An Act of Empathy

Joshua Oppenheimer’s unsettling new film, "The Look of Silence," raises questions about the troubling relationship between global capitalism and western complicity.

SILENCE_Glasses Fitting

In 1967, NBC News aired a segment by veteran documentarian Ted Yates depicting what life under Suharto in Indonesia was like. In the footage, tanks rumble across the countryside, firing cannons into the sky, and armed soldiers scatter frenzied, terrified crowds across a city square. The martial sounds and images then give way to a shot of a water tank overlooking a labor compound, the familiar American household name “Goodyear” emblazoned across its side. “Indonesia has a fabulous potential wealth in natural resources. Goodyear’s … rubber empire is an example,” Yates narrates. Next, there are shots of laborers being marched across a plantation by soldiers and being forced to work the rubber at gunpoint. What he and his crew had captured, Yates said, was a “largely unnoticed victory over the communists” — the ouster of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, by Suharto, a military officer, some two years earlier.

And it’s these scenes from Yates’s 1967 news piece that appear at the beginning of director Joshua Oppenheimer’s new documentary, The Look of Silence, which opened in theaters nationwide on July 31. Oppenheimer has been widely praised by critics and activists alike for his searing and humanizing portrayals of abuses under the Suharto government. His 2012 documentary, The Act of Killing, won a slew of international awards and The Look of Silence — which tells the stories of Suharto’s victims and those they left behind has received similar acclaim.

When I sat down with Oppenheimer in a chic Georgetown office in June, he said he’d included the 1967 footage as a reminder that the United States and companies like Goodyear backed Suharto emphatically, despite the scale of the atrocities committed while he was in power. Nearly a million people — leftists, communists, and suspected communists — were killed during Suharto’s regime, which came to power on the back of a failed coup by alleged communists. These killings were part of his violent attempt to rid Indonesia of “subversive” elements — a purge carried out during a time when Washington was providing the regime with some $4 billion in aid a year. Fifty years later, the country is only now coming to grips with this legacy. Over the past few decades, the U.S. government and Western companies have continued to conceal the truth of their culpability for Suharto’s crimes, Oppenheimer said.

The Look of Silence’s central character is a middle-aged Indonesian optometrist named Adi Rukun, whose brother, Ramli, was beaten, tortured, and finally killed by a local death squad in 1965. His murderers still live in the same village as Adi’s now elderly parents. In the film, Oppenheimer follows Adi as he confronts his brother’s killers on a mission to force them to face the horrendous crime they never had to answer for.

And for Oppenheimer, the most remarkable moment in the film is when the daughter of one of the killers, who had grown senile and glassy-eyed by the time Adi confronted him, asks for Adi’s forgiveness. “She actually finds the courage in that moment not to do what I think I would do, which is to panic and kick the film crew out of the house, but to become very still, very quiet, listen to her conscience, and reach across that abyss and apologize and say, ‘Let’s be a family.” The onus then falls on Adi to accept the forgiveness, which he seems to, embracing her and her father. “It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen,” Oppenheimer said.

In striking contrast is another scene in The Look of Silence, when Adi confronts a paramilitary commander named Amir Siahaan, who signed off on the deaths of some 600 people and whose reaction is defensive. Their exchange erupts when Siahaan makes menacing threats, warning Adi against “subversive” behavior. “If I came to you like this during the dictatorship, what would have happened?” Adi asks him. “You can’t imagine what would have happened,” the commander replies.

Oppenheimer, 40, speaks about all of this with a soft but deliberate cadence. The story of exploitation that he’s telling, piece by piece, in The Look of Silence, The Act of Killing, and even The Globalization Tapes, one of his first forays into documentary, isn’t confined to Indonesia, he says: It’s a global one, abetted by governments and the resource-hungry corporations they’re frequently wedded to. He insists on dragging these skeletons out of the closet — not just those of the thugs and paramilitaries, but of U.S. policymakers and multinational corporations. His method isn’t demagoguery, but forcing génocidaires, Americans, and CEOs alike to acknowledge their complicity.

