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.
The interviews follow a pattern that becomes predictable as the film goes on: first the killers brag about their part, then Adi gravely informs them that his brother was one of the killed. Then they deny having much part in it, and Adi has to confront them with evidence and/or footage of them bragging about it, hoping they’ll cop to it in some way. More often, they just get angry. It’s insight, not into the killer’s minds (though there is some of that), but into the difficulties of a society where this has happened being able to heal.
Adi’s parents’ generation has been cowed into silence for so long that talking about it feels like reopening a wound. And yet for Adi’s generation, having their children taught that the “communists” were cruel and deserved to be killed isn’t something they can let slide.
Over and over, Adi is told to “let the past be the past,” by killers and survivors alike. As he explains to his mother, he wants to hear the killers admit what they did was wrong and take responsibility before he can move on. Still, it’s a point I wish Oppenheimer had pressed a little more. Why does an apology from the perpetrators help the healing process, if people know what really happened? It’s an open question, and not just in Indonesia, but in Turkey, the Balkans, etc.
Adi’s father is a central figure in the film, blind, almost deaf, over 100 years old, and rapidly losing his mind. Adi’s mother does everything for him, and Look of Silence‘s interviews are bookended with scenes of Adi’s father being bathed, shaved, fed, cared for. There’s a scene where Adi’s father is crawling around the house confused, and his family can’t console him because he doesn’t recognize them anymore.
I’ll admit, I didn’t fully understand why Adi’s father was in the film so much when I first watched it. But when I talked to Joshua Oppenheimer about it, he explained that the scene of Adi’s father crawling around the house confused and afraid was video shot by Adi, and was what convinced Oppenheimer to make the film in the first place. As Oppenheimer says Adi told him, “this is the day when it became too late for my father to heal.”
Adi’s father “remembers the fear, but not the reasons for it,” and thus he can’t be consoled. Knowing this now, I understand it. I still don’t think talking through some of these issues in the film would’ve hurt it, but I understand Oppenheimer not wanting to interrupt the silences in what he calls a poem about silence.
As Oppenheimer says, silent spaces form the fabric of the film. Whereas Act of Killing was freewheeling, lurid and macabre, The Look of Silence is heavy and oppressive. That’s because it’s largely a film about ghosts. About, as Oppenheimer explains it, “memory and oblivion.”
Grade: I’m not giving this a grade. Just see it.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.