2012’s THE ACT of Killing was one of the most harrowing and powerful films of its year, its depiction of grinning butchers re-enacting their deeds in the Indonesian genocide of 1965-66 framed with commendable unobtrusiveness by director Joshua Oppenheimer. A criticism it faced was, for all the unrepentant gloating of the murderers, the victims and their families remained unseen, damning in their silence.
It is fitting that there are long periods of agonising quiet in Oppenheimer’s follow-up, The Look of Silence, a film that provides those victims with a voice. In this vein, the two are inextricably connected. Centred on Adi Rukun, an optometrist whose brother was killed in the purge, the film follows his attempts to understand the perpetrators’ crimes by interviewing them directly, giving some of them an eye test in the process. The million-strong dead hang like phantoms over both films’ subjects, but none moreso than Adi, whose conception came from the desire to “replace” his brother, Ramli.
It is through Adi’s dignified eyes that we see the wilful blindness of the killers. Adi’s occupation – a stroke of symbolic luck on Oppenheimer’s part – allows the director to explore the kind of psychosis that gripped the civilian militia as they massacred supposed Communists. One man, unpressured by leading questions, mordantly reveals that he drank blood in order to “not go crazy”; later, he matter-of-factly describes his surprise that, after hacking off a woman’s breast, the results resembled “a coconut milk filter”.
It is remarkable that Adi does not cry outrage and outright condemn the killers, as one might expect, but calmly listens to them expound horror after horror, only occasionally prompting them for more. Even when openly threatened with violence, he continues unabated. Much like the urban higher-ups in The Act of Killing, the regional agents of the genocide are gut-wrenchingly forthcoming and remorseless in recounting their actions.
But as with that film’s central subject, Anwar Congo, reduced to retching on a rooftop as his crimes caught up with his conscience, the killers’ bluster is a defence mechanism to shield them from their complicity. All, without exception, either shirk or deny responsibility. “The past is past,” they continually say; “The wound has healed.”
As evidenced by the agonising minutes of silent stares, the wound never closed. The past, increasingly clearly, is inextricable from the present; through Adi, we are shown endless reminders of this haunted history, whether in the collective denials of the killers or within Adi himself. In increasingly distressing sequences, we are introduced to Adi’s centenarian parents, doomed to live in the shadow of unspeakable pain. One particularly poignant image is Adi’s father, as he blindly crawls along the floor, failing to recognise his own home.
The metaphor of vision – or lack thereof – repeats time and again, enhanced by Lars Skree’s beautiful cinematography; he captures the Indonesian landscape with a mark of surrealist beauty, lending an ethereal quality to a piece that’s almost too appalling to be true. In the interview segments, the camera is zoomed in close on faces, breathing in their tics and darting glances. Eyes, of course, are integral, inviting us to probe for a psychological justification that, in all likelihood, is absent.
The film’s title testifies to that futility of rationalisation. The look of silence is the look when words fail, when numb shock is the only viable reaction. Oppenheimer has suggested in interviews that the silence comes from the paradox within the killers’ heads: They believe in what they know is false to shield themselves from blame, where words are an inadequate defence. The film’s ringing silences speak volumes, whether it comes from the killers, Adi, or the quiet anguish of his parents.
Throughout the film, Oppenheimer continually cuts back to Adi watching footage that Oppenheimer shot in 2003-2005, where the killers boast of murdering his brother. In every shot, as Adi watches these men cackle at the thought of genital mutilation, his face remains the same: etched with sorrow and silent, inexpressible rage.
Through focusing on the particular in the astonishing bravery of Adi, Oppenheimer achieves the universal. Adi and his family were forced to move thousands of miles away, having risked his life to appear in the film; the numerous instances of “Anonymous” in the credits further attest to the lingering threat of reprisal in the country. The film is a testament to his and the crew’s courage in the face of violence and intimidation.
A recurring image is that of caterpillars stirring uselessly within their cocoons. Indonesia, it seems, is much the same, unable to escape the prisons of its cultural scars. With Oppenheimer’s incredible, truly important documentary, we are given a snapshot of a nation still in shock, unable to comprehend itself. It’s a heartbreaking masterpiece that’s every bit as vital as The Act of Killing.