“How do you feel living surrounded by your son’s killers?”
The Look of Silence, part two of Joshua Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking diptych covering the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide, should and hopefully will go down in the annals of cinema history as a film vital to understanding and transforming the intrinsically flawed nature of humanity. In a land and a culture both in retrograde motion, refusing to acknowledge the sins of the past, and sometimes even proudly parading both red hands, we see a type of scabbed scar covering an ineffable wound. You’ll be angered to the point of exasperation. You’ll want to pummel the bold and blind liars. And then you will realize that violence is not the point. Quietude can be its own mysterious and deafening language. In The Look of Silence, one of the year’s best films, never has a stifled stillness been so voluble.
Oppenheimer shot both films back to back for good reason, knowing that once The Act of Killing (which is on Netflix…watch it) was released and seen by Indonesian officials, he would not be allowed in the country. That first documentary from 2012 introduced the mass murderers and asked them to recreate gruesomely detailed accounts of their slaughters in the style of their favorite films. It’s a complexly grandiose and morally layered approach that likened them more to theatrical monsters than men. The director even said that the experience was the more introspectively intense of the two because the members of such killing squads were so casually callous. As for The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer actually feared for his physical safety. The story follows Adi Rukun, slowly interviewing his way up the ranks of the leaders through the guise of his profession as an optician and through the relationships Oppenheimer had established in the community. It’s a slow, solemn build. And one that establishes an enduring legacy.
Adi’s older brother Ramli was savagely tortured and dismembered two years before he was born. Now middle-aged, a small family, his mother nursing her senile husband who believes he is 16 years old. Adi does not want revenge on these lost souls. Simply, he wants them to know what they have done. There’s no filler or recompense for the loss of a life. And during a handful of his interviews, while trying to open the minds of the fear-mongers, he interchanges lenses to fit their prescription. To let them see clearly. The juxtaposition of the verbal and physical images are beautifully composed, and more than anything, achingly allusive. These silver-tongued evildoers, one of whom is Adi’s own Uncle who was a prison guard, damn communists and refuse to speak about politics. They’re obdurate – stuck in their ways – hiding behind the thin veil of laughter and the towering presence of religion. No amount of sketched composure can mask such ethical compromise.
Not since the 2012 film The Hunt have I seen a picture that evokes such frustration through the disconcerting rally for hatred of the mob mentality. But Oppenheimer wisely approaches these criminals as human beings. During one interview, Adi confronts a man whose daughter sits beside him, the stories of her father’s past becoming her present for the first time. She shakes her head in disbelief and adamantly apologizes. Adi holds her hand, kisses the killer’s cheeks, and placidly leaves. The man’s patience and virtue and sense of goodwill are second to none. Yet while he sits alone, watching footage of these braggadocious men reenacting their crimes with dignity and a disgraceful honor, we see an intense fervor in Adi’s eyes. A sadness and a disappointment unlike any other. The Look of Silence conveys the complete scale of our expressible emotion. The eyes hide little, and should you dig deep enough, neither does this stirring film. Here’s what a masterwork looks like.
“Well, that’s how it is…life on Earth.”
Rating: 5 out of 5