Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence is a stunning companion piece, or possibly narrative development, to that extraordinary 2012 documentary The Act Of Killing. Its enigmatic title may indicate the numb silence which is the only possibly reaction to a certain kind of savagery and inhumanity, but perhaps mean the way that a nation sees but not see, sees in such a selective and slanted way as to suppress meaning, sees in such a way as to smother dissent into silence.

The Act of Killing showed Oppenheimer tracking down the grinning, ageing members of the Indonesian civilian militia who with the tacit approval of the army and government carried out the wholesale slaughter of a million suspected communists after the 1965 Suharto coup; sensationally, Oppenheimer persuaded them to re-act their crimes in the styles of their favourite movies.

This technique — a veritable Marat/Sade of 20th-century history — exposed the nature of the offence more effectively than traditional documentary procedure. It revealed that the barbarity was not merely an act of ideological brutality, but group dysfunction, a convulsion of mass psychosis, and that the perpetrators were moreover entirely unrepentant. Indeed, the idea of submitting their acts to some kind of ethical assessment or justification had never occurred to them. Oppenheimer has a claim to have made a sort of history with that film.

This new movie is far more conventional, and conventionally confrontational than the previous one, and the people involved seem at last to have grasped how horrendous they are appearing and so there is more of the familiar embattled-interviewee choreography: the demands to stop filming, the shrill addresses to the director “Josh” behind the camera, and the removal of the radio microphone.

But this film is just as piercingly and authentically horrifying as before. It is filmed with exactly the same superb visual sense, the same passionate love of the Indonesian landscape, and dialogue exchanges are captured with the same chilling crispness.

The person at its centre is Adi, an opthalmologist in his early 40s who travels around making housecalls, fitting people for spectacles — and so the imagery of seeing and willed myopia is established from the outset. Adi’s brother Ramli was killed by the militia just before Adi was born, a petty criminal who was dragged out of prison along with hundreds of others and slaughtered so that the militia could boost their own version of a “bodycount” a righteous tally of supposed communist-slayings. Ramli was butchered in various sickening ways which the perpetrators chillingly boast about.

The Look of Silence
The Look of Silence

Oppenheimer has the killers on video tape doing just that — he appears to have discovered these stomach-turning characters around 10 years ago, while researching The Act of Killing. We see Adi impassively watching their giggling performance on television, and then going around to interview the killers, in some cases fitting them with glasses, in interview situations set up by Oppenheimer. Incredibly, “Josh” is still not especially suspected or loathed by these villains, and they are of course utterly indifferent to his film and how it has been received.

With great calm and dignity, Adi sets out the facts, and then he — and we — have to listen to good deal of sub-Nuremberg bluster about obeying orders, or a sort of introspective silence, perhaps indicating the glimmerings of conscience or a strategic retreat into Alzheimer’s. But often there is the same cackle that this was something that needed to be done.

We get one macabre detail. Many of them seemed to believe that drinking the blood of their victims would prevent them from going mad. Just as Tom Lehrer believed that Kissinger’s Nobel Peace Prize rendered satire obsolete, so this blood-drinking detail renders futile any kind of political or psychological analysis. It is pure reactionary-murderous voodoo, and it does appear to be believed by people who, perhaps, deep in their heart, recognised that they had already gone mad. And what is still more painful is that Adi finds that his now 82-year-old uncle was a prison guard who colluded in the killings.

The Look of Silence
The Look of Silence

The extra stratum of heartbreak in Adi’s life is his parents: they had him in late middle-age when Ramli was killed, and seemed to regard his birth as some kind of providential divine gesture of comfort. But now his mother and father are extremely old, over 100, his father blind (that image again) and wizened, and his poor stooped mother dedicated to looking after this tiny little creature. It is as if they are cursed never to die, a terrible Struldbrugian existence. The horror they have gone through lives interminably on.

After The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer was criticised in some quarters for sensationalism and exploitation and it is conceivable that his unsparing view of Adi’s desperately unhappy parents will expose this director to more objections on this score. For me, the film about Adi, his parents and his homeland has a tragic dimension, and it is obvious that he has still only scratched the surface. The Look of Silence — like The Act of Killing — is arresting and important film-making.

source: Peter Bradshaw in Venice

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