Cecilia Golding reviews this disturbing and fascinating documentary
It never quite feels like the right time to sit down and watch a film about genocide. Why choose to dwell on the very worst aspect of human existence? Better not to think about such things, we tell ourselves. Let bygones be bygones and watch re-runs of Friends instead.
The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s much-anticipated companion piece to his Oscar-nominated film The Act of Killing, rages against this inclination. The film charts the exploits of a young man as he bravely confronts the people who brutally and publically killed his innocent brother during the Indonesian genocide of the mid-1960s. The film is about what happens when we refuse to passively accept human atrocity, when we break the silence.
Back in 2012, Oppenheimer’s truly radical film The Act of Killing took the documentary world by storm. That film, as with his latest, is, in essence, about the people whose lives continue to be affected by the residual violence of the genocide, in which it is estimated that between 1 and 2 million people were taken from their homes by para-military groups, murdered and dumped in mass graves or rivers for the ostensible crime of being ‘communists’. The thing about the Indonesian genocide is that the government responsible for it remained in power, denying the true nature of the genocide to be known. This meant that there were no trials, there was no reparation, and most disturbingly of all, there has been no remorse. Oppenheimer has spoken of how the situation in Indonesia is akin to finding oneself in some alternate world in which the Nazis were victorious, and proud of what they’d done.
While most documentaries about genocide focus on the victims and survivors, Oppenheimer initially found that the ongoing political situation in Indonesia meant that the families of the dead were afraid to speak out. This is how it came to be that The Act of Killing put the perpetrators of the genocide centre-stage instead. Oppenheimer asked them to re-enact their crimes for the camera, in the hope that doing so would lead to some sort of psychological attrition, and they happily obliged.
The result was an astonishing film that presented nothing short of a paradigm shift, for me at least. It changed my understanding of what a documentary could do, and more profoundly, it changed my understanding of what a human being could be. If you haven’t found the time to watch it yet, I strongly urge you to do so.
Three years later, The Look of Silence returns us to Indonesia. This time the film tows the genre line by focussing on Adi, an optician whose brother was killed by some of the gangsters originally interviewed for The Act of Killing. One of the questions at the heart of The Look of Silence is whether or not it is right to go back and re-open the old wounds. Numerous members of Adi’s family, including his aging mother, think not, and they urge him to “let the past be past” out of fear that there will be more violence. But his mother’s grief at having lost a son, still palpable after 60 years, tells a different story, and we come to believe, with Adi and Oppenheimer, that the silence must be broken if there is to be any hope of healing.
It changed my understanding of what a documentary could do, and more profoundly, it changed my understanding of what a human being could be.
For Oppenheimer, as is often the case for Werner Herzog (who is an executive producer on the film), it seems that life is prone to revealing itself for his camera in the form of elaborate and extended metaphors. Oppenheimer cannot have contrived, for instance, that Adi should be an optician, though the fact that he is, working to fix people’s eyesight while working to bring into full sight the truth of the genocide, is compelling. So too, is the character of Adi’s father, an impossibly old, shrivelled, blind man, whose disconnect from the world around also seems powerfully metaphorical, though of what exactly, I couldn’t say.
As for the inevitable comparisons between the two films, it is fair to say that The Look of Silence is less spectacular than its precursor, and perhaps less dumbfounding. The Act of Killing is the kind of groundbreaking film that comes along once every decade or so, and this means that The Look of Silence can still be an excellent film, in spite of falling ever-so-slightly short. Gone is the mounting-to-the-point-of-unbearable absurdity and intensity that was so distinctive of The Act of Killing. What remains in The Look of Silence is an altogether quieter film, in which the stiflingly mundane reality of living in the same village as the unpunished murderers of one’s family is made apparent.
What is not insubstantial about The Look of Silence is the bravery of Adi, Oppenheimer, and the crew who worked on the film (many of whom are accredited anonymously for their own political safety). Their bravery, and our viewing, is rewarded by a few fleeting moments where compassion and awareness bubble to the surface, and a sort of apology is offered.
Ultimately, The Look of Silence is an important example of the way that documentary film can be used to talk back to power, and raise a voice against the discourses of violence that power perpetuates. It is a film that believes in the disruptive and redemptive power of its own medium. In an age where 140 characters is thought to be sufficient for understanding, here we have a pair of works which have been cumulatively built out of over 10 years of diligent, backbreaking work. The insight into the scope of the human condition is unyielding, and the payoff for watching both films is truly great.
Featured image credit: Dogwoof