By Alan Mattli
2012’s The Act of Killing was both a stirring reminder of how modern Indonesia has been founded on genocide and historical whitewashing as well as an eloquent meditation on “the banality of evil”. More than two years on, The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up feature, drives home the point in breathtaking fashion.
If Oppenheimer’s Oscar-nominated debut long feature had one distinct flaw, it was the marked, and potentially problematic, lack of perspective. By focusing on the perpetrators of the horrific anti-communist purge that claimed more than half a million Indonesians’ lives between 1965 and 1966 – and to forego any kind of on-screen contextualisation –, The Act of Killing made for an unsettling, inherently philosophical experience, but in doing so, it hardly provided the kind of treatment that the millions of alleged communists’ descendants, living in a society which either celebrates or ignores the killings, deserve.
That’s why The Look of Silence is not merely an addition to its predecessor but an invaluable extension of it. Oppenheimer signally took note of some of the criticisms leveled at The Act of Killing – if indeed he did not intend to tackle the issue from two radically contrasting sides all along – and has created a near-perfect companion piece, which concludes a documentary diptych that quietly rebels against the culture of forgetting the Indonesian genocide has inspired, along with systemic marginalisation of the families of so-called communists, for almost half a century.
After allowing a set of paramilitaries to brag about and even re-enact the murders they committed as young men – and whose former comrades make up a fair portion of contemporary Indonesia’s political and military top brass – in his last directing effort, Oppenheimer shifts his focus to the victims of the purge. Following a concise written rundown of the killings’ background – including the fact that union membership or certain kinds of employment sufficed to be branded as a communist –, The Look of Silence details the encounters of a middle-aged man, who assumes the alias Adi, with the very people who oversaw and carried out the brutal murder of his elder brother Ramli.
Unlike The Act of Killing, there is nothing surreal, nothing even mock grandiose about this film. Stately shots of nature and the streets of a Sumatran town set up conversations between Adi, who’s an optician, and his geriatric parents – his sickly father, it seems, is more than a hundred years old –, his wife and children, and, most importantly, his brother’s killers. Other scenes show him in front of a TV, apparently watching additional footage from Oppenheimer’s research for The Act of Killing with an unreadable mien. But even though the overall tone is as measured, contemplative, and level-headed as the protagonist himself – who, along with most of the crew remains anonymous for fear of repercussions –, what Oppenheimer delivers here is an ultimately horrifying portrait of humanity’s capacity for unimaginable cruelty.
Adi vists the former paramilitaries one by one, his uncle among them, under the pretense of an eye exam – visits which then quickly turn into intensely probing interviews that are met with weak deflections, anger, and unmistakable threats (“If you had come here during the regime… You can’t imagine what would have happened”). To cast an optician at the centre of his film proves to be an inspired choice by Oppenheimer; not only because of the by no means strained metaphor of making people see the world in a different light, but also because this particular optician, by his courage, his anonymity, and his quiet insistence, is a more satisfying interviewer than the more cautious Oppenheimer was in The Act of Killing – a fact that is not lost on the interviewees themselves, who find it increasingly difficult to justify the pride they take in their deeds (“Your questions are too deep. You ask much deeper questions than Joshua ever asked”).
In his search for understanding and perhaps closure, Adi, apart from the more gruesome details of Ramli’s prolonged death struggle and the perpetrators’ eerily matter-of-fact descriptions of paramilitary traditions (“We drank blood, so we wouldn’t go crazy”), finds only deferral: “I’m not responsible” is a common phrase among his opposites, “I don’t want to remember” and “You’re just asking for trouble” among his friends and family. The chips in the brick wall of the killers’ self-aggrandisement remain minor: Inong, who assisted in Ramli’s execution, suddenly betrays signs of realisation and paranoia (“Joshua, stop filming!”); while the daughter of a dementia-afflicted interviewee, after admitting her pride in her father’s military career, seems shaken by Adi’s account of what atrocities the anti-communists committed in the 1960s.
The glimmer of hope in The Look of Silence is even more faint than it was in The Act of Killing, but it nevertheless permeates a film that would be virtually unwatchable without it. There, the designated central character violently came to terms with his own past in the striking film’s final moments. Here, Oppenheimer places what remains of his optimism concerning the future of Indonesia in the hands of a few individuals: there are Adi’s children, whom he teaches the unabridged history of modern Indonesia, which is not part of the country’s school curricula. There are his parents, who managed to at least numb the trauma of their son’s through their love and devotion to Adi and to each other. There is the killer’s stunned daughter who offers Adi her friendship. And of course, there is Adi himself, who hugs said woman’s paramilitary father, who helps his parents cope with his investigation, who explains to his children the importance of critical thinking, and who sits down to talk to a generation of murderers, seeking to stir their remorse in order to finally forgive them. That’s how humanity prevails.
★★★★★½ (out of six)
For more reviews (in German), visit www.facingthebittertruth.com.