The follow-up to director Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012), The Look of Silence (2014) is brutal but essential viewing. Grounded in history, The Look of Silence speaks to the years 1965 to 1966 in Indonesia’s history, where an anti-communist purge occurred all throughout the country, as a new president was elected and the country’s Communist Party was decimated. Death squads were responsible for killing one million communists and ethnic Chinese peoples. The film’s synopsis is as follows:
A middle-aged Indonesian man, whose brother was brutally murdered in the 1965 purge of “communists,” confronts the men who carried out the killings. Out of concern for his safety, the man is not fully identified in the film and is credited only as “anonymous,” as are many of the film’s crew positions. Some shots consist of the man watching (what seems to be) extra footage from The Act of Killing, which includes video of the men who killed his brother. He visits some of the killers and their collaborators – including his uncle – under the pretense of an eye exam. (source)
When I first watched The Act of Killing, one of my main criticisms of the film was my concern of giving the leaders in charge of the anti-communist purge of 1965-66, the killers of thousands of people, a soapbox upon which to tell the world their story and take pride in performing their roles in the massacres. Keeping in mind my love of free speech, I felt very conflicted because The Act of Killing gave no voice to the victims of the atrocities, and I was worried about glorifying the massacres, even though the overall film felt like a therapy session for the killers. Luckily, with The Look of Silence, we are finally able to hear the voice of the victims. We are able to hear about the myriad ways that this very unique sense of loss manifests in their lives, both in the past and in the present. Finally the victims are able to tell their perspective, in a political climate that denies the extent of the atrocities, and continues to engage in blatant propaganda to justify the atrocities; to the extent where most of the people involved in the making of the film had to be credited as “anonymous” for their own protection.
In The Look of Silence, we are led by Adi Rukun, who is an optometrist with a son and daughter of his own. We see his interactions with his elderly mother and father, and his father’s extremely frail condition. We learn of his brother Ramli Rukun, who was murdered in 1965 after the massacre at Snake River in Northern Sumatra, which claimed more than 10,000 lives. Eventually, we come to learn the graphic detail of Ramli’s death. Having Adi as the lead in this film is a strange experience as he appears to be a good spirited, humble, extremely peaceful and balanced person, given the circumstances of the documentary. I could imagine that anyone else in his shoes, coming so close to the perpetrators who were involved with his brother’s murder, would act very differently indeed. But at the same time, having Adi as the lead makes sense. Adi does not appear outwardly vengeful; he is on a quest for the truth. Through Adi’s peaceful interactions with those involved with his brother’s murder, we see more of the “banality of evil” that was explored in The Act of Killing, but this time from the view of the victim. It is very interesting indeed to watch Adi interview the perpetrators about their roles in the massacre at Snake River and to see their responses to Adi before and after he reveals his identity to them.
The documentary is constructed in an observational manner with brief involvements by documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer. It combines observations of Adi and his family, with what appears to be extra footage and interviews with death squad leaders from The Act of Killing which pertain to the massacre at Snake River. This is then eventually interspersed with Adi’s own interviews with those who were involved with the massacre. It’s an interesting mix of content, one that is difficult to look away from. As with The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence is shot beautifully, making use of the beautiful tropical and countryside surrounds of Sumatra, Indonesia. The interviews are cut in such a way that amplifies the tension on screen, paying particular focus to meaningful facial expressions and reactions during crucial silent moments. There is no surprising surrealism as per the film’s predecessor, but there is a pervading sense of realism, given the fact that these families have to face the reality of their grief every day.
Where The Act of Killing had some moments of strange and dark comic relief, The Look of Silence has none. It is upsetting from the get go. I suppose that’s where the difference lies in telling both sides of this complex story; the perpetrators of the injustices in Indonesia are allowed the luxury of ignorance and forgetfulness, but the victims are constantly reminded of their own pain. Even in the moments where we see Adi’s extremely elderly mother and father, and his mother’s strength in trying to make humour out of her present situation, these moments are tempered with the constant reminder that there is someone missing from their present family structure. The Look of Silence is a film permeated with a distinct sense of loss; not only for Adi’s family, but for all families that were affected by the killings in 1965-66.
As far as documentary films go, The Look of Silence (and its predecessor The Act of Killing) is required viewing. Not only is it an excellent documentary in and of itself, it is also an excellent example of the impact that a documentary can have on the mass understanding of a country’s history that has been purposefully obscured from the Western eye. Like The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence can be a very uncomfortable viewing experience. There are some descriptions of brutal murders and practices of killing that are sickening to hear and watch. But it is my opinion that some of the most uncomfortable stories to hear, are the stories that absolutely should be heard. The Look of Silence has been nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Oscars. It is a powerful, moving, and important piece of cinema, and must not be missed.
Watch the trailer here.