The Look of Silence (2014) — Image via

The Look of Silence

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer (2014)

Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary The Act of Killing (Jagal) examined the 1965-66 anti-“Communist” massacres in Indonesia from the unsettling point of view of the perpetrators, who are still honored for their crimes by their government and official civil society. In The Look of Silence (Senyap), the companion piece to that film, Oppenheimer tries, with the help of one very brave man, to confront some of the perpetrators with the point of view of the victims and their families. The result turns out to be a very different but equally disturbing film, one that casts off its predecessor’s macabre theatrics in favor of a deeper look into the killers’ inability to accept the reality of their actions.

The Look of Silence (2014) — Image via thelookofsilence.comThere are two scenes in The Act of Killing that open the door to The Look of Silence. In the first, an obsequiously smiling man nervously informs some of the perpetrators that his stepfather was killed in the massacres. In the second, the film’s protagonist, Anwar Congo, begins to muse over how the victims must have felt, and Oppenheimer takes a chance by telling him that they undoubtedly felt more pain and terror than he can even imagine. In The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer enlists an even bolder collaborator: Adi Rukun, whose older brother Ramli — whom he never knew — was murdered by members of Komando Aksi, one of the army-affiliated paramilitaries. After viewing footage shot by Oppenheimer of the killers — since deceased — describing Ramli’s torture and death in graphic detail, Adi resolves to confront those still alive who were involved in the massacres in his district.

It is symbolically convenient that Adi happens to be an optometrist, one whose vocation it is to help people see. For that is what he tries to do in a series of encounters in which he calmly asks killers, their commanders, and their accomplices to take moral responsibility for the crimes committed against his brother and hundreds of thousands of others like him. In several cases, the perpetrators’ children and other family members are present, mirroring a scene in which Adi’s own young son repeats the pro-army propaganda that he has been taught at school. In all cases, his interlocutors attempt to avoid his questions, some through equivocation and some through barefaced threats.

The Look of Silence (2014) — Image via thelookofsilence.comIn The Act of Killing, we learn that one of the main motivators for the protagonists’ involvement in the massacres was that the Communist Party was trying to ban American films, which were the source of their livelihood. In The Look of Silence, the reasons the perpetrators give are even flimsier; allegedly, the Communists never went to mosque and were known to indulge in wife-swapping. When these “facts” are cited to Adi, his response is to state unequivocally that they are lies, which only raises the question of why, even if these things were true, anyone would consider them justification for mass slaughter.

Interspersed with these confrontations, we are introduced to Adi’s family, including his elderly mother; his ancient yet childlike father, who is nearly blind and deaf; his wife, who worries about the consequences of his actions; and his playful young son and daughter. The mother is a particularly appealing figure, with an idiosyncratic outlook on life and, unlike virtually everyone else — including even Adi at times — no hesitation about saying exactly what is on her mind. Adi’s family may not understand why he insists on dredging up the past, but it is clear that the time he spends with them — especially his innocent children, who must grow up in a place still ruled by murderers — gives him the motivation and strength to continue his increasingly quixotic efforts.

Though lacking The Act of Killing‘s formal audacity, The Look of Silence proves to be a vital companion to its predecessor, putting the surreal alternative morality to which we were introduced in the previous film to the test in a direct collision with the truth and dignity represented by Adi and his family. At one point in the film, a former death squad leader tells Oppenheimer that, while he previously enjoyed talking to him, with Adi’s help he is now going “too deep.” Hopefully many of the viewers who were drawn to The Act of Killing by its unusual approach will accept Oppenheimer’s invitation to go deeper. After its two recent screenings at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, The Look of Silence is likely to get a small U.S. theatrical run.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.