The Look of SIlence
by Jordan Canahai
The Look of Silence is filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s essential companion piece to his critically-lauded The Act of Killing. That 2013 documentary, which focused on a handful of celebrated death-squad leaders responsible for perpetrating the 1965 Indonesian genocide of suspected communists, while challenging them to re-enact their mass-killings in cinematic terms, was an absolute knockout; a tour de force that stands as one of the great films, non-fiction or otherwise, of the decade. More immediately, it started a dialogue among Indonesians that permanently altered how they view both past and present. His new film, which is even more personal, complex, and deeply emotional, tells the other side of that story, from the point of view of the survivors who have been forced to live under fear and silence in the wake of those atrocities.
Oppenheimer’s central subject is Adi, an optometrist whose older brother was one of the more high-profile victims of the genocide. The tragedy took a terrible toll on his family, especially his long-grieving mother, who spends most of her days caring for his increasingly frail and senile father. Throughout The Look of Silence, Adi will witness recorded testimony recounting the deaths of his brothers from those responsible, eventually meeting with them under the pretense of an eye exam. Laying bare the film’s central metaphor of forcing one to see clearly, whether they want to or not, Adi proceeds to delicately but pointedly question the guilty individuals about their actions, urging them to accept responsibility and offer an apology. These tense exchanges are powerful on their own, but what makes The Look of Silence unprecedented in film history is that the perpetrators of genocide Adi confronts still remain in positions of power throughout the region (many of Oppenheimer’s Indonesian collaborators are credited as “anonymous” due to fear of facing persecution in their own country.)
With its tripod-mounted shots of seated individuals and basic shot/reverse shot film grammar, it might be easy, as some critics have, to cite the filmmaking of The Look of Silence as less impressive than its flashier predecessor. Make no mistake, however, the moments of calm, anger, grief, and sadness Oppenheimer captures as the real-life drama unfolds on-screen resonate all the more powerfully for the simplicity of his restrained visual style. Frequently, he remains fixed on his subjects for just a few seconds longer than one expects near a scene’s end, forcing his audience to allow the full weight of the events on-screen to sink in completely, while a lesser filmmaker would be quick to cut away. Much like Adi, Oppenheimer is forcing his audience to confront uncomfortable truths many would rather overlook.
That’s not to say all of The Look of Silence is a dirge, for where the film is bleak and unflinching in its portrayal of the human monsters responsible for genocide, it is equally warm when capturing moments of contentment and happiness shared through Adi’s bonding with his family. Similarly, a scene late in the film when Adi’s confrontation with the daughter of a death-squad leader ends with her tearfully asking him forgiveness for her father’s actions offers catharsis and hope, however guarded, that the people of Indonesia can finally come together to heal their collective wounds. Like Adi, Oppenheimer understands that the dead cannot be brought back to life, but by engaging present citizens of Indonesia in a dialogue about their past, perhaps a better future for the country—and the entire world— can come to fruition.
Taken as a whole, The Look of Silence and The Act of Killing stand among the finest non-fiction films ever made, worthy of comparison to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, another masterpiece dedicated to bearing witness to the ghosts of genocide across the living landscape of our besotted humanity. The Look of Silence will be playing this Tuesday (11/24, 9:30pm) at the North Park Theater as a special, one time only screening presented by the Cultivate Cinema Circle.
Look for an exclusive interview with Oppenheimer at artvoice.com this Friday.
Watch the trailer for The Look of Silence
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