A family of survivors discovers how their son was murdered and the identity of the men who killed him. The youngest brother is determined to break the spell of silence and fear under which the survivors live, and so confronts the men responsible for his brother's murder - something unimaginable in a country where killers remain in power.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s ‘The Look of Silence’ is the follow-up and companion piece to his extraordinary documentary ‘The Act of Killing’, my early contender for the film of the decade.
‘The Look of Silence’ takes a similar path to its more provocative predecessor, investigating the genocide committed after the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military in 1965 where over a million alleged communists were massacred. This film focuses more on the victims and their families. At its centre is Adi Rukun, a quietly spoken optometrist who travels around making housecalls to fit people for spectacles. His elder brother Ramli was brutally butchered in the massacre.
His optometry visits are used to target the murderers who are still alive, still feared and still in power. With great calm and dignity, Adi sets out the facts, and then listens to them tell stories of bloodshed and much worse. Ramli was butchered in various sickening ways which the perpetrators chillingly boasted about. We get one macabre detail, many of them seemed to believe that drinking the blood of their victims would prevent them from going mad.
‘The Look of Silence’ may not have the seismic shock of its predecessor, but its still no less startling to see what unfolds. Adi is the moral centre of the film. Its fascinating to watch a man try to control and contain himself in the face of evil, paralysed whilst witnessing one after the other refusing to take the blame. As was in ‘The Act of Killing’, none of the perpetrators had any real remorse, this time it was left to their families to acknowledge their misdeeds. The pain is still felt in Adi’s parents, astonishingly his father is 104 and mother 100, and he also has to face some uncomfortable truths about his own family and his community.
After so long, its astonishing to think these same men are still feared so much, the end credits alone prove how brave all who were involved in the making of this documentary were, not least Adi. We do not know what will become of him, we can only hope that something positive comes from yet another thought-provoking film from Joshua Oppenheimer.
The film has its roots in the military coup in 1965 in Indonesia, after which up to a million 'communists' suspected or otherwise were murdered by civilian militias supported by the army.
In the present day, the documentary follows Adi, a 44 year old optician, as he watches footage of locals discussing their involvement in the killings in his village. He also questions some of them incidentally while carrying out eye tests to discuss what they know about his older brother Ramli who was killed in the aftermath of the coup.
The Look Of Silence is a very apt title for a film which takes a restrained approach to these events. The potential perpetrators are all elderly, the same generation as Adi's parents. Their responses to his questions range from denial, to excuses to hiding behind their current frailties. It's sobering to realise that all these things were done by 'normal' people - neighbours and even a relative are connected to the events - rather than monsters of the imagination.
The 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary, "The Act of Killing", garnered world-wide praise and many awards for its shocking look into the current lives of the perpetrators of genocide in Indonesia during the mid-sixties. Its filmmaker was Texas-born verified genius Joshua Oppenheimer who lives in Denmark and has been making films since 1998. "The Look of Silence" is its companion piece, and where the earlier documentary was outwardly horrifying, this one is more quietly disturbing and, I believe, the more important.
After my viewing of it finished at 7 a.m., I was lowering myself into a warm bathtub when suddenly I became haunted by the feeling that headless bodies were floating past me as if I were in the Snake River where the corpses had been dumped. Indeed, I couldn't put the film out of my head the rest of the day, and haven't since. The film follows an Indonesian man named Adi Runkun whose brother had been brutally murdered in the 1965 purge of 'communists' as he confronts, in the present day and under the pretext of dispensing eye exams, the men who had carried out the killings (and who had boasted and joked about the carnage in "The Act of Killing"). We also see Adi's humane caretaking of his nearly dead father whom he bathes and consoles, and other family members who have had to live among his brother's murderers for decades. What makes this film so effective is how Adi refuses to display any emotion at the killers while the director continues to portray them as human beings rather than monsters (no revenge film this), but Adi's silent stare keeps burning into their souls as they squirm uncomfortably, stubbornly offering lame excuses while refusing any expressions of regret. By this method Oppenheimer makes the film much more of an iconic document of man's inhumanity to man, forcing viewers to contemplate parallels in history, most especially the nazis who perpetrated the Holocaust in Hitler's Germany.
There is nothing easy about this film, yet it is one of the few films you must not miss if you have a heart that pumps blood.