And, in the case of Suharto, what drove Washington’s support of that regime, Oppenheimer argued, wasn’t just ideology. It was an agenda of economic plunder disguised as a campaign for freedom and democracy. Goodyear “was harvesting the latex for our [American] tires and our condoms, using slave labor drawn from death camps. And when the workers were tired or worn out, they were returned to the camps and dispatched out to be killed or starved to death,” he said. “This is, of course, what German corporations were doing on the periphery of Auschwitz only 20 years earlier. And the Third Reich, for all of its horrors, never broadcast that on public German radio.”

The grandson of Holocaust survivors, Oppenheimer was born in Austin, Texas, in 1974, and he spent his childhood in Washington, D.C., and New Mexico. His father was a political science professor, and his mother a labor organizer and environmental lawyer. At Harvard, he studied physics and philosophy before studying filmmaking under Serbian experimental director Dusan Makavejev.

Oppenheimer’s first look at the Suharto regime dates back to 2001, when the International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers offered him an opportunity to teach plantation workers in a foreign country — Colombia and Bangladesh were in the running — how to make a film about their struggle to organize unions. The union wound up sending him to an Indonesian palm oil plantation run by Socfindo, a subsidiary of the Belgian company Société Financière. There, workers were being forced to spray crops with chemicals that they alleged were destroying their livers. But they were too scared to form a union to voice their demand for protective clothing.

“How can you let this go so easily? This is after all a matter of life and death for you, is it not?” Oppenheimer recalled asking them. Then they told him that many of their own parents and grandparents, members of the National Plantation Workers Union, had been targeted as likely opponents of Suharto and killed. What was killing them — both literally and figuratively — Oppenheimer saw, was both the poison of the fields and a fear of the past, of a history of physical and material exploitation. Oppenheimer would go on to co-produce The Globalization Tapes, a documentary about the impacts of globalization on Indonesia, starring and filmed by the plantation workers themselves. (Socfindo, for its part, said in an email that it only uses “substances authorized by the World Health Organization” on its plantations, and “[operates] and works under values of sustainability, responsability [sic] and ethics.”)

As he explained, Oppenheimer came to see that the extractive industry has long regarded Indonesia as a place to be picked clean. He pointed out that U.S. companies like mining giant Freeport-McMoRan, whose copper and gold mine in West Papua is one of the world’s largest, allegedly poisoned the waters around it with waste from the mine and maintained shady ties with the military dating back to the Suharto regime, as the New York Times reported in 2005. Since the 1970s, ExxonMobil (then just Mobil) has maintained gas drilling operations in the restive Aceh province, reaping hundreds of millions of dollars in profits. As Mother Jones reported, in the mid-1990s, ExxonMobil contracted out its security to the Indonesian military, which has reportedly employed a range of terrible human rights practices over the years. A raft of alleged abuses followed, including torture and extrajudicial killings.

Given the scale of Oppenheimer’s project, his decision to focus on one haunted family’s experience feels oddly and disproportionately intimate. Unlike traditional heroes, Adi “doesn’t avenge. He doesn’t bring justice, which is what most of our heroes do,” Oppenheimer said. Instead, “he’s actually a hero of empathy, [with] a desire to understand, not to excuse, but to understand.” Narrowing his lens rather than widening it to litigate the entirety of Indonesia’s Cold War past, Oppenheimer said, enabled him to “paradoxically … [become] microscopic [to] make the film bigger and more universal.”

The perpetrators “lived their lives in manic flight from a pall of guilt and shame that follows them everywhere they go … And yet because they’ve never been removed from power, they still have … a victor’s history, which celebrates what they’ve done.”  His project, then, is to compel them to empathize — to recognize the humanity in their victims, and in themselves.

“If the perpetrators are monsters, then all we can do is identify them and somehow neutralize them” and keep them at a distance, Oppenheimer told me. But “if the perpetrators are human, then actually we ought to be able to come up with ways of living together where we encourage people to practice the widest possible empathy.”

Photo credit: Participant Media

Siddhartha Mahanta is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. A Texas native and graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, he has also worked for Mother Jones, National Journal, and the PBS Newshour. Twitter: @sidhubaba

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