Back in 2013, the Danish-based filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer stunned the world with The Act of Killing, a documentary about Indonesia’s blood-soaked past and how political institutions had conspired to turn murderous gangsters into national heroes.
Whereas most serious-minded documentarians approach difficult subject matter through the performance of journalistic objectivity, Oppenheimer’s film about mass-murder took its stylistic cues from the people who did the killings. Secure in the knowledge that they continued to enjoy the support and gratitude of Indonesian political elites, the killers chose to celebrate their past using a combination of surreal dream-sequences and colourful dance routines resulting in a documentary that looked and felt like a beautiful fever dream.
According to Oppenheimer, his intention was always to make two films about the anti-communist purges and how contemporary Indonesia manages to function with a million deaths on its collective conscience. The Act of Killing is a film about the transformation of gangsters into heroes, its brash visual style a reflection of its subjects’ surreal arrogance. The Look of Silence, on the other hand, is a devastatingly quiet film filled with awkward silences, which is precisely what you would expect from a film inspired by people who have spent decades trying to keep their feelings under control.
While the deliberately theatrical Act of Killing uses a film-within-a-film to get murderers to talk about their pasts, The Look of Silence follows an ophthalmologist as he travels around Indonesia giving free eye-tests to the men responsible for killing his brother. This far more low-key device goes some way to setting the tone for the entire film as interviewing the murderers while they are receiving eye-tests disrupts the usual power dynamic and forces the men to reign in the boastful tendencies that defined The Act of Killing. It also provides the film with one of several recurring motifs: An awkward question, a swapped-out lens and an innocent-seeming inquiry as to whether this has allowed the old monster to see any clearer?
The thing about eye-tests is that they seldom involve you looking at the person performing the test and so Oppenheimer’s decision to linger on the face of the ophthalmologist as killers answer his questions re-enforces the sense that his emotions have always been secretive and allowed to surface only when the powerful are unable to see.
Watching as sadness and anger flicker across the man’s face is like being ushered into a secret garden; the myths surrounding the communist purges are so bound-up with the status of Indonesian political elites that questioning them in public has long been a risky undertaking. Combine this with the fact that murderers seem content to boast about their accomplishments and you have some inkling as to the difficulties Oppenheimer must have faced in getting these people to share their stories. For example, when the ophthalmologist tries to talk to a neighbour about the purges, her first reaction is to deny that they even happened in their local area. Sure… those things happened but she didn’t see anything, didn’t hear anything, and doesn’t know anything and so – logically — they must have happened somewhere else.
The voices of survivors and victims’ families have long been silence by fear and even when raised, those voices were usually drowned out by the chorus of bragging from powerful men. Oppenheimer seeks to recreate this dynamic within the context of his documentary by returning again and again to images of the ophthalmologist watching murderers brag on television. This not only reflects the aggressive way in which the powerful re-wrote Indonesian history, it also poses a real challenge to audiences as it is incredibly easy to ignore the quiet and frightened when the loud and brash keep talking about cutting off people’s heads and drinking their blood. The imagery is so lurid and the bragging so loud that it is all too easy to ignore the voices of the weak.
Rather than turning up the volume on the victims’ voices or filling his film with a chorus of people repeating the same tales of woe and misery, Oppenheimer creates a bubble of quiet around the victims and challenges us to hear their voices. Graceful and elegantly composed, these scenes recall the films of Yasujiro Ozu and the way that he would often linger on a light, a vase, or a city street as a way of encouraging audiences to pay attention to the nuances of private speech. This astonishing stillness invites us to dwell both on what the victims say and the ways in which they say it.
For example, despite being incredibly smart and clear-eyed about the past, the ophthalmologist’s mother not only claims to have no memory of the past, she also goes out of her way to confuse the memories of other people. When the ophthalmologist asks about her age, the mother’s instinctive response is to claim ignorance and to point out that she has lost any and all documentation that might have provided official answers. When asked about her birthdays, she claims that celebrating birthdays are a dangerous addiction and says that she must be ancient as her husband is at least 140 years old.
