the new film, The Look of Silence, about the US-backed genocide in Indonesia during the 1960s that led to the deaths of more than a million Indonesians. I asked Oppenheimer about his first feature film, The Act of Killing, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary.
Joshua Oppenheimer: The Act of Killing, my first film, follows one death squad leader, who killed a thousand people, perhaps, as he sets about dramatizing his memories, his experiences of genocide as a way of somehow desperately trying to cling to the lies that this whole regime has told and imposed on the whole society. And as he goes through that process, gradually he comes to see, through his own dramatizations, that these are lies. And he has this wrenching confrontation with his own conscience. And as all of Anwar's personal lies collapse, for Indonesia, the national lie, that this was heroic, also collapses.
Amy Goodman: Let's go to a trailer from The Act of Killing.
Herman Koto: [translated] Cut! Cut! Cut! You acted so well, but you can stop crying now.
Adi Zulkadry: [translated] "War crimes" are defined by the winners. I'm a winner.
Suryono: [translated] Have mercy on me!
Anwar Congo: [translated] Honestly, I never expected it to look this brutal.
I can't do that again.
Unidentified: [translated] Kill!
Anwar Congo: [translated] I did this to so many people. Have I sinned?
Amy Goodman: That's the Oscar-nominated film, The Act of Killing. And, Joshua, I mean, the danger in doing what you have done – yes, the perpetrators spoke to you, the victims spoke to you. Talk about the chronology. You made The Act of Killing. All of these killers participated and were proud of what they did. And what did you do in the wake of this?
Joshua Oppenheimer: Then I went – I returned to make, in a sense, the film that I set out to make at the beginning, at least thematically, a film that explores what does it do – what is it like for the survivors to have to live in the midst of the still-powerful killers, in fear. And when I returned, I had no idea that I would be filming a survivor as he goes and confronts the men who killed his brother. When Adi proposed that, he said to me, "Joshua, I've spent seven years watching your footage with the perpetrators, and it's changed me. I need to go and meet the men who killed my brother." At first, reflexively, instantly, I said, "Absolutely not. It's too dangerous. There has never been a film where survivors confront perpetrators who are still in power. It's never been done before. We cannot do it."
And Adi explained to me that he was hoping to visit – he was hoping that if he could visit the perpetrators, and if they could take responsibility for what they've done, he would somehow be able to reconcile himself with his neighbors, that they would – that the men who killed his brother, the men who had been terrorizing his family for half a century, would welcome his arrival as this chance to make peace with their neighbors and to take – and to find forgiveness from one of their victims' families. I was doubtful that that would happen, but I realized that if we could show why we failed, if we could show what I thought would happen, which is that the perpetrators get defensive and angry and fearful and threaten us, and if we could somehow do this safely, we would be able to show how torn this society is, how urgently truth, reconciliation and justice are needed.
And we realized that because I had made The Act of Killing, but it had not yet screened, because I was – I was therefore believed to be close to some of the most powerful men in the country and some of the most powerful perpetrators in the country: the vice president of the country, who's in The Act of Killing; leaders of the paramilitary – national leaders of the paramilitary movement that committed the killings with the army; ministers in the cabinet. I was believed – people thought, because they hadn't seen The Act of Killing yet, but they knew I had made this film with them, that these were my friends. And we realized that because of that, the men Adi wanted to confront are regionally powerful, not nationally powerful, and they would be unlikely to detain us, and certainly, let alone physically attack us, and that this was what would allow us to do this unprecedented thing of confronting the perpetrators while they still hold power.
Amy Goodman: So you made the film after The Act of Killing, but before it was shown around the country.
Joshua Oppenheimer: That's right. We had this window after we finished editing The Act of Killing. We knew that we wouldn't be able to return again after it – we wouldn't be able to return safely after the film came out, so we had to shoot the second film in the interim.
Amy Goodman: Tell us who Adi is and who his brother, Romli, is.
Joshua Oppenheimer: So, Romli was the leader of the – the village head of a farmers' cooperative. And just for that, he was seen as a likely opponent to the new dictatorship and was killed.
Amy Goodman: And where did he live?
