The Look Of Silence follows Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary The Act Of Killing, behaving as a sister piece. It begins with the exact same text advising the viewer of the immense crimes committed in Indonesia in 1965 – a period of revolution in which the government sanctioned the massacre of a million people labelled ‘communists’ – before splitting off to approach the country’s open wound from a different perspective.
Last time around, The Act Of Killing audaciously invited gangsters involved in the genocide to recreate their deeds as if they were producing their own Hollywood production. In the process, Oppenheimer zeroed in on the crumbling denial of one man; Anwar Congo. The ‘staged’ reconstructions lent the film an almost bewildering surrealism. As Anwar found himself in the pincers of a psychological trap, Oppenheimer pulled down the set dressing. That film’s final half hour is a sobering experience, to say the least.
Yet as compelling as The Act Of Killing was and is, the level of weird artifice very nearly masked the scale of the atrocities. It presented a bizarre carnival of remorseless men barely holding their egos together. The Look Of Silence turns the camera around. Not to Oppenheimer, but to the victims and their families, living in the aftermath of so much repressed horror. For them time has stood still. Repeatedly they are sagely advised by the guilty that what’s passed is passed; it’s best to move on. The impossibility of that is personified by roaming optician Adi, who bravely puts himself at risk interviewing the powerful men responsible for his brother’s butchering all those years ago.
His brother Ramli was killed before he was even born, but Adi has evidently carried the weight of the tragedy his entire life. He lives with his incredibly old parents. We watch his kindly mother chop papayas, while his impossibly frail father grows more and more confused; the very picture of a man coming to dust. Adi visits those directly responsible for Ramli’s murder, and, through a series of staggering interviews, Oppenheimer enables his audience to empathise with the loss of millions by acutely painting and humanising this one example. If cinema is an empathy machine, Oppenheimer may be its new master.
44 years of age, Adi makes for a captivating and thoughtful guide through the propaganda and the lies, picking at the threads. He has a cool exterior, fascinating to watch all by himself, as he does his best to remain passive and professional in the face of such monstrous revelations. He fixes the instruments of his profession to a man telling him his preferred methods of killing as they directly pertain to his brother. And, as the interview heads south and his customer grows hostile to his questions, Adi still promises to make him the glasses required of his prescription. The remorseless death squad employees get riled when their morality is questioned, yet persist in sticking to the belief that they are righteous men. Two of them have a photo taken together at the site where they severed countless heads. One of them does a peace sign, then a thumbs up, oblivious to his offensive flippancy.
Adi’s courage here is hard to fully express, not only for seeking out these men and allowing himself the surely overwhelming emotional experience of knowing them, but for potentially exposing himself and his family to further reprisals. Where The Act Of Killing looked back at past events, The Look Of Silence bristles with the possibility of similar carnage in Indonesia’s present. Oppenheimer acknowledges his own hand in this. He has evidently ingratiated himself to the men responsible for the 1965 slaughters, yet favour seems to turn against him throughout the film. He is seen less as a friend and more as a potential rabble-rouser. The guilty want to be forgotten. Oppenheimer and Adi keep turning over stones, exposing truths that could have serious consequences for all involved. A brief but telling scene in the middle of the film sees Adi’s wife growing concerned for their safety. Adi’s mother too urges caution, recommending that Adi arm himself in future.
Where The Act Of Killing built to a grand reveal or crescendo, The Look Of Silence is more consistently devastating, yet overall it’s a less showy piece. The mood is subdued and contemplative. The film doesn’t have the sensationalist hook that it’s predecessor did, but it doesn’t need one. Oppenheimer’s reputation as a filmmaker is enough of a draw this time around, and in turn he is confident enough to let his film play without gimmicks. This is a more conventional documentary, comparatively, but no less remarkable. It is, if anything, more humbling than The Act Of Killing. There is still a level of artifice here – some shots are very purposefully constructed, while the sound design for one interview heightens the chirping of the background insects to a claustrophobic degree – yet the intent is to secure an emotional truth, and the intellectual integrity remains firm. Rarely if ever does anything feel contrived or designed to overtly prejudice the viewer. Here the guilty hang themselves.
In one of the film’s most affecting scenes, Adi confronts another of the men responsible, but in the presence of the man’s daughter. She appears oblivious of her father’s deeds and is noticably shocked by Adi’s accusations. And while her supposedly senile father grows increasingly uncomfortable in front of the camera, she reaches out to Adi, calling him family, asking him to return. It’s one of the few depictions here of a possible future for Indonesia, one in which reconcile might be possible and new connections might be made. Sadly, more common is a sense of silent threat; a suggestion of further violence to come from a system steeped in denial, corruption and amorality.
Easily the most important film to see this year, The Look Of Silence is a calmly, quietly ferocious piece of work, one that cements Oppenheimer as perhaps the most vital figure in documentary filmmaking today. Whether this film marks the end of his investigations into Indonesia’s horrific past and troubled present is immaterial; the thought of his gaze falling on a new subject is provocative, but one can all too well believe that there are a thousand more stories to be told on this one, each as vital as what we’re shown here. But such stories still flow against the tide. Early on we witness school children being taught of the cruelty and wickedness of the so-called communists. The propaganda seeded in a new generation.
As with The Act Of Killing a significant portion of the crew credits are listed as ‘Anonymous’. Maybe one day, with Oppenheimer’s assistance, these men and women along with the scores and scores of dead can be named and remembered rightly. Without fear. Without threat. Until then go out of your way to see this incredible, haunting film.