Directed by: Joshua Oppenheimer.
What Adi wants more than anything is for the people who killed his older brother Ramli to admit what they did was wrong, and show some sort of remorse. How can he, and his family, forgive people who don’t think they did anything wrong? And how can Indonesia move forward as a country, if they fail to deal with their past? Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence is a companion piece to his brilliant documentary, The Act of Killing (2012). In that film, Oppenheimer tracked down many of the men responsible for killing 1 million “Communists” in 1965 – when the military overtook the government, and had so-called gangsters murder their enemies – under the guise that they were all communists, who were working against the state. Oppenheimer didn’t have to look too hard to find these men – everyone knows who they are, and they show no remorse for what they did. Just the contrary really – they are still regarded as national heroes, and many still wield immense power in the country. Oppenheimer gave these men cameras, and asked them to recreate the killings in any way they saw fit – resulting in some stunning sequences in the form of Hollywood genre films. The protagonist in that film, Anwar Congo, seems to at least start to realize what he did all those years ago – something the rest of the men don’t want to acknowledge.
The Look of Silence is a different film. It follows Adi, an optometrist, as he interviews many of those involved in the murder of his brother Ramli – and thousands of others – back in 1965. Adi himself wasn’t alive then – he was born two years later – but the death of the brother he never knew still haunts him – and haunts his two parents. His mother still cries about the loss of her son. His father, old, blind, nearly deaf and senile doesn’t much talk about it at all. Oppenheimer returns to an image – again and again – in the movie of Adi simply watching the footage Oppenheimer previously shot with the men who murdered his brother. They laugh and joke about it, take photos (ironically flashing the “peace sign”) at the site where they castrated his brother before killing him. They show no remorse – and for the most part, take no responsibility. There was always someone above them that they say were giving orders – someone else responsible. Adi watches these videos in concentrated silence. He doesn’t look away.
What he gets when he interviews the various men who killed his brother are denials and threats. Many don’t want to talk about it at all – especially once they realize who Adi is, and why he’s there. They want to know why he’s stirring up the past. One accuses him of communist activity himself – a veiled threat on his life. Their family members are all smiles, until Adi tells them about his brother. Then, they too, start making excuses. He’s old now – senile. He doesn’t know what he’s saying. Whatever he did, it has nothing to do with us. Etc. Many get angry at Adi – want to know why he’s asking them about politics. They tell him he is asking deeper questions than “Joshua” ever did. Oppenheimer is smart enough in this movie to keep silent – even when his name is spoken directly to the camera. He lets Adi take the lead – his questions, and his presence makes the men uncomfortable. They may even start to feel a little guilty. Not that they would ever admit it.
The Act of Killing was one of the best documentaries of recent years – but it wasn’t without its detractors – those who thought he shouldn’t be giving a camera to mass murderers, which could use them as a way to excuse their actions. It was a complaint I never shared – I don`t know how anyone could watch the movie, and think it was excusing the men. Oppenheimer just gave them enough rope to hang themselves with. What that film never really did however was address the victims. That is what The Look of Silence does – but in an interesting way. There are a few scenes with one of the other survivors of the infamous Snake River massacre – and the scenes with Adi's parents, who witnessed their son being taken from them. But it stays on Adi throughout – someone who wasn’t there, because he wasn’t even alive. He is, in a way, trying to take back his country`s history. There is a chilling scene in Adi’s son`s history class, where the teacher praises the men who killed those like Ramli – and uses it as a warning to the students not to go against the government. Adi later asks his son what the teacher taught him – and asks if he mentioned the victims, or the reality of what happened. The son has no idea.
The fact that Adi is an optometrist, who is often given eye exams to the men, works on a thematic level as well. He is trying to get them to see clearly – not just into what’s in front of their face, but also into the country’s, and their own, past. Indonesia needs to deal honestly with what happened, in order for the country to heal and move forward. It’s something few seem willing to do. Oppenheimer’s two documentaries – both of them are brilliant are a start. The Act of Killing has more of an exciting, formal hook to it. The Look of Silence digs deeper even than that film did, and hits even harder. It’s every bit the film the first one was – and then some. That’s saying something.