Joshua Oppenheimer: In this small village in North Sumatra in the middle of a vast area of oil palm and rubber plantations. And what was unique about his murder was not so much his – what was unique about him, about his story, was not so much his position, but the fact that his was one of the only murders that had witnesses. Tens of thousands of other people from that region had been taked to rivers, killed, and their bodies allowed to drift out to see, and their families were never told what happened. Like the relatives of the disappeared in Latin America, they then were unable to grieve, unable to mourn. They couldn't even say that their loved ones had died. All they could say is they hadn't come home yet, belum pulang in Indonesian, which meant that they were – they lived in this prison of cognitive dissonance, where they knew their loved – that the person must be dead, but couldn't say it. And a small part of that grief, they could articulate by talking about Romli. So, over the decades, from 1965 until I first arrived in 2003 and started working on this, over the decades, Romli became a kind of synonym for the genocide as a whole.
And when I started this work, I was introduced to his family. Romli's mother and father immediately wanted me to meet Adi. They said, "He's Romli's replacement." We were – Romli's mother said, "I was going crazy after Romli was murdered. And because I had Adi, I was able to somehow continue to live." And she said, "He talks like Romli, looks like Romli, acts like Romli. You must meet him." She called into the village, and I met this young man, born after the killings, not as afraid as the rest of his family, because he hadn't experienced the killings firsthand, who was desperate to understand what happened. All he knew was the government propaganda justifying what had happened, and he knew the story of Romli's murder, which he would hear again and again and again from his mother. She couldn't stop telling the story. It was like an echo, he would say, that would never fade. And he wanted to understand what happened to his mother, to his father, to his village, and so he latched on to my filmmaking as a way of answering these questions.
Amy Goodman: Introduce this first clip of Adi's mother.
Joshua Oppenheimer: So, in this first scene, we see here Adi asking his mother, while she's cutting tamarind fruits in her garden, what it's like to be surrounded by the men who killed her son, Romli, and what it's like to live in a space of silence and fear, haunted by the ghosts of the unburied dead, really.
Amy Goodman: The Look of Silence.
Rohani: [translated] They stole from their victims. Now they are rich. They killed the husband and took the wives.
Adi Rukun: [translated] How do you feel living surrounded by your son's killers and see them every day?
Rohani: [translated] It's horrible. When we meet in the village, we don't speak. I hate them.
Amy Goodman: That is a clip of The Look of Silence, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. So that is Adi's mother being questioned by Adi, her son. What happened to Romli, her older son?
Joshua Oppenheimer: Well, Romli was taken from the prison, the holding prison from which people were dispatched out to be killed, where in fact he was guarded, we found out – we find out during the film, by his own uncle, by his mother's brother, something the family didn't know.
Amy Goodman: Until you made the film.
Joshua Oppenheimer: Until we were actually – one day Adi decided he would go and visit his uncle and test his eyes as a favor that he'd promised, and started asking about what – because I was there, started asking what his uncle remembered of that time. And his uncle just volunteered it.
So he was dispatched out from the prison with a truckload of other people to be taken to North Sumatra's Snake River and killed, a spot where 10,500 people were killed. And on the way, the truck had to pass the turnoff to his family's home, and he panicked, because he realized what was happening and perhaps also because he was passing the road to his home. And there was a commotion on the truck. And because of that, two people escaped and survived. Everybody else, apart from Romli, was killed right there. Romli was injured and managed to crawl home through rice fields about a mile to the house, to his parents' home, where his mother took him in and tried desperately to keep him alive.
Two hours later, the death squad came with the army to pick him up, and clearly threatening to kill the whole family if Rohani, Romli's mother, didn't turn him over. And to sort of make it easier for her, but in a terrible way, ultimately making it much harder, the death squad leader said, "We're taking him to the hospital." And she knew it was a lie, but in order to do what she had to do in that moment, which was to give up her son, she had to somehow believe it was true in that moment, terribly making her a kind of, in her own mind, a collaborator in that moment. And that story has therefore, I think, never faded. It's just – she repeats it like a mantra, like a – not like a mantra, like something – just this horrible thing that she can't – that she needs to have heard and she can't let go of, all the time.
Amy Goodman: And what did they do to him?
Joshua Oppenheimer: They took him from the house. They brought him to a nearby river, because day was breaking and the official site for killing had closed for the night. And they took him to a nearby stream. They hacked him up, left him for dead. He wasn't dead. He was calling for help. A crowd gathered. So they came back. They fished him out of the river, took him into the palm plantation and killed him. And his father's co-workers – his father worked on the plantation – saw the body the next day and informed the family where the body was. And so now there's a grave, a small grave, there.
