The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s stunning new film, is a sublime work that should more than satisfy the critics of its companion piece, The Act of Killing.
Aiming to expose the ongoing impunity with which the perpetrators of Indonesia’s 1965 genocide are treated, the biggest objections to The Act of Killing were that the film focused only on the killers, leaving out almost any treatment of victims or survivors, and that by allowing the killers to lavishly re-enact their deeds as though they were filming conventional narrative films, it glorified the killers’ actions.
The Look of Silence, while filmed in the same time frame as a companion piece rather than a sequel, more than addresses these issues in ways that also highlight Western implication in these events as well as critics’ own motives for denouncing the earlier film.
The film follows Adi, both the youngest in his family and a father of two young children himself, as he confronts the killers responsible for his older brother Ramli’s brutal murder, which has come to symbolize the genocide as a whole in Adi’s village as there were actual witnesses to it. An optometrist, Adi uses eye exams to put the perpetrators at ease while he examines their ability to see what is in front of them, both literally and metaphorically.
Adi himself was born after these events and is treated by his mother as a replacement for Ramli, making his experience of the genocide both real and indirect. At the same time, this also makes him less fearful of directly questioning those still in power 50 years on. Along with footage showing what Adi’s children are being taught in school about their family’s past and how his son processes that, as well as powerful scenes of attempts at reconciliation, the film clearly demonstrates that even those born generations after the genocide continue to suffer its effects and live in fear of it happening again.
The Act of Killing, by filming in a conventional style and presenting the killers as three-dimensional human beings struggling to come to terms with their actions, asked the viewer to at minimum acknowledge, if not fully identify with, the humans behind the acts committed, a position that many viewers fundamentally rejected. In The Look of Silence, the only re-enactment shown (interestingly, the one that sparked The Act of Killing) is mainly re-filmed as Oppenheimer’s original footage plays back on a TV screen for Adi’s review, allowing the viewer to more comfortably identify with Adi. In addition, only Adi and his family are filmed using standard camera angles, with the perpetrators Adi confronts being filmed looking directly into the camera, furthering viewer identification with Adi’s position and making the one moment where Adi does look into the camera all the more powerful.
Early in the film, Adi is also shown watching old American propaganda hailing the Indonesian victory over Communism. The sole use of archival footage in the film, this, along with perpetrator comments about American involvement in these events, draws a very clear line from dominant American ideology to the worst possible human rights abuses, exposing the West’s ongoing impunity and throwing open the question of what other suffering this ideology continues to cause, something only very briefly touched on in The Act of Killing.
Every shot as thoughtful and loaded as Adi’s questioning, The Look of Silence stuns with its visual beauty in addition to its powerful content, redefining sublime through its mix of admissions of horrific violence and breathtaking cinematography. The sequences featuring Adi’s parents in particular stand out for the sensitivity with which they were filmed, a disturbing home video filmed by Adi in turn serving to underscore just how brutally his family continues to be affected by the events of 1965.
While Oppenheimer’s previous film had some moments that were more powerful than others, The Look of Silence left me breathless and unable to look away throughout. Two days after seeing it, and having seen a multitude of other things in the meantime, The Look of Silence is still with me, and I’ll probably see it at least once more this year.
The Look of Silence has one more screening as part of Montreal’s RIDM festival, Monday Nov. 17th, 9pm, at Excentris. It will undoubtedly get a theatrical run in the new year, in addition to doing the festival circuit.