Adi Rukun, Neither Silent Nor Intimidated
There was a getaway car waiting outside. His family kept bags packed, ready to flee. And a fixer was on standby at the airport, waiting to book last-minute tickets if the need for escape should arise. Those precautions, among others, were taken by the filmmakers of the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Look of Silence” to ensure that its subject, Adi Rukun, remained safe during production.
A companion piece to the 2013 Oscar-nominated documentary “The Act of Killing,” about broad-scale massacres in Indonesia in 1965 and the impunity enjoyed by their masterminds, “The Look of Silence” follows the more intimate quest of Mr. Rukun to face and challenge the local perpetrators who tortured and murdered his brother 50 years ago.
In the months leading up to the film’s world premiere, in Venice in 2014, Mr. Rukun and his family resettled elsewhere in Indonesia, where minders and members of the film crew could keep an anxious eye on them. The film’s producer arranged for Denmark to offer Mr. Rukun’s family open-ended visas should danger ever arise.
That danger has yet to materialize. Instead of feeling trapped by his new circumstances, Mr. Rukun said in an interview this week in New York, he felt, at last and for the first time in his life, truly free.
“We’re no longer living around people who have been threatening us for 50 years,” Mr. Rukun, a sweet-faced, gentle optometrist whose eyes gleam like black pearls, said, speaking in Indonesian as Joshua Oppenheimer, the director, translated. “Both films opened a space that never existed before, and led to an enormous acknowledgment of the suffering and prison of silence and fear we’d been living in. We feel our stories are on the lips of everyone. ”
“I no longer feel afraid,” he added. “I don’t feel afraid at all.”
Indeed, Mr. Rukun said, he was more worried for Mr. Oppenheimer, who was last in Indonesia in 2012 and, out of safety concerns, has no expectations of being able to return soon. When Mr. Oppenheimer, who is American but lives in Denmark, traveled to the United States, Mr. Rukun urged him to wear a bulletproof vest, Mr. Oppenheimer said, because he figured the number of mass shootings would provide easy cover should powerful forces in Indonesia decide to target the filmmaker.
Mr. Rukun was visiting the United States to promote the film as part of its final Oscar push, an activity he has embraced with vigor since audiences first beheld his story in Venice and gave him a standing ovation. He and Mr. Oppenheimer then journeyed to film festivals in Telluride, Colo., and Toronto, not only to raise awareness of the film but also to advance its mission of forcing Indonesian authorities to come to terms with their country’s bloody past. During the awards-season crush, the dissonance between the subjects of documentaries and the glitz of the red carpet often feels especially extreme, and Mr. Rukun’s presence at this year’s Oscars will prove no exception.
After the ceremony, Mr. Rukun plans to open an optometry shop with funds raised by the True/False Film Festival.
He and Mr. Oppenheimer met in 2003, when the filmmaker began trying to learn more about the death of Mr. Rukun’s older brother, Ramli, whose name had become synonymous with the victims of Indonesia’s Communist purge. The perpetrators still held power in the country, and Mr. Rukun urged Mr. Oppenheimer to try to film them. Between 500,000 and 1 million Indonesians were killed in the purge, which brought an American-backed government to power. Last year, declassified C.I.A. documents showed, according to The New York Review of Books, “how hard the U.S. was pushing for the eradication of the Communists.”
As with other surviving relatives of victims throughout the country, Mr. Rukun said that his own family had faced stigmatization for half a century. After Ramli was killed, he said, his siblings were routinely intimidated, harassed and extorted from “like they were A.T.M.s,” he said.
Right after Ramli’s killing, Mr. Rukun’s older sister, then a schoolgirl, was taken to the district hall and had her head shorn, before being returned to her village in disgrace. Ramli’s terrorized wife moved, as did Mr. Rukun’s two older brothers.
Meanwhile, Mr. Rukun’s mother would repeat the story of Ramli’s death: He had initially escaped his captors, and returned to the family’s house, his guts spilling out, only to be dragged away again, this time to his death. Though Mr. Rukun was the youngest in the family and had never met Ramli, he too was haunted and tormented by what had happened.
“I honestly used Joshua to expose the terrible ongoing effects of the genocide today,” Mr. Rukun said. “I’ve apologized to Joshua for this, and I’ve apologized again for taking up his entire youth to express my mother’s pain and the horror of her stories.”
The situation has shifted in Indonesia since “The Act of Killing” was shown there in covert screenings. “The Look of Silence” had a wide public release and was screened at campuses around the country, with organizers often ignoring threats of violence from paramilitary or anti-Communist groups. Mr. Rukun said that history teachers throughout Indonesia have laid plans for more truthful curriculums that run counter to the traditional narrative demonizing those victims who had been accused of being Communists.
Mr. Rukun himself has become much in demand, with survivors’ and human rights groups clamoring for him to visit and speak, something he has assented to despite the trepidation of the team assigned to protect him, a crew that includes activists and a lawyer who specializes in witness protection.
“It was long before we felt comfortable for Adi to do that that Adi started doing that,” Mr. Oppenheimer said. “There were some tense conversations.”
Mr. Rukun acknowledged that Indonesia has a long way to go. The country’s president, Joko Widodo, in office since 2014, has pledged that past human rights violations will be addressed, and last year set up a reconciliation committee. However, he has refused to apologize for the purge.