# Five
- 2015

All the versions of this article: [English] [Español]

The act of Killing y The look of silence – Brutality as a metaphor

Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia


The act of killing and the more recent The look of silence, by the young director Joshua Oppenheimer take as a starting point the massive killing of thousands of presumed communists, most of them Chinese people, intellectuals or just opponents to the military regime imposed in Indonesia back in 1965. Genocide has been considered as a triumph and the gangsters committing that murders, called ‘preman’ (free men), are nowadays an example for young militiamen of their country. In the first movie, Oppenheimer interviews the gangsters. They are also asked to recreate the massacre using their favourite cinematographic genre such as action movies or musicals. Thus, historical facts are reconstructed by fictional means.

Fig. 1. Uno de los gángsteres recreando un asesinato en The Act of Killing

The second part, The look of silence, focuses on the life of Adi Rukun, an optometrist whose brother was killed by the assassins of the regime. In this film, the author makes an intimate portrait of the protagonist and his family accompanying him in his research of the ones who killed his brother. In this case, historical facts are not revived by a fictional recreation, but from a face-to-face encounter between victims and executioners.

Fig. 2. Adi Rukun. El protagonista de The look of silence

As Paloma Checa wrote in her reflection about The act of killing, probably the most poignant and representative thing of both films is how they use the "performative" power of representation (to put it Austin words). This means that a certain symbolic system does no longer stay in the field of pure representation, but it gets a real power and influence on society and politics of its time. And vice versa: the political system needs a discourse legitimating its order and getting the approval of public opinion. This, of course, includes state crimes as the one perpetrated by the Indonesian government. As Hanna Arnedt explains in Eichmann in Jerusalem, Nazism or other great crimes of humanity have been intertwined with a symbolic system, which somehow "normalizes" violence and horror as a part of power mechanisms of a certain regime. When talking about The act of killing and The look of silence, we can see that the violent actions committed by the preman (gangsters) are not considered a crime until they get into a symbolic order different to the one belonging to the Indonesian political context. Oppenheimer’s movies, simply by “rewriting” history, give a new reading of the facts that allows rescuing murders from oblivion and designate them as the crimes against humanity they actually are.

Within the Indonesian totalitarian system and probably within many other more or less under covered dictatorships, inducing fear becomes a deterrence strategy for any kind of dissidence. However, this "fear" of being punished by the “gangsters” or the State is not only provoked by violent actions or other disciplinary proceedings, but also (and fundamentally) it is created by the opacity of a cultural and political system which turn such violence into a “normal” thing. When slaughter becomes something fully accepted within the political institutions, there are not notions of justice or historical memory to which victims are able to appeal. The diptych by Oppenheimer shows how discourses legitimizing genocide can be as dangerous as genocide itself, or even worse.

The look of silence is not only the one of the military coup victims in Indonesia, it is rather a reflection on how sadism gets its acquittal by means of its assimilation in the dynamics of a certain political system. And that, to say it in Agamben’s words, results in a perpetual “state of emergency" in which crime is no longer such thing because political institutions get themselves placed at the threshold of anomie. Coercion strategies cannot only consist on violent actions. They need a cultural and political justification; otherwise they would be plainly considered as a crime. Fear, in this case and in many others, is the result of a silenced voice that would compromise these legitimation mechanisms. The articulation of a counter-narrative, in this case, is not a mere alternative reading of history, but an act of resistance.