Documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer has released two courageous films in the last three years. They’re courageous not only because they take on the genocide of more than one million Indonesians in 1965 and 1966, a grisly subject that has been swept under the rug for 50 years, but also because the filmmaker dares to believe that anyone would care about the death of a bunch of “communists” halfway around the world before many of us were even born.
Neither film is easy to watch. The first, “The Act of Killing,” follows the leaders of the most powerful state-sponsored death squad in Sumatra as they re-enact, Hollywood style, torturing and butchering thousands of “suspected communists,” including writers, intellectuals, union members and ethnic Chinese. The second film, “The Look of Silence,” recently released in the US, follows Adi Rukun, whose brother was tortured and killed by the death squads, as he tracks down and attempts to confront the men responsible.
In both films the perpetrators speak of things that will haunt you long after the story has been told. The executioners openly brag of strangling, torturing, castrating, beheading and more with a chilling lack of remorse and without the slightest hint of apology.
Sadly it is a story that has repeated itself, Rwanda and Kosovo perhaps being the two that come most easily to mind. A slower version of the same story has been playing out in Sudan for decades, leaving more than two and a half million dead. Indonesia and Sudan are slightly different stories, in that the murderers have remained in power, both on a national level and in the affected villages. So those who survive suffer twice, once in the brutal loss of loved ones, and after, having to live with the perpetrators as powerful neighbors, knowing that if crossed they could come again, with impunity.
The artists and storytellers can skillfully put the facts of brutality in a palatable form. There is no way around the turning of one’s stomach at hearing of a man slicing off another man’s penis and leaving him to bleed to death, or listening to someone describe burning one of their fellow humans alive.
Thank God we are not numb. When we are filled with revulsion, we are also inspired and galvanized, to ask questions, to seek truth, to act where we can. And while the road to stopping such mass insanity in our world will be a long one, asking the questions will put our feet on that road. Hopefully our questions will include how deeply our own countries were involved in, supported, or benefited politically or financially from these vile acts.