Un-distorting history: watching ‘The Act of Killing’ and ‘The Look of Silence’


the look of silence

 

Looking through the history of mankind, one of the most significant feats in humanity’s constant social engineering process is the constantly reshaping ‘nation-building’ project. In a path towards building a single identity (beginning from ‘the social contract’ introduced by Thomas Hobbes), the Leviathan – in this case, rulers or leaders of a political entity – ‘enforced’ its legitimacy to the masses regarding the importance of adhering to certain ideals, values, and/or propositions that are suitable with the existing collective consciousness. Thus we saw, especially after the Peace of Westphalia Treaty, the emergence of sovereign states, all the while with people of multifaceted cultural, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds. Two centuries later, in the mid-19th century, we saw the emergence of ‘nation-state’ concept, embodied so strongly from originally the core territories (Europe), which would then spread into the rest of the world through colonialism or its indirect forces, shaping the international order (and all the ‘artificial’ borders crafted across countries) that we now see on our maps at this moment. Afterwards, there came the Cold War, where the new competing powers (United States and its Western bloc, vis-a-vis Soviet Union and its Communist allies), in the aftermath of two devastating wars that ended colonialism, sought to fill in the ‘global leadership vacuum’ left behind by the severely-diminished colonial forces. All over, the ‘nation-building’ projects were once again reconfigured throughout hundreds of newly-independent countries, with the single aim of projecting the major power’s influence and finesse in these areas.

While the nation-building in the past has resulted in the existing global order (and global equilibrium) we live in today, it has – throughout different parts of the world – also resulted in disproportionately huge numbers of lives, money, and legitimacy lost in the process. Some people perish en masse, oftentimes with numbers reaching millions, to pave way for the current system to operate. The truth is cruel, but all the more so with this world; history, as I would agree has been ‘prostituted by the state’, serves to ‘decorate’ the bloody aspect of the nation-building into the one we are living through every single day. At one point, we can hardly imagine what alternate reality we would be living in in the absence of the existing systems; on the other hand, specters of the past are demanding the answer of how we should not forget their own reality. Therefore, I could say that all, if not almost all, nations remain haunted by the tumultuous histories of the past.

Inevitably speaking, this includes Indonesia. It was a huge shock to me when I watched Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 film ‘The Act of Killing’ (which was actually set in my hometown, Medan) back in November 2013; all the while I have never (and I guess 260 million others) truly learned about the ’empty years’ in 1965 and 1966. What I only knew was that 7 army generals were murdered by Communist collaborators on September 30, 1965, and afterwards there was a ‘national movement’ to ‘expel’ the forces, led by Gen. Suharto, who would become the country’s second president (from 1966 up to 1998). The real truth was way more starkly brutal and even ‘gore’; a massacre, dubbed ‘anti-Communist’, saw between 500,000 and 3,000,000 people killed, and other millions tortured, imprisoned, and expelled overseas. The killers are still alive, and they are, as much as I am awed, part of our society; history was ‘directed’ to the entire nation that these ‘killings’ were a nation-salvaging mission, and the killers were celebrated as ‘heroes’. Thus was the inconvenient truth we have to live in, up to now.

And there came the sequel, ‘The Look of Silence’, in 2014, this time set in Java island. With the duration slightly above half of the former, this documentary provides an intense face-to-face conversation between the victim’s family and the so-called ‘heroes’ (or you can call the killers); not unlike the previous film, this movie has had the effect of polarizing the views of various people in the country. Political parties, religious organizations, and even factions within the military strongly condemn the movies as ‘contorting’ the history that they endorse; some people, however, begin to speak up openly. The two movies are screened in various universities and schools nationwide, in spite of occasional acts of violence by several organization members. While the polarization continues, as uneasy as it is, it begins to crack open the asymmetries that underlie the past towards us. Indeed, if I would be frank, Indonesia is not alone when it comes to having a national tragedy as a scar resulting from the nation-building projects; the whole world has the same ‘skeletons in the closet’, slowly by which, the truth will be cracked open.

It is of my apology that the two movies below, while using Bahasa Indonesia, will have no English subtitles. At least I hope the explanation in this post will help. If you understand the language, you can watch the movies below, which, credits to Joshua, are now available for free in Youtube.

 

The Act of Killing – titled ‘Jagal’ in Bahasa:

 

The Look of Silence – titled ‘Senyap’ in Bahasa:

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One thought on “Un-distorting history: watching ‘The Act of Killing’ and ‘The Look of Silence’

  1. Good review. We need more documentaries like this. Powerful stuff.

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