It takes a strong constitution to look into the abyss presented by The Look of Silence, the latest documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer, the Oscar-nominated director behind 2012’s The Act of Killing. Beautiful images of the lush Indonesian jungle and a soundtrack that mostly features crickets are juxtaposed against tales of the horrors of the Indonesian genocide of 1965/66 and its terrible effects on its survivors. In this “war,” the military sat back and let propaganda do its work, as mostly civilian death squads took charge of killing the communists, intellectuals and Chinese immigrants that allegedly threatened their society. The Act of Killing already documented all kinds of killings in Indonesia, detailed by several boastful perpetrators. Oppenheimer showed how they are treated as heroes in Indonesia today, as those in power got there because of this genocide.
Though it takes on the same subject, The Look of Silence is a very different movie. Gone are the surreal, staged reenactments by the killers. Instead there is but one reenactment, and it’s only shown on a 4:3 TV screen watched by Adi, the son of elderly survivors who lost their first son, Ramli, during the massacres. It shows two old men laughing about eviscerating their victims by the Snake River before throwing their remains in the water. They also go into stark detail of how they chopped at one victim, including a humiliating death blow. That victim was Adi’s brother.
Despite the collaboration of many victims in The Act of Killing, all were simply credited as “anonymous” for their protection. Adi and his parents, however, not only appear on camera, but Adi also goes out to interview known members of the death squads, seeking some apology for the death of a brother he never knew. His job as the village’s optometrist gives him access but also acts as metaphor. Oppenheimer never makes it feel heavy-handed, as he prefers to explore the silences with rich images. It’s a film that primarily exists between the lines of action. It’s in the pacing of the shot/reverse shot during Adi’s interviews or his silence as he watches the two jabbering old men in the video. It’s also in the wide shots of the gorgeous jungle that grows fruitful because of the past and its decay. Still, no amount of finesse can overshadow the crimes against humanity committed in the past, and Oppenheimer emphasizes this by repeating certain set pieces.
For instance, both killers and survivors repeat, “The past is the past.” The past certainly provides the distance necessary to cope with the horror, but Oppenheimer doesn’t allow it to cloud the viewer’s judgement of these scenes. He presents no archival footage to validate the statement. He keeps The Look of Silence firmly in the present, but the weight of the past is felt everywhere. Actions define the victims and the perpetrators now and what kind of people are they.
So who are these people? They are Adi’s father, who, according to his mother, started losing his teeth after Ramli was killed. He’s now a shell of a person, lost to dementia, an object that sometimes lets out a groan of discomfort, as Adi’s mother bathes him, scrubbing with a familiar, routine purpose. Then there are the perpetrators who blame another time for what they did, even though those in power today are there as a result of the mass killings. The past is also no to be trusted. As in an early scene in an elementary school classroom where a teacher tells his half-bored students, including Adi’s son, about the evils of communism. He bends down to a boy and points a pen to his eye as he talks about communists who gouged the eyes out of their enemies. The only concrete presentation of the past, however, is in that video Oppenheimer shot about 10 years prior and Adi obsesses over.
These are people, but they are also walking metaphors for the effects of these crimes. They are human, breathing records of the effects of a society born of impunity. Adi is the lone optometrist trying to open everyone’s eyes. His mother is sadness personified whose longing for her murdered son is only qualified by her belief that Adi is his reincarnation. The father of Ramli, is the saddest of the lot. Adi’s mother says he began losing his teeth after the death of Ramli. Now his is blind, toothless and demented. In one harrowing scene shot by Adi, he scoots around the house on his behind patting at the walls, calling out for help, that he doesn’t recognize the building. Hope, however, lies in Adi’s two children, a daughter who still finds flatulence funny and a son who Adi must constantly re-teach history in spite of his teacher’s propaganda.
We meet the kids as they watch jumping beans, larvae that struggle so violently to get out of their shells that they jump. Oppenheimer does not make The Look of Silence some precious movie about seeking closure. These are people deeply scarred by a most dehumanizing kind of warfare that pitted neighbor against neighbor. They are not victims searching for a way to forget the past and move on but accept it in order to live with it and move forward. The Look of Silence is an extraordinary document of the dark nature of humankind and a testament to its ability to heal. It’s a film that must be experienced fully, with eyes open, for the sake of our own humanity, as well.
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You can read more about this movie in my interview with the film’s director:
Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Look of Silence, talks influences, follow-up movie and “the past” — an interview
Screening update: The Look of Silence returns to our Miami area thanks to the Miami Beach Cinematheque starting Friday, Sept. 4 (see screening calendar here).
The Look of Silence runs 103 minutes, is in Bahasa and other Indonesian dialects with subtitles and is rated PG-13 (the most disturbing thing about it is the details of the past). It opens in our South Florida area exclusively at O Cinema Miami Shores today, Friday, Aug.14. It plays only for the weekend. If you live outside of Miami, visit this link for other screening dates and locations. Drafthouse Pictures provided a screening link for the purpose of this review and also provided all images in this article. Finally, listen to me on WLRN today as speak in praise of this movie as well as as films at 1 p.m. EST. The live stream is here. The show will also later be archived on that page.