'The Look of Silence' a fascinating, must-see documentary
A companion piece to the best documentary of the last 10 years is playing at the Alamo Drafthouse in Kansas City, and it sheds more disturbing light on the darkest depths of men’s souls, but for the first time offers a sort of catharsis as well.
“The Look of Silence,” like its 2013 predecessor “The Act of Killing,” examines the events surrounding a genocide that took place in Indonesia in 1965. Neither film, however, is a straightforward recounting of the atrocities. Rather, director Joshua Oppenheimer weaves key information about the genocide into the threads of his unique storytelling style.
In “The Act of Killing,” he let the Indonesian commanders that carried out the murders of at least million “suspected communists” — who are still in power and celebrated in the culture as heroes — act out a dramatized version of their own story. This unusual narrative resulted in a shocking film that provided insight into the feelings of guilt and denial that plague a killer, but left no room for the voices of the victims’ families.
“The Look of Silence” is a cleaner, more straightforward documentary, and it does just that — using a low-key local optometrist as a stand-in for an entire generation of Indonesians who are scarred by the genocide and still living with massive amounts of fear of more retribution.
Adi Rukun, whose brother was brutally murdered by a paramilitary organization three years before he was born, uses Oppenheimer’s access to confront the murders about their crimes, putting himself and his family at risk. (Just how risky is this endeavor? Two dozen people who worked on the film, including a co-director, are listed as “Anonymous” and presumably still living in Indonesia.)
The title of the film is already an apt metaphor, but Adi uses his title as an eye doctor as an excuse to set up meetings with many of the people in charge of the killings. The image on the movie poster, from one of these meetings, is a frightening visual representation of the movie’s power.
“The past is the past,” says one leader of the death squads when confronted by Adi, not willing to accept responsibility or acknowledge the true context of his crimes. He is being fitted for new corrective lenses with a large apparatus on his face, his blank eyes magnified, staring straight into Oppenheimer’s camera.
The “look of silence” is an all-around crisis in the whole of Indonesia, not just on behalf of the killers. Adi’s mother is candid in detailing the emotional scars that the unlawful and violent death of her son has left her.
His 100-year-old father, who is blind, is shown having a frightening episode even when he can’t remember who he is. He doesn’t remember his family or the son who was taken from him, but the fear is so deeply embedded in him that he feels the need to hide. But even with these deep wounds, no one who lived through the genocide wants to talk about it.
Meanwhile, Adi’s son is shown at school receiving a lecture on the “purge of the communists” from his teacher. It is also full of bloody detail but here, it’s the victims of the genocide who are portrayed as the ones who ripped open people’s bellies with machetes. When his father tells him the truth later at home he says, “So the communists weren’t cruel?”
As in “The Act of Killing,” there are numerous scenes of killers boasting about their crimes in gory detail. It gets a bit repetitive, but drives home how morally bankrupt the people in power truly are and the bizarre lengths to which they must go to assuage their own guilt.
When confronted by the soft-spoken Adi, the answers are universal. It was a crazy time. They were just following orders. But “The Look of Silence” sees beyond those pat answers and into the minds of a country that is terrified to acknowledge the truth.
Oppenheimer uses a lot of close-ups and often keeps his camera not on the person talking but on the person reacting. What I will remember the most are the faces.
Adi: Calm; looking for a glimmer of understanding, rage seething just behind his eyes. His son: A blank slate; wowed by the descriptions of human cruelty, taking propaganda at face value. His mother: Her unbreakable determination cracking at the mention of the son she lost. The killers: Terrified guilt masked by outward indifference and sometimes open aggression.
“The Look of Silence” isn’t as formally exciting as “The Act of Killing” but because it’s so singularly focused, it’s a more emotionally engaging story. works great as an introduction to this topic without any prior knowledge of the first movie, and because its concerns are different, both films together are a richer experience and provide a more complete picture.
Without the protection of a camera crew and a strategic, fast-paced schedule for interviews, Adi may not have gotten out of these confrontations alive. Never before has a documentary shown family members of victims confronting perpetrators who are still in power, which is why “The Look of Silence,” filmed both concurrently and following the completion of “The Act of Killing,” had to be released second.
Oppenheimer has no plans to return to Indonesia and human-rights activists are watching over Adi and his family as of this writing. Indonesia, meanwhile, is very aware of these movies, and both the people and government are struggling to find ways to address them.
"The Look of Silence" is 103 minutes and is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving disturbing graphic descriptions of atrocities and inhumanity.