The Look of Silence | Joshua Oppenheimer | 2014 | US | 1h 43min | Documentary
By now, you’ve probably heard of Joshua Oppenheimer’s film The Act of Killing. This newest documentary, The Look of Silence, is a companion piece to it. Both films are focused on the genocide that took place in Indonesia in 1965. But while The Act of Killing takes a surreal and imaginative re-enactment approach, this latest work by Oppenheimer is structured much more like a conventional documentary. That’s not to diminish The Look of Silence or even imply that it’s an inferior film in some way, as it’s every bit as distressing and mesmerizing, albeit in a different way. It’s a stark and uncompromising look at what human beings are capable of in terms of thoughts and actions.
Due to Joshua Oppenheimer’s work on these projects, a family came to learn the way in which their son was brutally murdered. They also learned the identities of the men responsible, who are living their lives as though they did nothing wrong, like many who partook in the slaughter. The family’s youngest son Adi, who was born just after the genocide, finds himself struggling with this scenario. He wonders how it can be that the society simply accepts this dynamic, and he worries about raising his children in such a morally imbalanced world. Undeterred by the danger and profound awkwardness, he decides to confront each of his brother’s killers.
It can be extremely frustrating to watch a lot of these interviews play out, since those who were complicit in these crimes have no incentive or desire to repent. Even when you get the sense that some may be harboring private doubts, there is often little in terms of their demeanor to suggest a moral crisis is taking place. I suppose this is why the film is called “The Look of Silence”, because for much of the documentary it’s alarming to watch the indifference or double-talk surrounding these crimes. Some of these men say that they drank the blood of their victims in order to prevent going crazy, claiming that those who didn’t drink blood had since gone mad. Obviously, human blood can’t cure insanity, but perhaps this placebo effect really did work for some of them. It’s difficult to say when the human mind is capable of incredible fictions.
However, there are a few encounters where you get a sense that a perpetrator or their family are struggling with these horrors in their own way. One ex-leader gets so defensive that he demands to know the whereabouts of Adi’s family, retreating back into his shell of anti-communist rhetoric and intimidation. In another scene, a family is so distraught at what Joshua and Adi are showing them that they become loud and defiant, claiming that their mother has a heart condition and can’t be subjected to this. But, for me, the one moment that really stands out is when an older man and his daughter are confronted by Adi. The father is incredibly dismissive, while the daughter is horrified to learn of what her father once did. As the conversation goes on, we see a rare glimpse of someone actually empathizing with Adi and the loss of his brother. In the midst of so much indifference and hopelessness, it’s a sign that there is perhaps hope for the future generations of Indonesia. Perhaps this country will one day alter its narrative and learn from its past, even if that day seems far off.