The Look of Silence is a companion piece documentary to the Oscar-nominated 2012 doco The Act of Killing. Both were shot by German-American Joshua Oppenheimer and a team of mostly-anonymous (for their own protection) collaborators in Indonesia over a period of nearly a decade. The focus is on the military coup of 1965 and the subsequent massive slaughter of over a million people by army-directed death squads.
The official position is that all of the slain were communists and enemies of the people. But the reality is that it was simply anyone the killers saw fit to murder. But what makes this different from other atrocities is that the killers are still in charge in Indonesia. History has been written to paint them as heroes and they and their children live on alongside the families of those who were killed.
Upon discovering this, Oppenheimer took it on himself to begin recording the situation to try to bring it to light to the Indonesian people and make them face the reality of their society.
He found the survivors were very reluctant to speak on camera. They were, naturally, very fearful as the perpetrators are still very much in power. But what Oppenheimer did find was that the killers themselves were more than happy to regale him with tales of their atrocities. Indeed, so proud were they that in The Act of Killing they staged elaborate, cinematic recreations of many of these events.
Where that film was large in scale and quite audacious and nearly surreal in its imagery, The Look of Silence is almost the opposite.
This is mostly a talking head interview-style documentary. But these are not normal interviews. The central protagonist is Adi, an optometrist in Sumatra whose older brother Ramli was killed (before Adi was born) in the 1965 genocide. He knows – and even prepares glasses for – former death squad members, including ones involved with the murder of his brother. He decides to confront them, to find out what happened and to see if they have any regret.
Where The Act of Killing looks at the politics and society around the atrocities, The Look of Silence bring it right down into the personal level. The beating heart of it all is Adi.
He is a soft-spoken, gentle family man. His love for his elderly parents, his wife and his children is plain. But it is his calm when talking to the perpetrators that lends The Look of Silence its power.
Oppenheimer shows seemingly effortless skill in changing gears from The Act of Killing. Where that film had musical numbers and an energetic style, this is delicate. Sedate. He lets moments of silence linger, while his camera plays on the faces of those involved in close-up. Through Adi’s calm we can sense his frustration and anger. In interviewees, agitation and maybe even fear. In this most complex of situations, Oppenheimer lets expression and emotion be more eloquent than words ever could.
As Adi presses on, his wife expresses her anxiety at what could happen to him. As he uncovers more and more brutal details – such as how the perpetrators would drink the blood of those they murder in the belief it would stop them from going insane from all the killing – he keeps looking for higher-ranked personnel. They all repeat the same refrain; that it was not their responsibility, it was someone else. In his soft, patient way, Adi is relentless.
This is powerful filmmaking of the highest order. The Look of Silence is at least as essential as its predecessor, but the more mature style of editing and cinematography and use of metaphor may make it even superior to that masterpiece.
Haunting, anguished and darkly beautiful, The Look of Silence is simply brilliant.
Aside from the usual trailers, the main extra is a Q&A from a screening where producer Werner Herzog hosts while Joshua Oppenheimer fields questions from both the audience and from Herzog himself.
It is a useful piece, with Oppenheimer not only delving into the filming process and the thematic subject matter but also talks of what has happened since the release of the film. Not only for how it has been received in Indonesia, but also how Adi’s family has been relocated to the other side of the country for their protection.