Can We Defend The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence?


A reply to Shalahuddin Siregar

Documentary filmmaker Shalahuddin Siregar has written a lengthy critique of The Look of Silence for Cinema Poetica, published in 29 November 2015, arguing that the film’s ethical transgressions outweigh and ultimately undermine the film’s and the filmmaker’s quest for justice in exposing perpetrators of the 1965-66 killings in Medan, North Sumatra. Shalahuddin Siregar, himself a documentary filmmaker, implores us as audiences and filmmakers to adhere to ethical principles in investigating and telling stories about human rights violations without using “manipulative, intimidating and exploitative methods.” His original Indonesian article, also published in Cinema Poetica in 25 March 2015, received wide circulation. I wanted to write a reply to Shalahuddin Siregar, because I think there is an important debate here about Oppenheimer’s two films, about documentary, and the legacy of the 1965-66 purge in Indonesia—which’s estimated to having killed around 500,000 to 1 million people.

What we know is that Joshua Oppenheimer went to Sumatra as part of The Globalization Tapes project to make a film about plantation workers and labour activists. Whilst there, he heard about the events of 1965-66 and met perpetrators of those killings who openly told him what they did in on-camera interviews. This footage can be seen in a number of scenes in The Look of Silence when Oppenheimer confronts families or individuals who challenge or deny their role in the tragedy. These interviews led him to Anwar Congo who became the main subject of the first film The Act of Killing. In filming and researching, he came across Adi, the younger brother of a murdered victim, who became the protagonist in The Look of Silence.

Like Siregar, I find both films to be ethically problematic because the subjects i.e. the killers may not know the intention of the filmmaker and the purpose of their participation. In The Act of Killing, Anwar Congo and his friends believe they are participating in a fictional recreation of their lives based on their role in the 1965-66 killings, but Oppenheimer is filming them as human subjects, observing their movements and behaviour and extracting confession and remorse from them. In The Look of Silence, Adi visits Oppenheimer’s former interviewees under the pretext of determining their spectacle prescriptions but uses the opportunities to question them about their role in the killings, and especially that of his older brother Ramli.

However, I don’t think this disqualifies the argument the films are making and the truths they are trying to reveal. If anything, the films show us the tricky terrain of ethics that documentary filmmakers have to work in, especially if the subject matter is as difficult and challenging as it is in this case. Both films really show us the dilemma of documentary when it encounters criminals, perpetrators, and killers. It forces us to not only think about how documentary can be used for exposing such heinous acts, but also whether it in fact should be. It also makes us think about the outcomes of history, those who win and those who are marginalized.

Documentary straddles the line between historical reality and the representation of reality in a form that purports to tell the truth. Documentary filmmaking is an intervention in the real world as the filmmaker encounters subjects, but also exists in the historical world where prior events have taken place—such as the killings of 1965-66. In an ideal world, a filmmaker strives to apply ethics when making a film but this is always contingent on the subject matter, personalities, and events that transpire during the film’s production. As important as these ethical principles are for documentary filmmaking, Siregar neglects the historical world in which these films have been made, especially how people’s lives have been shaped in the last forty years since the killings.

Where I differ from Siregar is in weighing the ethical consequences of the filmmaker’s actions and that of the killers. For Siregar, and this is the crux of his argument, there is an ethical equivalence between the two. To say that both Oppenheimer and the killers are equally wrong is to assign equivalence to filmmaking and murder and loses sight of the constant search for truth and justice that underpin any ethically responsible documentary project. Ethics are important to how documentary films are made to avoid exploitation and misrepresentation, and there are dangers in allowing a filmmaker to be the arbiter of guilt and ethical importance. But, given the topic of the films, it is understandable why Oppenheimer made the decisions he did.


Oppenheimer’s approach in The Look of Silence is adopted from The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987), a film by Kazuo Hara. The director follows Kenzo Okuzaki, a Japanese World War II veteran, as he seeks truth and justice for two Japanese soldiers killed by their own comrades in New Guinea. Kenzo Okuzaki is a persistent but volatile investigator. He is filmed entering houses of retired soldiers, questioning them and, in one scene, attacking one of them physically. Ethically problematic, the film nevertheless extracts answers and confessions from former soldiers about the murders and challenges the Japanese public to think about the legacies of war and militarism.