Amy Goodman: His father is also a key figure in your film, though he is not really speaking.
Joshua Oppenheimer: Yeah, he becomes – in fact, it was part of how Adi persuaded me that we ought to film, that we ought to confront the perpetrators. When I said, "No, it's not possible," Adi showed me a – "because it's too dangerous," Adi showed me a scene that he shot with a small camera I had given him to use as a kind of notebook to look for images that might inspire the making of this film a couple years earlier. And he showed me this scene where his father is lost in his own home. It's the only scene in the film that Adi shot.
He's crawling through his own home, lost, calling for help. And Adi told me that – thinking he's in a stranger's house and could be beaten up. And Adi told me that his father – that, essentially, his father had forgotten the son whose murder destroyed his life and his family's life, but he hadn't forgotten the fear. He's trapped in a kind of prison of fear, because he can't – and he'll never be able to heal, because he can't remember what happened. He'll never be able to work through it. He'll never be able to move beyond it. And so he's like a man locked in a room, who can't find the door even, let alone the key. And he said to me, "You see, if I can only meet the perpetrators, they will – and if they can accept what they've done is wrong, and I could forgive them, then my children will not have to grow up afraid of their neighbors."
And I understood two things then. I understood that the perpetrators won't apologize. In The Act of Killing, I worked for five years with the main character, Anwar Congo, and at the end of that process, he's retching over his own guilt, but he's still, in the uncut version of the film, the so-called director's – what's out in the United States on Netflix as the director's cut, but which is the version that came out in Indonesia and around the world outside the United States, while he's retching, he's still saying – he's still saying, "My conscience told me they had to be killed." He's still lying to himself. And I had this feeling that if Anwar, after five years, even while he's retching, can't admit what he did was wrong, somehow these men will not get there in an hour and a half with Adi, the men Adi wants to meet. So I realized that we wouldn't get the apology. But if I could show the human – complex human reactions that are inevitable when you go into someone's home and say, "You've killed my brother. Can you take responsibility?" – the shame, the guilt, the fear of their own guilt, and then the defensiveness, the anger, the threats – if I can show that, then I can show, essentially, the previously invisible abyss dividing every Indonesian from each other.
And I also realized, from this clip that Adi showed me of his father, that this must be much more than just a film about impunity and survivors living side by side with perpetrators who are still in power. It must also be a kind of poem about memory and oblivion, about – a poem composed in perhaps in memoriam to all that's destroyed, not just the dead, who can't be wakened, but the lives that have been destroyed by 50 years of fear and silence that can never be made whole again.
Amy Goodman: So let's go to the second clip that we have in The Look of Silence. Adi is going to the man who killed his brother, Romli.
Joshua Oppenheimer: Yeah, here we meet Adi confronting the commander of the death squads that were operating in Snake River, a man who told me that he deserves a cruise to America, because it was America who taught him to hate and kill the communists. Then Adi goes and visits him and asks him to take responsibility for what he's done. And we'll see a moment of that.
Adi Rukun: [translated] You were leader of Komando Aksi in this region, so you were responsible for the mass killing here. Do people around here know that?
Amir Siahaan: [translated] Yes, they do.
Adi Rukun: [translated] The thing is, I – my older brother, he was killed, because you commanded the killings.
Amir Siahaan: [translated] It wasn't really me.
Adi Rukun: [translated] You were responsible as leader of Komando Aksi.
Amir Siahaan: [translated] There were many Komando Aksi groups.
Adi Rukun: [translated] But you were the top leader.
Amir Siahaan: [translated] Komando Aksi was the people united with the army. And we had commanders above us. And we were protected by the government. So you can't say I'm responsible.
Adi Rukun: [translated] Every killer I meet, none of them feel responsible.
Amy Goodman: That's a clip of The Look of Silence. And explain exactly who this man is.
