Adi Rukun, the soft-spoken optometrist in Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar nominated documentary The Look of Silence, has found himself labelled a hero for survivors of the Indonesian genocide that occurred in 1965 and 1966. In the documentary, Rukun faces the perpetrators of the mass slaughter to find the truth behind his older brother’s murder during that time. In an interview with SSN, 41-year old Oppenheimer said Rukun’s actions are unprecedented in the history of cinema as “there’s never before been a film where survivors confront perpetrators.”
Silence is a companion piece to Oppenheimer’s 2013 Oscar nominated The Act of Killing, where the perpetrators of the genocide boasted of their gruesome acts, reenacting them for the cameras. Oppenheimer – an American who resides in Denmark – initially set out to make a film about the Indonesian genocide but soon found that victims were too afraid to speak while the killers were not. It was one such victimized man, Rukun, who suggested that Oppenheimer film the killers’ boastful ways since “anyone who sees this will be forced to acknowledge that the genocide hasn’t ended because the perpetrators are still in power, we’re still living in fear, and our lives are still being destroyed by that fear.”
The result became The Acting of Killing and Rukun, inspired by Oppenheimer’s footage, decided he wanted to talk to his brothers’ killers and film it. Oppenheimer felt it was too risky but Rukun explained that he did not want his own children “to inherit this prison of fear” that has permeated survivor families for fifty years. Since Killing had not yet been released, they decided to seize the opportunity and shoot it, before fallout from the first film would make it life-threatening and impossible. Thus The Look of Silence came about.
During the production of Silence, plenty of safety issues were put in place. So that word would not spread quickly though the area of the type of filmmaking that was going on, Oppenheimer would shoot confrontations as consecutively as possible, churning out one a day, sometimes two. There was always a getaway car idling so that Rukun could safely leave the shooting area if the crew needed de-escalate the situation. Oppenheimer used a Danish film crew so as not to “expose more Indonesians than necessary to the risks.” Furthermore, Rukun’s family had their bags packed at the airport ready to evacuate if anything went wrong.
“It was stressful,” admitted Oppenheimer.
Not that it was any easier for Rukun – now in his mid-forties – who spoke to SSN with Oppenheimer translating on his behalf. “Honestly this was the hardest experience of my life,” Rukun explained. “I knew these men had killed or ordered the killing of my brother and I was filled with so many conflicting and painful feelings.”
Rukun’s goal was not just to uncover what exactly happened to his brother, but to see if the killers would “take responsibility and acknowledge it.” Up until then, all the optometrist knew of his brother’s death was what his mother told him: his brother, Ramli, escaped his captors, came home with his guts spilling out, only to be dragged away, never to be seen again. “I knew in order to succeed (in getting this information), I had to hold in my feelings,” Rukun says of the confrontation process. “I couldn’t get angry. I had to speak to them as calmly as possible so they would tell me as honestly as possible what they had done and how they felt about it.”
Reigning his feelings during the face-to-face conversations was emotionally exhausting for Rukun, and after each confrontation he need about 30 to 45 minutes to sit alone to process what had just occurred. Once production wrapped, money was raised to move Rukun and his family to another part of Indonesia where a full time team now monitors their safety. The family maintains open-ended visas to Denmark should there be any sign of a threat. Luckily, no threats have yet occurred.
Oppenheimer said that those who view the film see Adi as “a hopeful symbol that we can stand up to impunity and stand up to fear,” but Rukun is more modest about his newfound status. “I’m not a hero,” he insisted. “This was a duty, coming from a family of survivors who have been stigmatized so long. This was something I felt we had to talk about, yet there was no possibility for talking about it. Then Joshua came along and the opportunity arose. It’s something many victims would do if presented with the same opportunity.”
Since the release of the film, Rukun said he feels “deeply happy” at the “national dialogue” the film has inspired yet he could not say if the experience brought about any healing for him personally. Oppenheimer stepped in to explain that the devastation of 50 years “is not something that you can easily make right” since the dead can never be woken up and lives broken by fear can never be made whole again. Whatever justice that comes in the future, it will be too late for Adi and his family, who have lost decades of years to fear.
“I would say it’s not necessarily healing,” Oppenheimer explained of Rukun’s journey in the film. “But it is a relief.”