Rather than serving as a follow-up to The Act Of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look Of Silence is a companion piece, the director once again shedding light on the brutal slaying of more than one million Indonesians that took place in the wake of the country’s military coup of 1965. Given the subject matter this is, once again, powerful and emotive viewing. However where the earlier film saw Oppenheimer feed rope to a number of the killers behind that massacre before letting them hang themselves via a series of increasingly bizarre re-enactments, here he narrows his focus to Adi, a man in his mid-40s whose brother Ramli was identified as a Communist, brutally tortured and then killed in the 1960s.
Adi’s work as an optometrist takes him around the local region, and using the job as a front Oppenheimer appears to have secured him access to the men directly or indirectly responsible for Ramli’s murder, many of whom already know the director from earlier interviews. Some are still in power and others wield significant local clout; while Adi tests their eyes the direct line of questioning employed as he seeks to find out more information about his brother’s death unnerves some and causes others to issue thinly-veiled threats. These are men who are not used to defending their past actions and there is a sense that what Adi is doing here is extremely risky even today. Indeed the ongoing danger faced by those who seek justice is highlighted once again by the listing of many crew members that helped to make this documentary as ‘Anonymous’, as per The Act Of Killing.
Obviously the conversations make for uncomfortable viewing, but the director is understandably impressed by Adi’s resolve, using close-ups that show exterior signs of impassivity and contrasting them with the unease and jumpiness of former members of the Indonesian civilian militia as this particular family history is revealed (and indeed also training the camera on Adi as he watches, dumbfounded, clips of earlier footage shot by Oppenheimer). There is a similar kind of focus on Adi’s elderly parents, the camera tracing the thin frame of Adi’s disabled father and the wrinkles and hard soles of his mother, in thrall of their longevity and strength respectively.
The film is as harrowing as The Act Of Killing, and like the earlier documentary we see footage of gangsters recounting their actions with occasional amusement, steadfastly batting away the idea that what they did was immoral. Some are blasé when they discuss their preferred techniques for mass slaughter, while the children of others struggle to process the information they are seemingly hearing for the first time (or at least do commendable impressions of people being told that their fathers are mass murderers). One early sequence here highlights the fact that history is taught incorrectly in Indonesian schools, thus – despite the scale – knowledge of the genocide does not seem to be widespread. Oppenheimer’s brace of films has helped to change that outside of the country, at least, even if justice still looks to be a long way off. The Look Of Silence may struggle to find as wide an audience as the earlier, more sensational piece – it’s far more conventional – but it is no less powerful and the motif about seeing (or not seeing) is simple and effective.
Directed by: Joshua Oppenheimer.
Cinematography: Lars Skree.
Editing: Niels Pagh Andersen.
Music: Seri Banang, Mana Tahan.
Running Time: 103 minutes.