Joshua Oppenheimer: This man is the head of the civilian – was the head of the civilian death squads that were killing at Snake River. It's a – working, recruited by the army. He's from the same paramilitary group that's at the center of my first film, The Act of Killing. His name is Amir Siahaan. And he would sign off the lists of people every night who had to be killed. And between him and his deputies, 10,500 people were killed in this one spot. He personally signed off, he says, about 600 people, but that's only because it wasn't normally his job to do that. There were many more killed there. After Adi tells him – and we saw a glimpse of this in the trailer, the beginning, a little earlier – after Adi says, "I think you're not taking responsibility," he becomes very angry and starts asking, "Well, where do you live?" And Adi won't tell him. And Adi then says, "Well, what would you have done to me if I came during the military dictatorship?" And he says, "You can't imagine it," and then says, "You see, the real danger is not the known communists, who have been under surveillance and terrorized for decades, and therefore unlikely to speak out. The real dangers are the secret communists, and perhaps this film is a secret communist activity." And he says, "Just continue," threateningly, "continue with your secret communist activity. Go on."
Amy Goodman: And this is actually Adi's neighbor.
Joshua Oppenheimer: Yeah, it's – their houses are within minutes of each other.
Amy Goodman: Oscar-nominated filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, director of the new film, The Look of Silence, which has opened around the country. It's being called a masterpiece. This is Democracy Now! We'll be back with Oppenheimer in a moment.
Amy Goodman: "Arum Bandung," here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman, as we continue my conversation with the Oscar-nominated filmmaker, director Joshua Oppenheimer. I asked him to talk about the dangers of making his new film, The Look of Silence. In both The Look of Silence, which is about the victims of the US-backed Indonesian genocide, as well as the film The Act of Killing, about the perpetrators, the credits all are listed – many of them are listed as anonymous.
Joshua Oppenheimer: Yeah, throughout the shooting of the film and the editing of the film and then the release of the film, we knew we were prepared to stop, after every scene. Adi – in preparation for the scenes with the highest-ranking commanders, we would have a second car available to use as a getaway vehicle, so we'd be harder to follow, should we have to flee. Adi's family would be at the airport, ready to evacuate if there was any sign of threat that would persist after we left. And about six months before the film had its first screening at the Venice Film Festival, we met with Adi, his family, the whole team that released The Act of Killing, human rights activists and my crew in Thailand, because I could already no longer safely return to Indonesia, to watch a rough cut of the film and discuss whether we shouldn't bring the film out at all until the perpetrators have died or until there's real change in Indonesia, or whether we should bring the film out, but Adi's family should move to Europe for a while, which is where I'm based.
In the end, we decided – in the end, Adi's family saw the film and said, "This film must come out now," because there was such momentum from The Act of Killing for change in this area. The government of Indonesia had already, as a – in response to The Act of Killing's Oscar nomination, had said, "Look, we know what happened in 1965 was a crime against humanity. We know we need reconciliation. We don't need a film to push us into this. We'll do it in our own time." But it was a wonderful moment, because it was the first time they had admitted it was wrong. The media and the public were now talking openly about the genocide as a genocide. And it was time --
Amy Goodman: But The Act of Killing, you first had these underground showings in Indonesia.
Joshua Oppenheimer: Yes, it began in secret, but by – once the media embraced the film, the screenings quickly became public. And by this point, when we were screening The Look of Silence for Adi's family in Thailand, there had been thousands of public showings. We had already made the film available for free for all Indonesians online. It had been downloaded tens of millions of times.
Amy Goodman: And the government actually had showings?
Joshua Oppenheimer: Not of The Act of Killing, no.
Amy Goodman: No, no, of The Look of Silence.
Joshua Oppenheimer: The Look of Silence, and entered that space. And actually, it's distributed by two government bodies: the National Human Rights Commission and the Jakarta Arts Council – something unimaginable if – were it not for The Act of Killing. The first screening in Jakarta was held in the largest theater in Indonesia. There were billboards around the city announcing the screening. Three thousand people turned up. The theater only could hold 1,500. They put on two screenings. Adi came for both and received a 15-minute standing ovation. The next month, the film came out across the country. On the first day, International Human Rights Day, there were 500 public screenings. And over the coming weeks, we reached 3,500 screenings. The film has prompted this national conversation now about how urgently truth and reconciliation and some form of justice are needed. The government has introduced a truth and reconciliation bill, woefully inadequate, but it's a milestone, and it's something for activists in the human rights community to try to improve.
