by Francesca Hodge & Tyler Macri
From the October 2015 IssueJoshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, The Look of Silence follows an Indonesian optician, Adi Rukun, as he confronts the men responsible for his brother’s murder. The audience quickly learns the facts surrounding the anti-communist genocide that swept across Indonesia nearly fifty years earlier and the failed military coup that sparked it all. Oppenheimer utilizes hauntingly stylized interior shots of Adi sitting in a darkened room, illuminated only by the glow of a television set that plays an interview with a pair of killers who were there the night his brother died. As these men recount the killing in disturbing detail, the aura of grief and painful reflection that fills Adi’s world sweeps across the audience—a feeling that rightfully sets the tone for the rest of the film.
The Look of Silence addresses many of the same tragedies detailed in Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary, The Act of Killing, a film that chooses to view the genocide from the perspective of Anwar Congo, an executioner responsible for the deaths of hundreds of accused communists. In The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer looks to astound his audience by giving Congo and other killers the freedom to reenact the murders they committed—an absurd spectacle that leaves us appalled not only by what the killers did in 1965, but also by the fact that they remain free men in the present.
Picking up where The Act of Killing leaves off, The Look of Silence solidifies the horrific tales of genocide detailed in the first film by addressing the long-standing agonies of those whose family members were killed. The film’s main character, Adi looks to answer the question “Why?” as he and Oppenheimer attempt to answer these questions while basking in the atrocity, a feeling captured perfectly in one scene where Adi and an aging survivor of the genocide walk a path down to the riverbank where his brother was partially disemboweled and castrated. As the film unravels and history is studied, explanations for these horrific events remain murky.
Adi carries around a strange mechanism throughout the film—a pair of red glasses surrounded by dials and levers that he uses to determine the necessary strength of his patient’s glasses. It is this instrument that defines the effect of Adi’s interviews: before speaking to many of the men responsible for his brother’s murder (both inadvertently and directly), he places the mechanism upon the subject’s face, and the conversation begins. An interview with the man whose commands determined Adi’s brother’s fate begin in this way—he approaches first as an optician, but as he turns the dials attached to the glasses, gently probing the irritable old man with increasingly difficult questions—things are still left out of focus. In each case, no matter how gruesome these men’s actions may have been, they ultimately seem incapable of defining that which lies upon the horizon. The root cause of what happened in 1965 is always blurry and responsibility is frequently thrown to the higher authorities. Concluding one of his interviews with a killer in one scene, Adi speaks plainly of this denial to the man before him, “Every killer I meet, they don’t feel responsible. They don’t even feel regret. I don’t mean to offend you, but I think you’re avoiding your moral responsibility. You’re trying to wash your hands of it.”In many of these cases, the murderer’s testaments bear revelations that might be shocking to Western audiences (one intimating that the American and British government had extensive contact with the Indonesian perpetrators of these mass killings). In another scene, a death squad leader reflecting upon his actions arrives at a disturbing conclusion, stating that his crimes are the result of America “Teaching us to hate communists.” The CIA denies involvement with the genocide despite the economic assistance the U.S military provided to Indonesian paramilitaries during the Red Scare of the 1960’s. Although the scope of the documentary is perhaps too narrow to include more information regarding these facts, the exclusion of them further vilifies the Indonesian government and makes the Untied States seem like a distant and uninterested supporter.
In the final scene of the film, Adi’s mother holds a pair of Mexican jumping beans in the palm of her hand. The closeness of the camera creates a sprawling vista of her tanned, wrinkling skin. As the beans twitch, her face descends gently from above to watch them. Shortly before cutting to black, she whispers to the larvae soon to emerge—“Where are you? I don’t see you. I know you’re there.” These things, like the peace that Adi and his family have sought for so long, fail to emerge before our eyes. Scenes like these are what define The Look Of Silence’s greatness. It is a film that skillfully calls our attention to the silent tragedy of a little known event, while maintaining a beautiful poeticism throughout.
As the credits scroll, a sprawling list of “Anonymous” titles reminds us that the tragedies presented to us are far from dormant, and that many of the Indonesians involved have good reason to fear speaking out about the subject. After all, this is not a film of justice—those whose actions are so horrifically described are still free, some even empowered. For the first time in my life, I sat with the rest of the audience in muted reflection for the entirety of the credits. Later, as I made my way silently from the theatre to the moonlit bus station, I was overwhelmed by a sudden urge to weep.
4.5 out of 5 stars