Memory and Oblivion
Director Joshua Oppenheimer and his unnamed Indonesian co-director (anonymous out of fear of reprisals) have spent the past 14 years exploring the aftermath of the 1965 purge of alleged “communists” that brought a military dictatorship to power and killed an estimated one million people in Indonesia. This in a society where the perpetrators of those killings still hold positions of power today. Far from denying it, many of the militia commanders (a sort of shadow government doing the official government’s dirty work) brag about their part in the killings. That bragging formed the bulk of 2012’s Act of Killing.
In Act of Killing, Oppenheimer visited militia and commando unit leaders under the pretense of helping them make a film about their “heroic” actions. Allowing the perpetrators to act out and celebrate what they’d done, to try to control how the world should see them, offered a chilling, tragicomic window into the psyche of people who commit mass murder (some of whom also enjoyed cross dressing). There was also a moment when Act of Killing‘s central figure, Anwar Congo, suddenly feeling the weight of the things he’d done, began dry heaving, an unforgettable sound that felt like him trying to physically retch up the guilt on his soul. It was a moment of such intense catharsis that it’s probably unmatched in the history of non-fiction film.
If Act of Killing was a look at how mass murderers rationalize, The Look of Silence is about how survivors cope, which makes it inherently a more difficult watch. Insight is more ambiguous, harder to define here, and tends to squirt away like a watermelon seed whenever you try to put your finger on it.
Look of Silence‘s protagonist is Adi, a rural optometrist whose “in” with those aging Indonesians who lived through the purge 50 years ago is that he makes eyeglasses. Not only does this offer him access, down time to ask questions in a way that doesn’t feel like an interrogation, and some very cinematic imagery, it illustrates the degree to which the genocide’s perpetrators and victims still have to live and interact with each other. Adi’s older brother, Ramli, was one of those murdered, a story that gets more horrific the more the details of it gradually emerge – not just killed, but disemboweled, hacked to pieces with a machete, castrated, and eventually left to bleed out or drown in a river.
Adi is a much more pointed interviewer than Oppenheimer was in Act of Killing, and an insanely brave one, calling officials on their lies and minimizations at every turn, pointing out how they’ve profited from the killings. When one guy’s wife keeps saying “I know nothing about that,” Adi shows her footage of her standing next to her husband as he displays the graphic novel he wrote about the murders. Adi never lets it slide when someone feeds him the party line, even when speaking with powerful officials, some of whom straight up threaten his life.
In some ways, Act of Killing is a more insightful film, in that it allowed the killers to celebrate what they’d done, and offered a window into the ways they rationalized. There’s a scene where Anwar Congo imagines himself in Heaven, getting a medal from his victims as a thank you for killing them. There’s some of that in The Look of Silence too, newsreel footage of commando leaders explaining that the communists wanted to be killed. That was a first to me, as far as genocide excuses go.
There are lots of other ones too, like that the communists were cruel, the communists had no religion, the communists had sex with each other’s wives, etc. That they had no religion and that they wanted to be killed would seem to be a contradiction of sorts, but no one acknowledges it. There’s also a widely-held superstition among surviving killers that drinking their victims’ blood was the only way not to go crazy. At first it sounds as if they’re speaking metaphorically, until they go on to describe drinking blood in gory detail. “Salty and sweet,” says one killer.