Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to The Act of Killing, debuting on POV PBS on June 27, is similarly riveting. And following in the footsteps of its forerunner, The Look of Silence also received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary.
By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
Adi Rukun is an Indonesian optometrist, a specialist in improving people’s sight. However, in The Look of Silence, Adi uses the guise of the friendly optometrist who makes house calls in order to confront North Sumatra’s onetime death-squad leaders. As he busies himself with the task of examining their eyes, he subtly leads them into talking about the past … scrutinizing their long distance vision as it were. Finding that their perceptions of their roles in the 1965 Indonesian genocide are clouded with delusions of grandeur, Adi attempts to force their eyes open by asking gentle, yet persistent questions about their complicity in the annihilation of one million innocent citizens. Including his own brother.
An early title in the film explains how a 1965 coup led by General Suharto unleashed death squads that were instructed to imprison, enslave or murder anyone associated with the Indonesian left. Though the order was to target Indonesians who were deemed “Communists,” the scourge soon included ethnic Chinese, union members, intellectuals and women’s rights activists. When the ground could no longer soak up the surfeit of blood, the bodies were dragged into the Snake River, turning it red.
While The Look of Silence can certainly stand on its own, this quietly stunning film serves as filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to his feature debut documentary, 2012’s The Act of Killing. (Note that both films were Oscar nominees for Best Documentary, in 2014 and 2016, respectively). Rather than document the 1965 atrocity itself, Oppenheimer chooses to explore the ongoing reverberation of the genocide 50 years later. Together, the films represent a kind of double vision: The Act of Killing focuses on the murderers who consider themselves national heroes, spinning an untenable fantasy that allows them to live with themselves. As a follow-up, The Look of Silence swings the camera around to examine the families of the victims who can’t forget, who live in silence and fear as they tiptoe among the killers, making do in their “prisons without walls.”
We first meet the 44-year-old optometrist as he stares intently at a television screen, viewing earlier footage. Hewing to the movie’s title, the concept of Adi looking at others, a silent inquisitor, threads throughout. His searching looks demand the truth. Here, in this first sequence, we watch the same footage that he does: a cackling old man, performing an exaggerated rendition of two murders that he’d previously committed. The old man’s glee is shocking. Yet it serves as a grotesque harbinger of the gallows humor to come.
Adi’s own elders reflect another side of the story. His 103-year-old father, a shrunken skeleton of a man who is verging on dementia, is blind, crippled and deaf. Adi’s ailing mother tends to her husband as well as she can. When their son Ramli was eviscerated by the 1965 death squads, their grief was all-consuming. Eventually, they decided that the only remedy to their pain would be to have another child. Enter Adi, the replacement son for his parents. As well as the proxy voice for his brother, carrying out the dangerous mission of facing down Ramli’s executioners, insisting that they accept responsibility for their heinous acts.
Oppenheimer balances the scenes of confrontation against snapshots of Adi’s domestic life, whether it’s his mother working in the untamed jungle of her garden, or his children giggling over some delightful nonsense, or his father warbling out a plaintive love song, unbending in his belief that he’s a young man of 17. But as the families bravely go about their everyday routine, it’s apparent that they can never wholly escape the fear that has permanently infected their lives.
However, it’s the laser-like focus on Adi’s meetings with an array of crime lords, as well as the footage featuring reveling thugs boasting about their slaughters, that carries the film’s greatest drama. These killers are a frightening, unrepentant lot, happy to reminisce about the blood-soaked, good times gone by. But as intimidating as these murderers are, Adi remains fearless in his confrontations. He will question a perpetrator’s weak rationale and then wait — no matter how long it takes — for a response. Often, the killers squirm under his gaze. Adi’s eyes are akin to twin mirrors that reflect these men’s true souls, leaving them shamed and exposed. Their reactions are a mixed bag: defensive, angry, cavalier, sorrowful, or intensely threatening … such as when the death-squad leader, Commander Siahaan, quietly suggests that Adi might find himself in danger if he persists.
The anemic excuses are sickeningly familiar: “I was just carrying out orders,” “I had no idea what was happening,” “It wasn’t my decision,” “I was forced to do this.” Name a genocide, and these kinds of justifications bloom like wildflowers in an Indonesian jungle. Even Oppenheimer himself, the grandson of Jewish refugees who fled from Nazi Germany, can certainly draw the parallels.
Throughout the film, the perpetrators attempt to dismiss their wrongdoings with the constant, feeble refrain of, “Let the past be past.” But The Look of Silence suggests that until the past is acknowledged and consciously understood, this particularly horrific past could very well enjoy an encore right here in the present.
Rating on a scale of 5 pairs of eyes wide open: 4.5
Release date: June 27, 2016 on POV PBS
A Film by: Joshua Oppenheimer
Featuring: Adi Rukun, M.Y. Basrun, Amir Hason, Inong, Kemat, Amir Siahaan, Ted Yates, Joshua Oppenheimer (voice only)
Running Time: 103 minutes
Here’s the trailer for The Look of Silence: