Published on June 19th, 2015 | by Josh Glenn


The Look of Silence Review

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In 2012, Joshua Oppenheimer released The Act of Killing. Following the leaders of a death squad who, between 1965 and 1966, aided a military coup by ‘exterminating’ close to a million ill-defined ‘communists’, that film was a mesmerising, hauntingly beautiful piece of work. Its subjects recounted their atrocities openly, with matter-of-fact clarity, to the camera, going so far as to produce their own re-enactments at the behest of the director. This may sound gimmicky and exploitative, but in practise it proves to be hugely emotionally liberating. These men fancied themselves as Hollywood gangsters, the posturing of which shrouded their barbaric actions in a layer of detachment that allowed them to exonerate themselves of empathy. By making literal these whims and providing them with an immediate outlet, Oppenheimer created a simulacrum that offered a staggeringly astute emotional portrait: the gangsters’ inner-workings were laid bare and deconstructed, making the experience more palpable for some members than the actual ‘act of killing’ itself ever did. It is, by Oppenheimer’s own admission, a ‘documentary of the imagination’, but nonetheless a crucial work in opening up a discourse with an impossibly difficult moment in history.

The look of silence

If The Act of Killing provides historical and emotional context writ large, Oppenheimer’s follow-up The Look of Silence zooms right in to examine the killings on a domestic level. To say that the film looks at the effect of the genocide on a small community is somewhat misleading, as it’s far more concerned with – as the title attests – the stifling inability to address it. There’s a palpable fear in the eyes of the victims’ families, as well as those of the killers, whenever the events are mentioned, invariably resulting in a look of silence that says more than any amount of words ever could. But even if the people are reluctant to say it, the compositions by cinematographer Lars Skree are exquisitely eloquent: lonely figures perform menial tasks in the middle of empty, dilapidated rooms; elderly family members silently tend to the aching, broken bodies of even older family members; optometric equipment adorns weary eyes in an attempt to aid with clarity of vision. The acts between 1965 and 1966 created a tear in the fabric of Indonesian society, and it’s one that can’t be stitched so long as this lack of communication persists. Much like the pupas so frequently returned to in close up, it’s a country in a painful transitory state.

Hoping to change this state, to break the silence and to usher his country into a place fit for his boundlessly enthusiastic daughter is Adi, the closest thing to a protagonist that it’s possible for a documentary to have. The youngest child in a family who lost their eldest to the anti-communist violence, Adi is an inquisitive soul who is simply looking to make sense of a situation that all but defies it. He begins the film by talking to his 100-year-old mum about the family, gently broaching the subject of its place within the wider community. ‘It feels horrible,’ she bluntly states when he asks her how it feels to live amongst her son’s murderers. ‘I hate them.’ She, as well as her surviving relatives, admirably maintain their daily routine with strength and dignity, but there’s a visible sorrow underpinning everything they do.


The same can be said of the killers themselves. What most distinguishes Silence from Killing are its series of confrontations between victim and perpetrator. Oppenheimer tactfully broached ideas of moral responsibility in the previous film, but understandably was limited in his journalistic scope given the nature of his access to his subjects. Adi, on the other hand, has no such restrictions. He comes face to face with murderer, commander, legislator and varying degrees of liar, and probes their quasi-political justifications with a fair but firm line of questioning. For all the gangsters’ posturing, though, they balk at his directness. It doesn’t take long for them to shut down and turn on director and subject, relinquishing the responsibility they previously boasted about when they stand to lose perceived moral ground from it. These men are fascinating contradictions: refusing to accept that what they did was in any way wrong, but even more reluctant to accept any degree of culpability. In modern Indonesia, everybody’s innocent even when the blood is visible on their hands. It’s frustrating to experience as a viewer, the lack of catharsis afforded to the victims further salt in the open wounds. For Adi, though, it’s heartbreaking: his stoic gaze and dignified posture are a testament to his strength of character, but beneath them is a well of unimpeachable sadness. So long as Indonesia abides by the look of silence, the country and its wounded people can never truly heal.

The Look of Silence is a remarkable piece of cinema: a perfect companion piece to its prequel but, even more than that, a starkly beautiful encapsulation of human nature and the way we process – or, rather, avoid processing – grief. Oppenheimer’s continuing plight is, of course, admirable on a political level; after all, how many other filmmakers so nakedly and earnestly stake their reputation and, in all likelihood, their wellbeing on such a volatile cause? But his film’s success goes even further than this. In terms of fundamental humanism, it’s simply transcendent.

Josh Glenn
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