The mother responds to all questions with the studied evasiveness of a long-term political dissident. Terrified that the people who murdered her son will return for the rest of her family, she claims complete ignorance of anything that might allow them to identify her based upon official records: She’s not sure of her age, she’s not sure where she was born, she’s not sure she had a son and she certainly doesn’t know anything about people being murdered and dumped in a nearby river. The only time the mother allows this mask to slip is when she is re-united with a local communist official who escaped the killings and he reacts to her tears by avoiding eye-contact and reminding her to keep her mouth shut: Nothing happened, I can’t remember what happened, it’s best to move on and not talk about what happened.
Having extracted as much information as possible from his mother, the ophthalmologist is confronted by the fact that his son is sent home from school with stories about the inhumanity of the communists and how the army and people stepped in to save the day. Having listened to the official history that teachers passed down to his son, the ophthalmologist quietly points out that it was the generals who were inhumane. The son responds with a look of worried sadness that forms another of the film’s recurring motifs.
Contrary to the murderers who boast of their heroism from the safety of official history, the ophthalmologist takes it upon himself to reveal the truth. Using his medical qualifications to gain access to some well-connected paramilitaries and government officials, the ophthalmologist asks them to talk about their past only to add uncomfortable questions that disrupt their reliance upon official histories: How could the regional commander of a paramilitary group be heroically responsible for purging the communists from certain areas and yet not be responsible for the death of one man’s brother? How could it be right to kill the communists for their godlessness when the rumours of godlessness are known to be lies? The courage displayed by the ophthalmologist is nothing short of staggering as many of these powerful men respond to uncomfortable questions with immediate death threats. Desperate to let the air out of these horrendous old monsters, Oppenheimer focuses on the face of the Ophthalmologist while the old men rant… we see fear, we see sadness but we also see sorrow. It is in the moments when the camera locks onto the ophthalmologist’s face that we see what it means to have grown up in contemporary Indonesia: Your emotions want to eat you alive but you can never let them show as allowing them to show would mean death.
In the extras included on the DVD, Oppenheimer says that, unlike The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence received a proper Indonesian cinematic release and the backing of two government agencies. However, while Oppenheimer chalks this up to the beginning of some process of reconciliation, I wonder whether the shift in official attitudes might not be down to a changing of the guard. The generation of Indonesians now reaching the age of retirement may owe much of its position and power to myths created as justification for mass-slaughter but the power of those myths must fade with the passage of time. One suspects that younger generations have proved more than willing to internalise the logic of capitalism and the associated myth of emancipatory markets. The perpetual threat of politicised bloodshed may have kept the old guard in power but their inheritors will have realised that neoliberalism is a more elegant form of social control and that rivers full of dead bodies tend to scare foreign investors.
This generational change is hinted at in one of the film’s final scenes when the ophthalmologist interviews a man in the company of his grown-up daughter. At first, the woman smiles along with the old man’s stories about killing communists but then an unexpected question deflects him from his usual path. As the old man starts talking about how he used to drink the blood of his victims in order to ward off insanity, the woman grows visibly more perturbed. Her eyes well-up with tears as the ophthalmologist runs a finger across his own throat whilst describing the death of his brother. Suddenly, the room seems much cooler… Now the shame is felt not by the survivors but by the murderer’s family.
The tension is extraordinary and you can feel the power leaching from the old man. Seizing history by the scruff of the neck, the ophthalmologist informs the woman that her father’s crimes do not reflect badly upon her. Nervously, the woman asks if she and the ophthalmologist might not have met before and the ophthalmologist’s admission that they might have met at work is gratefully received… his willingness to abandon anonymity is not only about his own loss of fear but also an unspoken promise that no revenge will be forthcoming. The woman tearfully apologises and history suddenly acquires a corner.
Another of the film’s recurring motifs is footage of cocoons leaping and vibrating as the insects within them struggle to break free and get out into the world. You can interpret these images a number of different ways, viewing them as justice, morality or human feelings struggling to be born but I see them as representative of a future lived without fear, a future still in the process of working its way into being.
Though less flashy and considerably more difficult that The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence is a powerful reminder that every atrocity contains at least two stories: That of the people who committed the atrocity and that of the people who survived it. Beautifully shot and emotionally devastating right to the end, The Look of Silence is more than a worthy companion piece to one of the most celebrated documentaries in recent cinematic history.