The Look of Silence (2015)

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

In 2013, Joshua Oppenheimer made waves in the documentary community with his startling, brutal, and all too real film The Act of Killing, which chronicled the mass murder of Communists in Indonesia in 1965. Oppenheimer turned his camera on two men who carried out these killings, and who are still in power in that country today, and let them run rampant, often bragging about and re-enacting their techniques of annihilation. Oppenheimer’s ability to remain a fly on the wall and allow these men to demonstrate their demons in front of the camera for the whole world to see was both extremely brave, patient, and revolutionary in the documentary genre. I had never seen anything like it before, and while not an easy film to swallow, it was one which was massively effective in its storytelling and delivery, such that I appreciate it immensely.

The Look of Silence is Oppenheimer’s follow-up to his “breakthrough” film, and with no subtlety about it, a companion piece to The Act of Killing. While Killing gave the floor to those who did the killing, Silence presents a new perspective and a new voice to the same event in Indonesian history. Oppenheimer this time gives the voice to Adi, a 40-something optometrist whose brother was one of the victims in 1965. Adi, seeking answers and any shed of truth possible, confronts those responsible for the deaths of a million Indonesian communists, including his brother. And through a series of gripping interviews, we see not only the brutal and often unremorseful reactions of the perpetrators, but also the sad, silent, sullen face of Adi as he must hear the story of those who murdered his brother.

Like The Act of Killing before it, The Look of Silence is a hard film to ignore while watching it. More a fully immersing experience than a simple viewing, seeing The Look of Silence brings about certain unrestrained emotions that are too hard to hold back. Sadness, while a major factor, often plays a backseat to Anger, which is perhaps too soft a feeling for what I truly experienced while watching this film. To see the re-enactments and pompous attitude of Anwar Congo and Herman Coto in Killing brought with it a level of rage I’ve not experience in a film before. Dear Zachary perhaps came the closest. In Silence, that rage is coupled with tremendous sympathy and almost a feeling of helplessness for the victims of this great atrocity.

To see one film without the other now seems like it would be a crime, an incomplete historical experience, seeing one side while only being able to imagine the other. Now with The Look of Silence, there is no need to imagine what the victims face even today, and perhaps that is the most startling element of this version of the story. Adi must restrain himself so much, hold the anger, rage and appetite for revenge pent up in fear of repercussions. The regime which endorsed these murders is still in power, and in fact they are still today celebrated as heroes. So to go against these men, to speak out about them, accuse them of guilt is a very dangerous thing to do. The Look of Silence is in many ways just as effective as The Act of Killing, just in slightly different and even more terrifying ways.

One of the hardest moments in the film for me, as an American, to swallow is when one of the men says that “America taught us to hate communists.” While said as a somewhat throwaway line, I couldn’t help but sense an accusatory tone. These men have no remorse for the many people they killed. They are proud of what they have done, convinced that by drinking the blood of their victims they have avoided going crazy, but to casually “blame” the Americans hits home, especially since I can see truth in it. During the Cold War, our enemy was communists, and we even prosecuted those in our own country. And while we could never have imagined a genocide taking 1 million lives in another country, it happened, and this truth, no matter what nationality, race, gender, etc. is very difficult to come to terms with simply as a human. To see how it is viewed by those in power 50 years after its occurrence is perhaps even more difficult.

**** – Masterpiece


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