In his last film, 2012’s The Act of Killing (it wasn’t released in America until 2013), Joshua Oppenheimer made a documentary unlike any other to come before or since, and quite possibly ever again. By exploiting the affection for Hollywood films by the perpetrators of the 1965 Indonesian genocide, Oppenheimer was able to make some of the perpetrators confront the reality of their crimes for the first time. Within the villages of Indonesia, nobody talks about the horrific crimes of the past as the people behind the crimes have been vaunted into power. In preparation for Joshua Oppenheimer’s latest film, The Look of Silence, a companion piece to The Act of Killing, I did not revisit The Act of Killing since the many of the film’s most powerful moments are practically burned into my memory – it’s the greatest film I never want to see again. While the films are intrinsically tied, The Look of Silence is a different film with a different perspective on the effects of the forgotten genocide. It’s not the raw, unsettling punch of its companion, but The Look of Silence still strikes a lingering chord of unsettling reflection on a real life Orwellian nightmare.
The Look of Silence still confronts the brutal butchers of the ’65 genocide, only Oppenheimer has them confronted by Adi, whose brother Ramli was murdered in the ghastly purges of anyone deemed a “communist.” Adi was born after the atrocities and has grown up in a world where not even his elderly mother and father, Rohani and Rukun, want to discuss the truth in any detail. With the help of Oppenheimer, who interviewed many of actors in Ramli’s murderers, and under the guise of his own occupation as an optician, Adi is confronts the men responsible for the death of the brother he never knew, whose death nearly drove his mother into madness. This is a much more direct approach than the companion piece, but it’s just as effective.
As with The Act of Killing, the killers behind the brutal purges have no problem joyfully bragging about their bloody exploits. Nearly 50 years of being hailed as heroes has gone to their heads as they recall beheading people with wide smile and the creepiest laughter you’ve ever heard. These now-elderly war criminals also have no problem retelling the extent of their atrocities to Adi himself. These include confessions about beheading, genital mutilation, and drinking the blood of the victims, which they did so they didn’t go crazy. The moment Adi tells them his relation to Ramli, their arrogant expressions quickly change to silence then defensiveness. For most of these men, this is the first time that they haven’t been championed for the ghastly crimes.
The defensive statements employed by the perpetrators is the almost the exact same as the victims. Whether it is saying “the past is the past” or claiming that discussing the past is opening wounds that have healed, nobody wants to discuss the reality of what happened in 1965. The state is Orwellian in its manipulation of language to distort the truth, to craft a thoroughly believed official narrative including indoctrination in elementary schools. In this world, “communist” isn’t a term for someone who believes in the economic philosophy of Karl Marx, it’s just a term for anyone deemed undesirable by the brutes in charge. Nearly a million people brutally wiped from the face of the Earth and their slaughter has been deemed a triumph. That’s what happens when murderers are allowed to rewrite their own history.
The title of The Look of Silence doesn’t merely refer to the moments where butchers are confronted about their horrific actions. It also refers to the pained silence of Adi as he watches old tape of boastful confessions, and of a society that allows these horrors to be brushed away into distant memory. Silence plays an important role in the cinematic construction of the film. Oppenheimer employs multiple moments of prolonged silence to accentuate the silence that this society has adopted. These touches make the silence just as unsettling as the confessions of blood drinking.
Once again, Joshua Oppenheimer has constructed a powerful, unsettling film about a horror that has been swept under the rug. There is more bravery on display from Adi, as well as the numerous people who worked on the film anonymously, than in any other work of recent memory. These are people dedicated to speak truth to power in a land where that is an unthinkable sin. The Look of Silence isn’t a movie for those with weak stomachs and weak minds. This is a striking work that confronts a real life horror with equal parts bravery and artistry. Upon leaving the movie, a different kind of look of silence can be seen on the faces the audience – trying to mentally grasp the depths of this lingering despair. More than anything, Oppenheimer, Adi, and the anonymous workers who helped create The Look of Silence prove that it is worth reopening old wounds when they’ve merely been bandaged with lies. It may not be easy to talk about horrific elements of the past, but to bury them and ignore them is compound problems even more. If you can handle the tragic truth of The Look of Silence, you will see one of the finest and most important films of the year.
The Look of Silence opens in New York on July 17th, 2015 before expanding to Los Angeles and other cities starting on July 24th. An updated list of theaters can be found here.