The Look of Silence
THE LOOK OF SILENCE, documentary, rated PG-13, in Indonesian and Javanese with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 4 chiles
The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s stunning Oscar-nominated documentary that exposes the half-century-old slaughter of suspected “communists” following an army coup in Indonesia, and the prideful swagger with which the perpetrators still revel in the tragedy, was completed in 2012 and released a year later. The delay was to allow Oppenheimer to finish the companion piece he had in the works, The Look of Silence, which examines the same events from the perspective of the surviving families of the victims. Once the first film opened, he knew, he would be persona non grata in Indonesia. He might get into the country, he speculated, but there was a good chance that “I wouldn’t get out alive.” (Some of his Indonesian collaborators have been relocated to distant areas of the country.)
The Look of Silence doesn’t pack quite the same eye-opening punch as The Act of Killing, but it opens eyes in ways that are just as disturbing. Oppenheimer enlists the collaboration of Adi Rukun, a soft-spoken ophthalmologist who worked with him on the first film. Adi was born after the genocide, in which his brother Ramli was killed. Together Oppenheimer and Adi visit a number of the men responsible for ordering or carrying out the mass slaughter in which, some estimates suggest, up to a million people were killed. Adi is primarily focused on the murder of his brother and on how his killers feel about the events today. Under the guise of doing housecall eye exams, he gently but firmly puts questions to the men responsible.
The two neighbors who killed Ramli remember it well. “He clung to the tree roots, begging ‘Help me!’” one recalls, laughing. “So we fished him out and killed him by cutting off his penis.” The killers say that they drank their victims’ blood, believing it would protect them against insanity.
“We should be rewarded with a trip to America,” says one of the men. “We deserve it! We did this because America taught us to hate communists.”
U.S. involvement in the Indonesian mass killings comes up for reckoning in a clip from an NBC documentary that lays out the attitudes of the U.S. government and corporate interests. (Goodyear had a rubber plant that had been seized by communists. After the massacre, survivors were forced to return to work as slave laborers.)
Adi’s elderly mother still carries a heavy burden of grief over the murder of her older son. His centenarian father, perhaps mercifully, has sunk into senility and remembers nothing of Ramli and the massacres. But he still lives with terror, even though he doesn’t know what it’s about. Most of those responsible are comfortable with their actions. When Adi’s questioning grows too pointed, a few are roused to anger, and they tell him to let it go, and to get out.
Reconciliation, Oppenheimer suggests, cannot happen until the silence is broken and the country faces up to the horror of its recent past. One of the most haunting images, often repeated, is of Adi watching the taped interviews with unutterable sorrow. Another is of elderly killers peering through Adi’s spectacle-fitting devices, seeing nothing. — Jonathan Richards
Land of trauma: filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer returns to Indonesia