In his 2012 film The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer committed to film one of the most remarkably affecting pieces of investigative madness ever seen. His response to the knowledge that the perpetrators of the 1965 massacre of communists were still in power and still wielding that power indiscriminately, was to track down those responsible and slowly, over a matter of years, interview and film them. The forty-first perpetrator he interviewed, Anwar Congo, turned out to be more than willing to discuss the crimes, and his role in them. This is where The Act of Killing begins. We see their performances, but are we really the audience they were looking for? It is a film about looking, but it is also a film about blindness.
Which brings us very nicely to Oppenheimer’s follow-up to The Act of Killing, it’s companion piece and completing part, The Look of Silence, getting it’s UK premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015.
Where The Act of Killing was concerned with those that perpetrated the killings, The Look of Silence shows the lasting effects of such violence on the victims, those forced into the uncomfortable and ultimately untenable position of being bound by and driven to silence. This notion of blindness is explored first and foremost through the main character, talismanic in absentia, Ramli. His is a constant presence throughout the film, as we follow his brother Adi, a softly spoken forty-something ophthalmologist who tests the eyes and the moral resolve of some of the perpetrators themselves he has sought out during his daily work – already talk of the killings makes his patients uncomfortable, some deny the killings flat out, others refuse to talk on the grounds of safety. Bear in mind, through all of this, the regime responsible is still in power. When he comes across the very two men responsible for his brothers’ death, his enquiry takes on a far more cleansing aspect.
Harking back to The Act of Killing, Adi is shown footage of the two killers, Amir and Inong, explaining to Oppenheimer and his camera exactly how, as part of the Snake River Death Squad, Ramli was savagely attacked, numerous times, beheaded and dumped in the river. Oppenheimer’s camera stays fixed on Adi’s face as he watches this footage in silence, Amir and Inong sparing no effort in re-enacting the slaughter. It becomes some sort of painful, horror Gogglebox. He can’t look away. The horror though is not Adi’s alone to bear. His mother, well advanced in age, still remembers every detail of Ramli’s death.
Adi’s father, over a hundred years old, is in the throes of dementia though and is almost blind – a fact that is not lost on Oppenheimer, and the director uses this fact to further his already complex metaphor of longevity and looking (or rather, seeing) and the relationship between Adi and his mother and father is put into stark contrast with Adi’s own relationship with his children (who are not victims in the way their family is, and are never without a smile) and his country’s history.
Almost every interview in The Look of Silence has an element of painful realisation to it. The look on the face of a woman who finds out for the first time that her father is one of the perpetrators is particularly difficult to watch. It is this interaction between killer and victim which lends The Look of Silence its peculiar power. In The Act of Killing, we see the killers performing for an audience they are unaware they are in search of. In that film, Anwar, and Adi Zulkadry, former cinema gangsters, talk about their roles in the genocide, and with a bit of convincing (though not much was needed, as we soon saw) begin to re-enact the murders in the styles of their favourite films. This is as bonkers and disturbing as it sounds. Through all of this they act as both performers and directors, their own acts the performances of the mad in the asylum of the 20th century. It is here, in Ramli’s brother, that Oppenheimer seems to think they have unwittingly found their audience.
In his exploration of these [in]human faces behind one of the century’s most despicable genocides, The Act of Killing transcended documentary and found itself in the realm of horrific fever-dream – or perhaps nightmare is more fitting. With The Look of Silence, it forms a diptych about the banality of evil, certainly, but more than this it is about impunity (moral and political) and about the fictions evil constructs for itself in its search for acceptance and how those left behind are to read them. It is about the willingness to kill (on a very base human level, and on a hyper-real, performed level, the very “act” of the title at which we are forced to “look” but about which we cannot speak) and the moral conviction of the perpetrators.
That the perpetrators are steadfast in their convictions is shown to us in the first of the films shocking scenes. We see Adi’s children at school, being fed the same anti-communist propaganda during their lessons, a form of positive scaremongering across generations. It falls to Adi to later tell them this is all lies. The truth of the past is what must be accepted, brought home stingingly in the scene where Joshua leads Adi to the very spot at Snake River where his brother was killed. In a twisted sort of reclamation we see the victims are able to re-enact the crimes too.
The Look of Silence is a much more sedate film than the first, though no less beautiful. Longer, quieter takes drawn from a dulled palette on a stilled camera lend the film a meditative quality. There is none of the frenzied pop-surrealism of the first film here, for that was where the horror was… here we have its legacy.
This is a remarkable film with a powerful, human story. Taken together with the The Act of Killing though, it forms one of the greatest documents yet to explore the sanctity of our history as a species, and of the effects that difference and power can have on life in a fundamental, devastating way. That many of the crew are listed as Anonymous, and Oppenheimer is not welcome back in Indonesia tells us that, powerful though the film may be, there are still those that aggressively refuse to accept that The Look of Silence should bring change for the good.
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Country: UK, Denmark, Finland, Indonesia, Norway