The Look of Silence

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Laura Clifford 
The Look of Silence

Robin Clifford 

Adi is an optometrist born two years after his older brother Ramli was brutally murdered in the 1965 Indonesian genocide.  Having learned Ramli's fate from footage shot by director Joshua Oppenheimer when he interviewed death squads for "The Act of Killing," Adi visits the men responsible as he checks their eyes, daring to ask probing questions of men who are still in power, looking for signs of remorse to allow him to forgive in "The Look of Silence."

This powerful companion piece to Oppenheimer's Oscar nominated documentary doesn't have the crazy basis of his earlier film, in which Komando Aksi members gleefully recreated atrocities in the guise of Hollywood genre films.  Instead Oppenheimer focuses on one family of survivors. It's a quieter film, lyrically shot, Adi's occupation a stunning allegory for what he hopes to achieve.

We see Adi visiting his parents in their humble, rural home.  His mother, Rohani, claims to be over 100.  She takes care of her mostly blind, deaf and senile husband, who was born in 1909, but claims to be seventeen (when asked to sing, he pipes up with 'You're so sexy!  I can't stand it!).  Rohani tells her son that he was born to give her a reason to go on living after his brother was killed.  She's terrified when she learns that he's begun to face Ramli's killers.

We see them, once again happy to recreate Ramli's bloody murder on the banks of the river where he was slaughtered.  They pose for souvenir photographs making peace and thumbs up signs for the camera, admitting Ramli may have been innocent.  'It's in the past,' they say, a sentiment both perpetrators and many survivors repeat over and over.  Ramli watches Oppenheimer's footage stone faced, even initially offering excuses for their behavior.  But when summons the courage to challenge the actual killers as having spread propaganda (bolstered by the U.S.'s anti-Communist stance), he gets double talk and anger in return.  One official suggests he may be a subversive hatching a new Communist plot.

At home, Adi's two children laugh and play, showing little interest in the past as Adi tries to correct the warped history his son is being taught.  Adi's wife, like his mother, is fearful. The film builds in power as Adi meets a killer with a daughter Adi's age.  She's horrified to hear her father speak of drinking victim's blood.  'That's sadistic,' she murmurs, the first note of remorse Adi hears.  She asks Adi to forgive her father and think of him as his own. The widow of another murderer, one who not only wrote a book about his acts but illustrated it, claims no knowledge of it, even when faced with Oppenheimer's footage clearly showing otherwise. Her sons get agitated.  'I invited you here Joshua, but now I don't like you.' says one.

Fifty years after one million were butchered, murders and their victims' families live together uneasily, those in power believing everything's been restored to its natural state.  Yet families like Adi's are still branded, unable to hold government jobs, living in far humbler surroundings than those who still benefit from their misdeeds.  When Adi approaches his uncle's house, we notice its size, modern construction and ornate architectural details.  He discovers a chilling family secret.

Oppenheimer's early use of archival footage is also chilling, reflecting our own collusion all those years ago.  This film required a high level of fortitude from its filmmaking team, many of whom are credited as 'anonymous,' and Adi, whose life is unimaginable.  That Oppenheimer manages to find moments of beauty, love and laughter here is a testament to his skill, but the horrors he unfolds are the stuff of nightmares.

Grade:  A

“The Look of Silence” is a superb companion piece to Joshua Oppenheimer’s stunning documentary, “The Act of Killing.” That film follows three men who perpetrated heinous murders in an anti-communist pogrom that would result in the death of over a million innocent people in Indonesia in 1965. His subjects were given free rein to recreate their crimes in the style of Hollywood films. It is a chilling document of Holocaust level atrocities to the Indonesian people.

“”The Look of Silence” is a very different documentary of the same crimes. Here, Oppenheimer shows us the lives of those who committed the unbelievable atrocities under the guise of only following orders or doing the will of the “people.” The filmmaker takes himself out of the picture and, in his stead, an optometrist named Adi, who lost his brother at the hands of the men he interviews, is the interrogator.

Oppenheimer replaces the highly stylized look of “The Art of Killing” and its recreations of murder with Adi’s quest to confront his brother’s killers and get them to admit their complicity in the crime. This is a dangerous endeavor for the optometrist as he, first, examines the eyes of the killers then confronts them about the murders of innocents. These men, though, are still in power, living peacefully among the survivors of their victims and without remorse. Adi risks his life as he tries to get the truth and an admission of wrongdoing.

Joshua Oppenheimer is trying to right a wrong from 50 years ago and bring to light the truths about that turbulent time in Indonesian history. He may never get the confessions that he seeks from the killers but he does bring to the world the story of those who suffered at the hands of men who were “following orders.” The difference between these men and Nazi Germany’s Holocaust killers is that those in Indonesia are still in power and still in control of its people. I give it an A-.
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