The Look of Silence (2014)

by Ryan J. Gimarc

It’s not an overstatement to say that where the U.S. had slavery and northern Europe had the Holocaust, Indonesia had the anti-communist purge of the mid-1960s. These events have a significant and obvious impact on current Indonesian society, and in Joshua Oppenheimer’s latest film about the mass killings, The Look of Silence, one word is omnipresent in conversations about the country’s dark history: wound. The aggressors of the mid-last century speak of “closing the wound”, an attempt to disconnect the public from the dark past of the now-ruling party and accept the powers sitting in every sphere of government. Victims of these actions more wearily approach the wounds they still carry around, whether it was an escape from torture or the loss of multiple family members; some would agree to “close the wound”, accepting the past in an attempt to quell current anger, while others see their wound as an itch, and one that cannot be adequately scratched without revisiting the past.

Look of Silence still 2.jpeg

Oppenheimer’s 2013 documentary The Act of Killing was filmed over a six year period, and overlapped greatly with the production of The Look of Silence, the follow-up which shares much by way of background and issue but tells a separate and parallel story of pain and lasting anger. Like the previous film, many involved in the production of The Look of Silence still fear a backlash from the ruling party which oversaw and carried out the events of the 1960s, and Oppenheimer again shares a director’s credit with an anonymous individual (if you watch the credits of either film, “Anonymous” appears somewhere under almost every job title). 

The Look of Silence is in some ways not terribly far removed from a “normal” documentary, with on-camera interviews and, unlike his previous feature, a newsreel from the 1960s to help the audience understand the scale of the murders. However, to say these techniques are safe or conservative couldn’t be further from the nature of the film, where the interviewer (an optometrist named Adi, the brother of a man murdered by the death squads during the communist genocide) plays as important of a role in the film as those he interviews. Adi is not just a stand-in for the filmmaker, and is established as an actual victim with a wife fearful for his safety and children still being indoctrinated by the ruling party in their classrooms. And while this characterization is important, it’s relatively restrained, and the movie is better for it. The power of the film comes from Adi opening doors to the past, which isn’t hard where they are; Oppenheimer makes a point of highlighting (verbally and on screen) that these killers live amongst the families of their victims.

The film isn’t so much a sequel to The Act of Killing, but the order of release for the films is perhaps important to fully digesting the two stories. While The Act of Killing spends nearly the entire runtime focusing on the killers and their attempts to recreate the executions in different movie styles, The Look of Silence is more contemplative and carefully paced. Gone is any feeling of meandering and jumpiness inspired by the first film, and instead Adi’s treks from one interview to the next seem to bring him closer to some ultimate truth, whether it’s a sort of generational revenge or a sense of closure he obviously doesn’t share with his mother and father. This emotional journey parallels a tangible geographic one, as the interviewees and Adi both circle Snake River, the site of hundreds (if not thousands) of murders. As both journeys reach the final resting place of countless human beings, The Look of Silence reaches a climax as tense and emotionally gripping as any you’ll see in a movie, documentary or otherwise.

Look of Silence still 3.jpeg

Importantly, The Look of Silence succeeds because it is not a documentary about the massacres which took place half a century ago; rather, Oppenheimer’s astounding work paints a portrait of the surviving victims themselves, and how they internalize their current surroundings. Like the footprint of racism which still impacts society today in the U.S., the historic atrocities in Indonesia are still the source of nervousness and agitation in the present day, leaving sects of society constantly in fear despite the decades since the violence. Oppenheimer expertly crafts a visual poem of frustration, fear, anguish, and hostility which won’t likely be matched at the theaters this year. The Act of Killing is not essential to comprehend the raw grief and devastation in this film, but The Look of Silence is essential cinema not to be missed.

The Look of Silence screens at UICA from Sept 4—24, 2015, get a complete list of showtimes at uica.org/the-look-of-silence.