The Look of Silence screams for justice

Joshua Oppenheimer’s sequel to The Act of Killing wanted to provide an emotional and moral coda to the original as it sought remorse in the eyes of the guilty, but in every beautiful saturated frame, The Look of Silence finds only the blank face of denial

The Look of Silence

Four stars out of five

Directed by: Joshua Oppenheimer

Running time: 103 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

By Katherine Monk

Half the credits read “anonymous” because the simple act of filming was, in real terms, life-threatening. You can feel the fear, creeping up your pant leg with its sharp claws, a frisson of moral panic suddenly drenching your armpit. It’s just there, an ambient force lurking in the back of the frame – defining the whole entire endeavour.

And that’s as it should be because The Look of Silence isn’t just about the anxiety of opening old wounds. Joshua Oppenheimer’s sequel to his Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing takes on the fear that flattens every breath in the chest of a survivor, the painful knowledge that life goes on, and the guilty get off scot-free.

It’s an uncomfortable place, but it’s where the central character in this movie lives. Adi is a 40-something optometrist with a wife and children. Born in the mid-1960s, he has no recollection of the 1965-1966 Indonesian purge that claimed a million lives, including that of his older brother Ramli. Yet, he knows the people who dispatched his kin with a machete. They live right down the street, and they still hold power.

Adi watched these men describe how they tortured and castrated men like Ramli in The Act of Killing, and it changed him. Like many people who watched Oppenheimer’s debut documentary with slack-jawed disgust, Adi was waiting to see a hint of contrition, a vague sign of moral reflection – a glimmer of humanity shining out behind coal black eyes.

But The Act of Killing was merciless that way: It showed only ego and cruelty, enabled by the human imagination and its unyielding power to recreate history as flattering self-portrait.

Adi wanted to confront the killers and stare them in the eyeball. Oppenheimer thought it was suicide, but after careful planning, he took advantage of a brief window in 2012 – just before the theatrical release of The Act of Killing, a film that would refocus international attention on Indonesia’s problematic human rights record.

As a result, The Look of Silence feels like the logical next step from a narrative standpoint as it provides a moral epilogue to the first movie, but in many ways, it’s a far more powerful story – even if it lacks the sickening and surreal shock value of the first.

The difference is entirely personal because we’re experiencing the drama in the presence of Adi and his family. We watch Adi listen to the men who sliced his brother in half, and then we sit there, together, in the blood-red silence.

“I had to drink their blood… otherwise I would have gone crazy,” says one perpetrator, looking entirely insane.

So much of what we see and hear is so macabre, and far beyond our understanding, it could have felt like a sick joke or a piece of non-fiction torture-porn, but that’s where Oppenheimer’s talent as a filmmaker really emerges because he strips the frames down to their essence without losing the emotional nuance.

Whether it’s the recurring metaphor of optometry, where the characters are given a chance to ‘see better’ after consulting with Adi, or the arresting contrast between the natural beauty of the lush Indonesian landscape and the stark horrors of genocide, Oppenheimer creates compositions with internal conflict.

Whether it’s the recurring metaphor of optometry, where the characters are given a chance to ‘see better’ after consulting with Adi, or the arresting contrast between the natural beauty of the lush Indonesian landscape and the stark horrors of genocide, Oppenheimer creates compositions with internal conflict.

These conflicts between nature and the powers that be create the mirrors of self-reflection that The Look of Silence clearly wants to establish in the viewer’s mind as it forces us to ponder what we might do in the same situation.

Would we become members of a civilian death squad in order to save our own lives and those of our loved ones, or would we stand up against our machete-wielding neighbours and face death by dismemberment?

We’d all like to think we’d be heroes and sacrifice ourselves for the just cause, but The Look of Silence only proves to show how malleable the cause of righteousness can be, and how subjective.

These aging men with cataracts felt they were fighting a glorious anti-Communist cause while impaling unarmed women and children on their swords. When Adi looks at them in search of remorse and regret, we can see just as well as he can that it’s pointless.

These men have rationalized acts of insanity and justified the unjustifiable. They are pathetic and weak and ugly, but they are also undeniably human, which is the scariest truth of all.

Hannah Arendt talked about ‘the banality of evil’ when she watched Nazi officers on the witness stand in Nuremberg, and Oppenheimer’s film exposes the same sad reality –it requires no special skills or imagination to kill someone.

The old men we see talking to Adi are ordinary and average in every way, but in confronting these killers, Adi is the one who assumes all the dimensions of a hero. His ability to bear witness without a mob of pitchfork yielding peasants behind him allows the film to stay quiet, and seep into your subconscious.

There is no moment of magical catharsis. No scene in which a murderer suddenly breaks down and begs forgiveness. There is only the cold, empty realization that we can carry out acts of unspeakable horror—and still look at the survivors, and ourselves, in the face.





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The Look of Silence: Joshua Oppenheimer’s sequel to the Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing takes us back to Indonesia, where we listen to the confessions of mass murderers – only this time, in the presence of a member of the victim’s family. By having a person emotionally connected to the material, Oppenheimer’s second feature documentary feels more intimate, but also far more frightening as it shows us ordinary people capable of undeniable horror. 4/5 – Katherine Monk

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