The Look of Silence, an emotionally searing new documentary from director Joshua Oppenheimer is a disturbing and incredibly impacting experience. In his previous film, The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer explored the contemporary aftermath of the Indonesian communist genocide of the late 1960’s. Once again, Oppenheimer returns to that same region to look deeper into this secretly festering wound, this black mark on the history of Indonesia.
At the film’s center we have Adi, the village optometrist, and a father in his mid 40’s whose children are taught in school that communists were bad people. They do not pray! They have sex with each other’s wives! They must be stopped to protect the state! At home, Adi corrects his son, informing him that the teachers are in fact lying. Adi’s older brother was murdered during the mass-killings, dragged out of his home as his mother begged for his life.
In the documentary, Oppenheimer’s cameras accompany Adi as he confronts the men responsible for this genocide. Keep in mind, these events took place in the late 1960’s, which means that the architects of these horrors are still alive and well. Like war-criminals walking the streets, untried, these old men smile and grin for the cameras, taking delight in recounting their horrific tales of bloodshed. They feel no remorse. They see themselves as heroic. Many of the foot soldiers say they were unaware –so they claim– of the big picture, ignorant of the fact that they were cogs in a monstrous death machine.
Like post-war Nazis claiming they only followed orders, the killers do not stand up well under cross examination. When Adi questions inconsistencies in their stories or logical contradictions that seem glaringly obvious, he receives scorn and even not so cryptic threats against his life. One simply threatens to end the interview early, shouting: “I do not want to talk about politics.”
It’s a film without catharsis. Even Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List builds to a hopeful and life affirming conclusion. The Look of Silence has more in common with Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, a five and half hour documentary about the Holocaust.
Imagine a world in which such horrible acts of violence could be perpetrated by the military and still almost 50 years later, the killers are still in political power. The realities are almost unbearable to hear recounted. Yet Oppenheimer takes his film one step beyond to actually employ the real killers as recreationists, staging reenactments of their brutal crimes. Some agree and act out horrific pantomimes of torture and murder.
The Look of Silence is somewhere between a dream and a nightmare. The images and scenery are photogenic and beautiful, contrasting the atrocities described in witness testimonies. Werner Herzog and Errol Morris are credited as executive producers. Their influence can be felt in every shot. The hypnotic rhythm of the editing traps us inside this story, this world.
The only ones who express any form of regret are the surviving wives and children of the killers, in both cases females. Adi meets the wife of the commander who murdered his brother, along with her two menacing adult sons. When Adi presses the subject of the genocide, asking about his brother’s death, one of the sons aggressively retorts without any irony: “Let’s all get along like the military dictatorship taught us.”
Meanwhile across the coffee table, Adi watches the man’s mother, the elderly wife of the man who killed his brother, quietly begin to weep, begging Adi to forgive her dead husband: “Please have pity on him.”
After the film was over, I sat and watched the credits slowly roll, digesting the overwhelming and heartbreaking snowball that the film slowly becomes. Note how many of the film’s crew is credited as “Anonymous.” Many risked their lives and the lives of their families to make this film.
Not only is The Look of Silence an unflinching masterpiece, it’s also the most important film I’ve seen in 2015.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer, who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine, The Uniter and ShowbizMonkeys.com. You can find Tony on Twitter: twitter.com/thetonyhinds