One of this year’s most poetic documentaries, The Look of Silence, is also one of the most important films of the year. It’s because it asks you to understand: what do you do when there is no justice after your neighbor has picked up a machete to kill your son in the name of ideology?
Like 2012’s Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing, director Joshua Oppenheimer’s previous film, it takes a certain inner strength to observe the aftermath of the horrors reaped by civilian death squads; untrained militias that used such rudimentary devices as steel wires and machetes to kill their neighbors and the behest of the military.
Once again, Oppenheimer has shot a beautiful, contemplative movie that reveals the grim shadow of humanity. With The Look of Silence, he offers a confrontation with reality instead of an escapist diversion that is sure to unnerve and enrich viewers.
Oppenheimer has spent the past 15 years exploring the still festering wounds of the 1965-66 Indonesian military-led revolution that killed close to a million civilians and put the current government in power. He began indirectly working on The Look of Silence in 2003 after he met Adi, an optician who works makes house calls in the Indonesian village. Adi was born in Indonesia after the revolution, but he knows many of those who experienced the genocide that targeted so-called communists, intellectuals, and Chinese immigrants. His parents lost his elder brother in the genocide after he was kidnapped from their home.
Adi introduced Oppenheimer to some of the survivors of the massacre. After three weeks, the military threatened Adi, who called Oppenheimer to a midnight meeting at his parents' house and told him not to give up on the project, suggesting he film only the perpetrators. "I was afraid to do it at first,” says Oppenheimer, speaking via phone from New York. “I overcame that fear, approached them, and found extraordinary, surreal boasting about what they'd done. I found that it took nothing to convince them to participate."
Some of this material eventually became The Act of Killing. While Oppenheimer was shooting his footage of the perpetrators, Adi asked to see some of the material. He, as well as other survivors and human rights workers, encouraged Oppenheimer to continue his work, so the filmmaker spent the next two years filming every perpetrator he could find, and he worked his way up the chain of command. He had hours of footage featuring 43 known perpetrators, including some who sit in the government.
Meanwhile, Adi became obsessed with some footage Oppenheimer shot in the early stages of his interviews. Two men giddily reenact killings of some 10,500 people they hacked up with machetes, one by one, before throwing their remains in the river. One of those killed was Ramli, Adi’s brother, and the killers act out gruesome details of his death between bouts of laughter.
In The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer credited his collaborators as “anonymous,” to protect them from those in power in Indonesia. Their contributions were so critical that they are credited as co-director.
One group of victims bravely stand out in The Look of Silence. Adi leads the interviews with the perpetrators and asks bold questions. His mother speaks openly to Oppenheimer about how Ramli slowly died after escaping from the killers and returning home holding his intestines only to be taken again the next day to be finished off at the river though they told her they were taking him to the hospital. Her husband, however, has succumbed to dementia and no longer remembers his son, yet he still harbors a deep-seated fear for something he no longer understands. Meanwhile, Adi’s children go to school where they are brainwashed by teachers about the evil of the communists.
“When I returned to Indonesia in 2012 to make The Look of Silence, I didn't actually know Adi would be the main character,” notes Oppenheimer. “He had been a kind of friend and collaborator ever since I first started working on this issue nine years earlier, and I went back, of course before The Act of Killing had its first screening … and I sat down with Adi to discuss what we might do, and he said, ‘I spent seven years looking at your footage of the perpetrators, and it’s changed me, and I need to meet them. I need to meet the men, specifically to the men that killed my brother.'”
Oppenheimer recalled trying to dissuade him, for the sake of his safety and his family’s safety. “I said, 'Absolutely not. It’s too dangerous.' There has never been a film before where survivors confront perpetrators who are still in power, and he explained that if he went to them openly and clearly willing to forgive them if they’d only admit that what he’d done was wrong, he believed that they would welcome this, in a kind of long hoped for opportunity to acknowledge and accept their guilt and find some kind of comfort in that acceptance and to find forgiveness in one of their victims’ families, and then that way he will be able to reconcile himself with the families of perpetrators who live around him, and his children will be able to grow up no longer afraid of their neighbors. That way he’ll leave his children a future where they don’t have to live in fear.”
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. The film’s tension comes from Adi’s frank questions that probe for the humanity in the killers. He finds men who try to rationalize what they have done, including admissions to drinking the blood of their victims with the belief it would keep them from going mad from their actions.
Oppenheimer never pretends he is unbiased. He recognizes Adi’s place as an interviewer and his role in the story, so he encouraged him to approach his subjects with a willingness to forgive them: “’I think if you see them as a human being whom you can forgive, they will have to return your humanizing gaze, and see you as a human being, which means they’ll see Ramli as a human being, and they’ll be forced to see all of their victims as human beings, and that will of course not make it easier for them but harder.’”
This is why the perpetrators laugh, rationalize and even threaten Adi. It's understandable when Oppenheimer says he does not believe in closure. “I’m skeptical that we should even seek closure,” he says. “I think that we should find the courage, stand still, stop running away from our past and to recognize that the past is us. It’s always us.”
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Instead, hope is in the next generation, like Adi’s children. That’s why, in the film, Adi clarifies for his son that what the teachers tell him in school about the past are lies. “We are our past,” says Oppenheimer, “and I think what we should do is not seek closure because implicit in the word closure is a kind of running away or putting behind us. We should find the courage to stand still, turn around 180 degrees and accept the past, not making excuses for it, but accept it, so we can turn back around and move forward and know ourselves and accept each other in a knowing and empathetic way for the first time.”
The Look of Silence premieres in Miami on Friday, August 14, at O Cinema Miami Shores. Visit o-cinema.org for details and tickets.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.