This review contains more plot discussion than a typical Mxdwn Movies review, and what some might consider to be spoilers. I found it impossible to talk about this movie without discussing some elements of the story in detail, and while I don’t believe reading this review will negatively impact your experience of the film, if you are worried about such things please feel free to skip down to The Verdict and join the full discussion as soon as you’ve had a chance to see it.
The Look of Silence is one of the most remarkable films I’m likely to see in a long, long time. I’ve only seen a small portion of The Act of Killing, to which this is a companion piece, but where that film focused on the killers in the Indonesian genocide in 1965, this one focuses on one of the victims. The film is co-directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and an Indonesian man only known as “Adi,” who conducts most of the interviews in The Look of Silence. Adi’s brother Ramli was killed in the genocide shortly before Adi was born, and now Adi is interviewing many of the men involved in Ramli’s killing.
In the course of gathering stories for The Act of Killing and this film, Oppenheimer actually interviewed the two men who physically put knife to flesh and killed Ramli, among many others. In fact, Ramli’s killing included some remarkable details, and took place (apparently) in a relatively small village, so the killers even remembered him by name and re-enacted parts of his specific murder. Intercut throughout The Look of Silence is footage of Adi watching the interview with these two men.
The Look of Silence draws its name from the primary attitudes of Indonesians to discussing the ’65 mass killings. Willful ignorance and denial of culpability are the go-to responses. When Adi interviews those who were involved in the killings – the district head of the organized men who carried out the killings, a local politician come to power as a result of the genocide, and even his own uncle, a prison guard, among them – two tactics are repeatedly used when Adi tries to assign any kind of responsibility for what happened. First, each tries to pass the buck to the people who were over them, usually with some assertion of duty or public service (the killings were supposed to be ridding the country of communists). Second, they just stopped talking, claiming they didn’t want to talk about politics and – more commonly – wanted to leave the past in the past. The past, the genocide, these are “old wounds.” Everyone gets along now, they say (clearly not the case, if the intimidation tactics Adi faces are any example), so why open up sore spots long closed over?
Paradoxically, it’s probably Adi and his family (and those like him) who have the most righteous claim to fresh violence (editorial note: if such a thing does indeed exist), but the very reality of Adi’s presence interviewing these people is proof of motive other than revenge. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Adi would like first to just find a killer or killer’s family willing to accept responsibility for their own actions, nevermind find someone ready for something as complex as remorse. Adi’s actually willing to forgive, he does so in an instat at even the smallest apology from a killer’s daughter, embracing both her and her father even as the man is trying to hasten the end of the interview.
What becomes apparent through these conversations, especially the ones which turn from genial to sour, is that so much of the population wants nothing more than to feel good about themselves and their relatives. The unwillingness to talk about the genocide stems from something deeply human: the knowledge of shame. These people have something to be ashamed about, but life is easier if they don’t have to acknowledge it. As long as Adi’s not there asking probing, direct questions, they don’t.
Oppenheimer has clearly chosen a phenomenally consequential subject and some good partners, but what makes The Look of Silence a cut above the rest is the subtle artistry that’s layered in. It begins with the footage of Adi watching video of Ramli’s killers, but extends from there in a number of capacities. Adi’s mother and father weave in and out of his interviews. Within the interviews, there’s a tendency for the camera to linger longer than is polite, thrusting the impetus to speak out on its subjects and holding on Adi’s often grieving face. And maybe most beautifully, shots of hopping butterfly cocoons pepper the film at a few choice moments, including the ending. The cocoons look like little pebbles, except they skitter and shiver as though whatever surface they sit on was being violently shook. It’s the idea of potential rebirth, potential beauty which is now so utterly fragile but which might emerge from this tremulous period, and it ties the movie’s thematic material together. Where is love? Where is peace? Where is truth? Where is the wrath or mercy of God, or maybe even both at once?
Where is Indonesia, and what will emerge?
The Verdict: 5 out of 5
I don’t cry easily in movies; The Look of Silence nearly had me half a dozen separate times. This part of Indonesia’s history is full of pain that radiates through the present day, and Adi and Joshua Oppenheimer have captured it in a way that is utterly humanizing to those on both sides of the divide. It’s an unbelievable documentary subject, and it’s complimented by shrewd, beautiful artistic filmmaking and the drive to probe further than is polite in a space where no such thing actually exists.