In any case, because of all of this momentum, Adi's family, upon seeing the film, said, "It must come out now. We're ready to move to Europe." The team in Indonesia said, "I think we can – if we can assemble a team and the resources to relocate the family to another part of Indonesia, that should be possible. We should be able to protect the family's safety, because we think the new climate, in part opened by The Act of Killing, will be protective, and Adi will be seen by many as a national hero after the film comes out." In fact, the first screening was on National Heroes Day and trending on Twitter in Indonesia. Indonesia is the largest Twitter-using country in the world. So, trending on Twitter, actually, around the world that day was "Today we have a new national hero, and his name is Adi." And so, all of this meant that Adi's family was able to move a few thousand kilometers from where they were from to another part of the country. They're surrounded by a more supportive community of human rights lawyers, critical journalists, filmmakers, progressive politicians, all of whom are closely monitoring whatever threats there may be. But Adi's family is OK. Amy Goodman: But they're not living where they – he grew up.
Joshua Oppenheimer: They're not. And for a man who's only trying to have forgiveness with his neighbors, it's a sign of the extent to which Indonesia is not a democracy. A democracy, of course, requires rule of law. And the most powerful in Indonesia are not subject to the same laws as the weakest – as the weakest. And in that sense – and if there's no rule of law, it's not a democracy. We have the same problem, of course, here in the United States, maybe to a slightly lesser extent, that you don't – and not only – not only that, the fact that – at the same – because of this lack of rule of law, you have a shadow state built around the military of oligarchs, of gangsters, of paramilitaries, who – and intelligence services, formally above the law. The military is immune to civilian law. If a military commander were to order the massacre of a whole village, he could not be put on trial in civilian courts. It would be – the military would have to convene its own tribunal for him, which means the military is beyond the law.
Amy Goodman: Which brings me to – back to the perpetrator, one of them, the one that Adi confronts, saying that "I am a product of the United States." Talk more, for those who are not familiar with the history of Indonesia, the modern history of Indonesia, back to the '60s, what the US role was.
Joshua Oppenheimer: The United States provided aid, weapons, money to the military so that they could carry out this genocide. They may have been involved with masterminding or conspiring to create the events that were used as a trigger for the genocide, the excuse for the genocide, which was the murder of six army generals by other members of the armed forces. But those whatever – all of the CIA job documents pertaining to this period in Indonesia remain classified, and we're pushing to have those released. Senator Tom Udall introduced a "sense of the Senate" resolution on the day of the film's release in Indonesia, saying it's time for the United States to declassify and to take responsibility for its role in these crimes and to declassify its records.
We know – what we already know is damning enough. We know that, for example, embassy officials were compiling lists of thousands of names of public – of public figures in Indonesia – US Embassy officials – and handing these to the army and saying, "Kill everybody on these lists and check off the names as you go, and give the lists back to us when you're done." I spoke to one of those men, a man named Robert Martens, early in my journey here, and he talked about how this was crucial intelligence he was giving. But these were public figures. And the United States had already funded and trained the Indonesian army and advised the Indonesian army to be deployed into every village in the country, so they were useless for national defense. They were deployed for internal repression and mass murder. And if you are, like an octopus, with your tentacles, reaching into every village, of course you know – of course you know who a local public figure is – a journalist, an intellectual, a trade union leader – who might be opposed to the military government. So this wasn't intelligence. This was incitement. This was saying – the United States saying, "Kill everybody. We want this new regime to stick. Kill every possible opponent." The US also provided the radios, deliberately, that allowed the – for the purpose of the military coordinating the massacres across the vast archipelago of 17,000 islands that Indonesia is.
And in The Look of Silence, we also see an NBC News report that celebrates the genocide, more or less, right afterwards. And we see, most chillingly, that Goodyear, a major multinational corporation, is on the rubber plantations, where they're harvesting the latex for our tires and our condoms. Goodyear is using slave labor drawn from death camps to harvest their rubber. This is, of course, what German corporations did on the periphery of Auschwitz a mere 20 years earlier. But here it's being broadcast on American TV and celebrated as good news, as a victory for freedom and democracy. It should give every viewer of The Look of Silence pause, leading us to wonder whether this was really done – whether the real reason for US participation was the so-called – the struggle of the so-called free world against the communist world, or whether that was a ruse, a pretext, an excuse, for murderous corporate plunder.
Amy Goodman: And this was all about the rise of the US-backed dictator Suharto.
