Mostly I remember my heart as I headed up the front walk. I’m sure my skin was getting damp. A million scenarios were running through my head, everything I’d read or heard about the man on the other side of the door. “Stone-cold killer,” that’s what one guy called him. But mostly I remember my heart, hammering away. It was my first interview with a confessed murderer.
The man who answered the door was old and short and doughy, hardly the steely-eyed super-assassin I had conjured in my mind. Killers are often ordinary. They often live next door, especially when they’ve killed in the service of their government.
In The Look of Silence, American filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer shifts his focus from the murderers who dominated his acclaimed 2012 documentary, The Act of Killing, to their second set of victims, the survivors of Indonesia’s 1965 military coup and the bloodbath that followed. This group is represented primarily by the aged parents of Ramli — an ordinary man slaughtered along with a million others during a government-sponsored purge of supposed communists — and by Adi, the younger brother he never knew.
Silences play a major role in this documentary, which will be shown next month at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and opens in the U.S. in July, adding weight to the dialogue. Unnerving silences, as Adi formulates questions for men involved in his brother’s murder; stony silences as he sits with pursed lips, numbed, hollow-eyed and hushed, watching video footage of two grinning, graying former militiamen who talk of hauling victims to a riverside to be decapitated, who talk of the spray of blood, of kicking corpses into the water, of fish feeding on the dead. In the middle of a reenactment of their murders, the death squad duo literally stop to smell the flowers: “It’s pretty. It smells lovely. But it’s subtle.”
Following this interlude, they describe repeatedly stabbing Ramli and castrating him as the coup de grâce. At least they’re honest enough to admit what they’ve done. As Adi, followed by Oppenheimer, confronts men up the chain of command, they completely reject responsibility — while issuing not-so-veiled threats. When Adi reminds one culpable official, the current speaker of a regional legislature, that a million people were killed, the man’s reply is as blasé as it is chilling: “That’s politics.”
Watching Oppenheimer’s film made me contemplate different types of silences that arise in response to slaughter. In the United States, official silences regarding the Vietnam war have recently been augmented by something more dangerous. The government is currently in the midst of a 13-year “Vietnam War Commemoration” — a series of traveling exhibits, symposiums and other public events celebrating veterans and “highlight[ing] the service of the Armed Forces.” All of this is accompanied by online educational materials and an interactive timeline — a Pentagon-approved history of a conflict that cost the lives of nearly four times as many people, twice as many civilians, as the slaughter in Indonesia. Instead of truth-telling, however, the effort — which will have cost taxpayers about $15 million by the end of this year — is devoted to advancing a counterfeit history of the Vietnam War, ignoring the civilian costs right down to a whitewash of its one well-known massacre.
On March 15, 1968, members of the 23rd Infantry Division’s Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, were briefed by their commanding officer, Captain Ernest Medina, ahead of an operation in an area they knew as “Pinkville.” What stuck in artillery forward observer James Flynn’s mind was a question one of the other soldiers asked: “Are we supposed to kill women and children?” And Medina’s reply: “Kill everything that moves.”
The next morning, roughly 100 soldiers were flown to the outskirts of a hamlet called My Lai and followed Medina’s orders. Over four hours, the Americans methodically slaughtered more than 500 Vietnamese civilians. Along the way, they raped women and young girls, mutilated the dead, burned homes, fouled the area’s drinking water. It took a year and a half to unravel a cover-up that extended from soldiers in the field to generals at the top of the division.
In a two-sentence entry, the Pentagon’s interactive timeline referred to My Lai as an “incident,” not a massacre, with a death toll of “more than 200,” and singled out only Lieutenant William Calley (who had no shortage of blood on his hands), as if the deaths of all those Vietnamese civilians, carried out by dozens of men at the behest of higher command, could be the fault of just one junior officer.
After I wrote an article about it and several other whitewashes in the timeline, the Pentagon made changes to each of them. The new My Lai synopsis was expanded by one sentence and now says U.S. troops killed “up to five hundred civilians” — an improvement undermined by a final sentence that is factual but disingenuous: “Calley would be convicted of war crimes and sentenced to life in prison.” Left unmentioned was the fact that President Richard Nixon freed Calley from prison, and although convicted of murdering 22 civilians, Calley served just 40 months of his sentence, most of it under house arrest. Worse yet, the Pentagon still refused to use the word that always follows My Lai: massacre.
Throughout the rest of the timeline, the Pentagon remains largely silent on how almost all of the estimated 1,999,500 other Vietnamese civilians were killed. And out of more than 1,700 commemoration events across the country, none appears devoted to anything like the soul-searching that has accompanied The Look of Silence.
The Indonesian murderers of 1965 may still walk free and hold great power in the country, and officials may not have facilitated the making of Oppenheimer’s documentary, but two government agencies — the National Commission on Human Rights and the Jakarta Arts Council — hosted The Look of Silence’s premier last November, and the film was screened almost 1,000 times in 116 cities across the archipelago nation, leading to much public debate and press coverage.
The situation has been very different in the United States. The man who set my heart pounding had confessed to murder in Vietnam when interviewed by Army criminal investigators in the early 1970s. Members of his unit were found to have massacred 19 women and children. Neither he nor any of the men responsible for those crimes were ever prosecuted, let alone punished. When the massacre became front-page news in the Los Angeles Times in the mid-2000s, the government took no action and there was no outcry among most Americans.
Just as in Indonesia, these aging murderers live among us. And with a culture of impunity akin to Indonesia’s, they’ve been joined by a new cohort of killers and torturers from more recent U.S. wars who received slaps on their wrists or no punishment at all for similarly heinous crimes.
Oppenheimer has done a great service in shining a light on Indonesia’s unrepentant, unprosecuted killers and created a sophisticated and elegant piece of art in the process. His crisp, clean filmmaking is so refined that it looks effortless — a visually stunning, emotionally harrowing, and completely unflinching effort that transcends the Indonesian context and stands worthy of taking him from Oscar nominee to Oscar winner.
His directorial skills shine brightest when his camera is off the killers and trained on survivors. With great subtlety, he shows how pain ripples through time, warping and disfiguring lives decades after the initial trauma. Words from Adi’s dignified, silver-haired mother almost smother her son. He was, she tells him, very much a replacement for Ramli, the brother who died before Adi was born. His birth may have saved her life, but it left Adi shackled in all sorts of ways, finally leading him on a quest to confront the men responsible for his brother’s death.
While he was born after the bloodshed, Adi is marked by it — you can read it in his face, in his put-upon posture. His tiny, sweet-faced mother is marked, too — she prays for vengeance, for violence to cascade down the generations onto the children and grandchildren of her son’s killers. And Adi’s wife is gripped by fear that her husband’s quest will lead him to literally follow in his brother’s footsteps, a bloody end at the hands of the same men. She asks if he considered what that would mean for her and their children — leading to yet another long, devastating silence.
Maybe it’s time for an Indonesian filmmaker to shock the conscience of the United States, amplifying the silences surrounding our atrocities, shining a similar light on crimes that Americans are unwilling to face. Let’s hope she produces a film half as arresting, powerful and poignant as The Look of Silence.
Nick Turse is the author of “Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.” His latest book is “Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa.”
Photo: Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media