A chilling, uncomfortable film about dredging up the past that's as excruciating to watch as its predecessor.
The Look of Silence
For the majority of The Look of Silence, we watch a man named Adi confront several men responsible for the gruesome murder of his brother, Ramli. One by one he looks them in the eye and does something extraordinary—he asks them how they feel.
In 1965-66 Indonesia, over a million people associated with the communist community were slaughtered, a genocide so terrible many Indonesians have deluded themselves to the long-term madness and pain suffered by those who were affected by the atrocity (which accounts for just about everybody). Director Joshua Oppenheimer‘s Oscar-nominated 2013 documentary The Act of Killing told the story of the genocide through the memories of several of its perpetrators. The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer’s companion documentary to the latter, is a more somber, sobering affair though it’s no less hard to watch.
That brings us back to Adi, sitting in front of the men responsible for Ramli’s murder, staring at them with unblinking empathy and a bit of disbelief. Most people in Adi’s position would be seething balls of anger, and we would all understand. What a wild thing, to confront your brother’s killers and ask them how they feel. In one of the film’s confrontations, Adi asks a man who works in legislature how he can do politics knowing he’s surrounded by families broken by the butcherings he oversaw in the ’60s. The man’s response is predictably defensive and harsh, but the amazing thing is that Adi takes the time to ask the man about his life rather than unleash a tirade about his own loss, his family’s loss.
Adi’s strength and dignity is what The Look of Silence is all about. One after another, we watch him speak to these murderers, all of them in a state of denial and false absolution. They’re blind to the horrors they’re responsible for and have yet to see what Adi and the victims’ families see, that to not face the ghosts of the past head-on is an act of disrespect that will never be forgiven until they fess up and accept their culpability.
A recurring image punctuates the story, reinforcing the reality of Adi’s sorrow: we see him sitting calmly, eyes alert. He’s watching footage of a group of men laughing and boasting as they recall in great detail how they tortured and splayed their fellow countrymen in the anti-communist purge. They even reenact Ramli’s murder. Unlike these, Adi faces the past with honor, painful as it is.
Like The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence is excruciating to watch. It covers one of the ugliest stories any of us will ever know, and Oppenheimer’s approach gives us no safety zone or space for relief. While some documentaries offer sweeping music to lighten the blow of the heavy material, Oppenheimer provides no music at all, challenging us to reckon with this madness just as Adi is challenging the perpetrators. The stillness of the imagery is haunting, with shots of empty scenery evoking the lost souls from the slaughter. And appropriately so: the truth about the deceased is exactly what the perpetrators are so scared to dredge up.
If only the killers would express a measure of regret for their mistakes, Adi would forgive them and embrace their admission. Adi’s an optometrist, and with each confrontation he brings with him tools to fit his interviewees with glasses. The fact that Adi is risking his life talking to these men (not to mention his family’s) hangs over the film like a thundercloud. In one of the later sessions, a perpetrator senile in his old age is joined by his daughter to help facilitate the interview. The daughter learns of his murderous ways right then and there for the first time and is immediately apologetic and grateful to Adi for his patience and grace.
It’s the only time we come up for air, though; in the next scene, Adi speaks with the sons of a perpetrator, and they all but throw a tantrum, verbally damning Adi and Oppenheimer from their home. Oppenheimer’s heartbreaking films have caused a great stir in Indonesia, where a conversation about the purge is finally starting to emerge. Judging from the reactions of the murderers The Look of Silence captures, this may be a conversation that could go on for decades. Heaven knows where they’ll end up, but at least through this film and Adi’s mission the victims have a voice.