Joshua Oppenheimer: That's right. This is how Suharto came to power. And he remained in power for 35 years. And while in power, he – the US continued to aid that government and to encourage further abuses, including the invasion and occupation of East Timor, which led to its own genocide, where a third of the population of East Timor was killed. This was all to the tune of billions and billions of dollars aid was showered upon the Suharto dictatorship. And that aid started flowing while the rivers were still choked with bodies.
Amy Goodman: So, I want to end with two points. One is what happens with the crew who made this film, that you work with. But first, the very touching scene where Adi is talking to his son, and you see his son in school, and what his children are learning today.
Joshua Oppenheimer: Still in Indonesia when we shot the film, and it's maybe starting to change as a result of the film, but still in Indonesia, the government teaches the students, teaches children, that the genocide was heroic, something to be – was the heroic extermination of the Indonesian left, and that the victims were sort of monstrous and deserved what they got, and the perpetrators were heroes. And you see Adi's young son hearing this and hearing that because – that the relatives, the grandchildren of victims shouldn't be allowed decent employment, that they shouldn't be allowed to join the police or get a job in the government, or that they have to be monitored closely, because their grandparents were these terrible people. And we see this stigma being passed on from generation to generation. And, of course, we see essentially the soil being sown for the genocide's recurrence. In the film, we hear again and again, "Let the past be past." But survivors always say it out of fear, and perpetrators always say it as a threat, which means the past is not past, it's right there. It's open. It's a gaping wound. And what's keeping it alive is, of course, the teaching of propaganda in the schools.
And Adi, in many ways, responded to that, the unbearable sense that his children were being stigmatized for their own family's oppression – something that we know all too well in this country, with our own – with our unresolved histories of – the unresolved wounds of race and the Native American genocide. We are – this should not be seen as something unfamiliar to us. And, of course, American – insofar as this is America's genocide, too, this is also part of our history. If America is an empire, what goes on in the far-flung corners of America has everything to do with our life at home and the consumer economy that we perhaps are at least told we should be enjoying at home. So, this is about all of us, too.
Amy Goodman: And the credits, the people who worked with you, who cannot still be named, even when this film, The Look of Silence, is being supported by the Indonesian government in its distribution around the archipelago?
Joshua Oppenheimer: That's right. Because of the shadow state of the military and the gangsters and the paramilitaries, even if parts of the government are supporting the film, that doesn't mean that it's safer for my team. And it's taken a team of 25 people, five working full time, to ensure the safety of Adi and his family. And we still have a plan B where they evacuate if there's any sign of threat. With my – the same risks are there for my crew, and so my crew, on both films, remains completely anonymous. The credit scrolls on both – it's kind of the finale of both films, is to see that everybody who made the film who's Indonesian is anonymous. These are people who gave 10 years of their lives, some of them, changing their careers from journalists, from human rights lawyers, from university professors, filmmakers, heads of NGOs. They stopped what they were doing, thinking initially they were taking a six-month sabbatical, but would find that actually the project would go on, would get deeper and deeper, and they would decide to continue working on it, risking their safety, knowing they couldn't take credit for their work, until there is real political change. And there's nothing – because they felt it was that important. And there's nothing I'd rather do, really, then to be able to cut the credit scrolls off each film and put on new credits with everybody's name.
Amy Goodman: The new president, Jokowi, has he seen this film?
Joshua Oppenheimer: We gave him the film months ago. We gave him a letter from me a few weeks ago about the film. There's rumors of a presidential apology to the victims and the families of the victims in the next State of the Union address, but there's already – which is in August. But there's already a backlash. We already have paramilitary groups calling him a communist, calling him a traitor, talking about impeachment proceedings. So, there's – we don't know whether he's seen the film. He received a copy of the film, though, from his – from a relative of his in his mother's living room. And we have a photograph of him holding the film in his mother's living room.
Amy Goodman: How many people were killed in 1965, '66, '67 in Indonesia by the Indonesian military and paramilitaries?
Joshua Oppenheimer: Almost certainly more than a million, perhaps up to three.
Amy Goodman: Oscar-nominated filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Look of Silence, which has just been released around the United States. October 1st marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the 1965 genocide in Indonesia. Participant media and human rights groups are circulating petitions calling for the United States to declassify and release its CIA, its military, its government, its corporate records about the killings in Indonesia and to acknowledge the US role in the genocide.