The Look of Silence/Senyap (2014): The Look of a Commemoration

Irwin: “The truth was, in 1914 Germany does now want war. Yes, there is an arms race, but it is Britain who is leading it. (He stops.) Why does no one admit this?”

(They turn the corner and see the war memorial.)

“That’s why. The dead. The body count. We don’t like to admit the war was even partly our fault because so many of our people died. And all the mourning has veiled the truth. It’s not lest we forget, but lest we remember. That’s what this is about… the memorials, the Cenotaph, the Two Minutes’ Silence. Because there’re no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.”

(quoted from The History Boys: The Film by Alan Bennett)


The keyword here is ‘commemoration’. The quote above may have oversimplified the cause of war, but it is still a sample of what such a noble act of immortalising the victims of a tragedy may have  up its sleeves. What if the commemoration, as shown in the quote, has an ulterior motive within itself? What if it is used to conceal an event or a series of events from the recorded history?


About a month ago, a screening of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence (Senyap) was held in Auditorium Fakultas Ilmu Budaya, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta. The screening went safe and sound. There was no ambush or even signs of disapproval from local communities, unlike some other screenings across the country. Thank God, ‘cause I’d parked my car a bit far from the venue, so a grand escapade would’ve been hard work.

The film itself left me feeling unfulfilled, yet not to be mistaken as a negative feeling. The Look of Silence takes on the same subject — the killing of Communist Party sympathisers and other suspected allies. Unlike its emotionally overwhelming predecessor, The Act of Killing (Jagal), The Look of Silence emanates discomfort by its looming awkwardness. Following Adi’s (a man who seeks explanation for his brother’s death during the 1965 kidnapping) visits to the murderers and other involved people’s houses, we are presented with gory anecdotes of past killings and the murderers’ justifications to their involvement in the massacre. Similar to The Act of Killing, the appalling killing methods — only without reenactment and some Freudian dream sequence — are established from the murderers’ recollections. They are blatantly explained to Adi until he reveals to each of the murderer and/or the murderer’s family that he is related to one of the victims, causing unease to both parties and the audience.

Any releases of tension are not to be expected since the filmmakers intentionally left the audience with awkwardness. The historian who led the post-screening discussion mentioned that the main character of this film, as predetermined by the filmmakers, is the ‘silence’ instead of Adi. It also explains the filmmakers avoid the grandiosity they previously displayed in The Act of Killing. ‘Silence’ is presented in its literal form by keeping music and background sounds minimal, and as a taboo that people speak in hushed tones. The haunting ‘silence’ culminated by the society and government’s renunciation of the killings are not simply solved by a little excursion around the neighbourhood.


Speaking of the society and government’s treatment to this issue, let’s take a scene from the film where a teacher, presumably in a history class, is speaking about how Communism is bad. As what I and everybody else have been taught, the Communist Party was not in line with Indonesian ideology because of their ‘Godless’ manifesto and was held responsible for the G30S incident, so they deserved to be condemned at all costs. However, I doubt that the history textbooks ever mentioned any killings that ensued across Indonesia. If they did, then my mistake, but none of my teachers ever talked about it. The purge of proven and suspected Communist sympathisers reached my awareness when I read about it in a history book (not a school textbook) published by a lesser known Indonesian publishing house. That was when I discovered it was a ruled-out subject. That was when I also discovered that Indonesian students had only been taught to memorise a certain rhetoric rather than forming an understanding by acknowledging multiple perspectives.

Memorising does not only happen in formal education, but also in everyday life. We are taught to memorise 30th September and 1st October. We are led to think that those two dates are meant for commemorating the generals’ bravery and proving that the Communist ideology couldn’t stand a chance against our Pancasila. I respect the commemoration, as I grew up listening to my grandfather’s stories about the cruelty of the Communist Party (but my childhood was happy enough not to be filled with compulsory screening of the G30S movie). However, the act has strayed most of us from discovering the ‘forgotten’ past.

From the many articles and stories I have read, the 1965 purge of Communist Party sympathisers included not only the ones directly involved in the Party, but also the relatives and even people who are not legally proven to be involved. Based on the murderers’ confessions, those people went through brutal torture including mutilation before death. Not to instantly believe everything the murderers in The Look of Silence have recalled, but do their victims’ deaths deserve to be forever shadowed by the commemoration? Do you suppose that the victims deserve a commemoration of their own?

If they don’t, and shall remain as the nation’s annihilated ‘enemies’, then why is there reluctance to include them in the formally acknowledged history? Incorporating another perspective into formal education may challenge the Communism-is-bad rhetoric, but it will allow us to form or reform our moral standpoint when it comes to historical events. Should that be endeavoured, we may be too distant to history to unveil the truth, and there may be more than one truths in history, but at least we can be less sceptical towards acts of remembrance.

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