There are differences between the two films. Whereas Kenzo Okuzaki was already a well-known provocateur, having been previously arrested for attempting to assassinate the Japanese Emperor Hirohito, Adi seems to have been recruited by Oppenheimer. Siregar gets the impression that Adi was manipulated by Oppenheimer, describing him as “a pawn in a chess game” and “a projection of the director’s vision”. I see how Siregar comes to this conclusion, but it denies Adi any agency, which is a condescending assumption. To its credit, The Look of Silence gives us a sympathetic portrait of Adi, his family, and their plight and provides moments for the audience to contemplate their lives as ‘victims’ of history.

My sense is that Oppenheimer was seduced by the ease with which he was able to get these confessions on tape and the willingness of the participants to let him follow him around. The participants appear to show hospitality to Oppenheimer that he perhaps was not expecting, especially from men openly confessing past acts of murder they had participated in. In part this shows how perverse Indonesian social reality is: political rhetoric that celebrates preman (thugs), mass murderers unpunished, and acts of killing discussed without remorse or guilt. The outrage that many audiences feel towards the films, especially Indonesian audiences, can be traced to Oppenheimer taking advantage of the hospitality afforded to him and thus transgressing the unspoken boundaries of the guest.

Where Oppenheimer went too far, and I agree with Siregar here, are the scenes where the families of individual perpetrators are confronted and made to express guilt and remorse for actions they have not committed. Adi and Oppenheimer enter a number of households with evidence of the patriarch’s actions in 1965-66, trying to show ‘guilt by association’. It recalls how families of Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) members were treated by the New Order state led by then President Soeharto, assumed to be ‘tainted’, and thus denied their rights as citizens. From a filmmaking perspective, it is similar to the scene in Michael Moore’s Roger and Me (1989) where Moore ambush interviews the Miss Michigan winner and makes her look stupid. We can see that Oppenheimer was looking for those valuable ‘gotcha moments’ every journalist and filmmaker wants, but in doing so he oversteps an ethical line.

The problem here, of course, is the subject matter: mass killing and its perpetrators. Siregar suggests that there are other ways of making a documentary about these subjects that do not resort to the methods and ethical transgressions of Oppenheimer’s films. I would like to hear how this is possible and how a film thus constructed would have the same impact as The Act of Killing—although Winter Soldier (1972) might be a good model. Robert Lemelson’s 40 Years of Silence (2009), for example, discusses the killings in Bali through the perspectives and stories of survivors and family members. As an evidentiary documentary, it provides witness testimonials and empirical evidence that the killings did take place, but the film has done little to alter perceptions or discourse in Indonesia about the killings.

For me, the other problem is not so much that “the director was able to waltz away, back to their [sic] comfortable life in big cities” and “hailed as a hero” but rather that Oppenheimer has become the de facto spokesperson for investigation and truth-seeking into the 1965-66 killings. The colonial pattern of white spokesman and helpless natives is repeated again here as Oppenheimer has become the most prominent voice for 1965-66. As we know, many NGO and civil society groups, academics, writers and others have been working for long time gathering evidence, seeking justice and raising awareness. For Oppenheimer to become a global spokesperson for this issue, despite only stumbling across it and making a documentary, troubles me.

This is the dilemma that The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence present to us. To stay within convention and established ethical principles of documentary and to be “more elegant and humane” is great in ideal but difficult in reality. Profound documentaries that have pushed the form and public debate have by and large broken ethical boundaries: Titicut Follies (1967), The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987), Roger and Me (1989), and so on. The dilemma is that we are left in a quandary: we cannot endorse the breaking of ethical boundaries but on the other hand we recognise the power and importance of films such as The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence.

Ultimately, Oppenheimer’s documentaries work precisely because they push the boundaries of what we perceive as established ethical norms of documentary. We are discussing the films post facto. Like Siregar, I fear the films could be a dangerous precedent if we think that “the ends justify the means”, which they clearly do not. Oppenheimer made certain ethical choices when making the films—such as, protecting his collaborators as ‘anonymous’ and moving Adi to a new house. All filmmakers make these practical decisions as they intervene in the historical world. As much as we may want to adhere to good practice, choices have to be made, often difficult choices, especially with subject matter as explosive and important as this.