The Look of Silence – Venice 71
Joshua Oppenheimer’s second strikingly profound and captivating documentary looks straight into the horror of Indonesia’s hidden past.
In 2012 Joshua Oppenheimer directed The Act of Killing, one of the most impressive documentaries of the past years. The film was dealing with the Indonesian killings of 1965-66 and especially the gangsters that committed them. Two years later the director returns on the same topic but from a different perspective. The Look of Silence follows the same historical period but this time from the victims’ point of view. The documentary was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the 71st Venice International Film Festival.
Adi is in his early forties and works as a traveling ophthalmologist; he is visiting around the neighbor villages and prescribes glasses to the elders. His brother Ramil was executed during the anti-communist purge that started after the failed coup of 1965. Adi lives with his centenarian parents who are still concerned about Ramil’s death. For that reason and by using his work as an excuse, he will start meeting his brother’s murders and some of the leaders of these militia groups. Adi wants to get an answer on who’s responsible for these massacres and he will try to confront them too.
The Look of Silence is an extraordinary and powerful documentary that initially could seem regular but when you follow its rhythm it can slowly burn you. Oppenheimer is using Adi’s personal story in order to present Indonesia’s terrifying past and explain how more than a million people were unjustifiably murdered on the accusation of being communists. Adi, who could represent any victim’s survivor, must meet and discuss with the people who committed or were responsible for these crimes. These people still remain Indonesia’s ruling political class and for that reason they are feeling proud of their history. Even 50 years after the events, there is no real opposition in the country and no freedom of expressing a different opinion so the only voices that are heard are those of the government’s propaganda. What is more threatening is the fact that usually the murderers are local people and hence they are still living next to the victims’ relatives and in some cases they were related to the victims too.
That peculiar and tense coexistence has created a paradoxical code of silence among everyone. The victims’ descendants are still feeling restricted, they cannot express themselves and they are forbidden to participate in any form of public activity. On the contrary, the perpetrators, who are proud members of the society, cannot justify their crimes and even if they are feeling guilty they believe that everything belongs to a past of which they are not responsible of. Everyone is trying to keep alive the past by rejecting it and unavoidably the communication becomes more and more fragmented. That almost silent communication is the concept behind The Look of Silence. Oppenheimer captures masterfully these dominating moments of silence during Adi’s discussions, where no one can really express his real thoughts in words and the air is literally cut with a knife. It is almost impossible to predict how a conversation like that could evolve since no one ever dared to touch these topics with these people. Politics, religion, threats and sickening horror details are blended in the same phrases. The fear of exposing something you don’t want to know is threatening, especially when this information could cost your life. The whole film is balancing between these instants of silence and the gripping descriptions.
If The Act of Killing showed the Indonesian genocide with a touch of a historical distance and with some bits of awkward surreal humor, then The Look of Silence could feel as its complementary flip-side. The film creates an unforgettable and horrifying experience that feels gruesome even to the most detached viewer. Oppenheimer uses the same visual technique as before so there are no graphic scenes of violence, just scenes of reenactment of the murders with some added discussions. To the unattained eye this technique could appear a bit simple as the camera isn’t used as a judgmental tool but it is seems that just captures what is going on. The director keeps a physical distance from the actual facts and this could give initially a fictional sensation to the viewer. This sensation rapidly changes to shock when the viewer understands that every dreadful detail of the story, which is presented so naturally, is actually true. Oppenheimer has the talent to present a real story that flows so smoothly and at the same time can stimulate the feelings of the audience.
The Look of Silence feels even more strikingly profound than its predecessor as it is so captivating and impactful and looks straight into the horror of Indonesia’s past and bleak present. It is also an excellent pretext for a deeper research on the real causes of an almost unknown genocide. With this work, Joshua Oppenheimer has proved that he could be considered as one of the most significant contemporary documentarists and that he can offer a new important aspect on filmmaking. Hopefully he will continue dealing with similar issues in the future and he will not stop entering totally uncharted waters.