Release date: 12 June 2015
Running time: 103 min
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
An older, ineffectual man sits quietly outside of his home in an Indonesian village, patiently waiting on the arrival of his local Optometrist to test his eyesight. He’s quiet at first, his appearance almost comical as he is instructed to don a pair of large, brightly coloured lenses. He soon gets talking when the topic changes to the past, and as older folk often do he has many stories to tell, and isn’t particularly shy in recalling them. His visitor is, in turn, curious: a fairly routine interaction between two people of differing generations. ‘Both salty and sweet, human blood’ the old man suddenly interrupts. Silence. ‘If we didn’t drink human blood back then, you’d go crazy’. Such is the terrifying candidness of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence; it routinely catches you off-guard, and when it does it makes your blood run ice-cold.
A counterpart to his previous -and extraordinary- documentary The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer now analyses the devastation of the Indonsesian Communist massacres of the Sixties from the point of view of a still-grieving family of one of the victims. Adi, the aforementioned travelling Optometrist, comes from a poor family whose brother Ramli was horrifically massacred during the purge before he was born. His parents have never fully recovered from their traumatic experience and now live their life in forced quiet, surrounded by those who were responsible for their son’s death. It is, as Killing remains, an incredibly devastating piece of work, but Silence feels tonally different, perhaps even more introspective than its predecessor.
Where Killing felt surreal, almost dream-like with the perpetrators re-enacting the murders through various forms of performance, here Oppenheimer opts to focus on the truth revealed when faced with the uncomfortable silence of those who have had their lives torn apart by grief. Where the guilty seemingly can’t stop talking, filling the void with endless justification and gloating, Adi and his family clearly wear their pain everyday for all to see. The vastness of the crime is so huge that any explanation seems, and is, completely absurd. As Adi watches a recording of a man glibly describing and joking about gutting a communist, he calmly observes that ‘maybe he acts this way because he regrets what he did. He’s numb’.
It is Adi’s strength of character throughout that is most remarkable. As he bravely visits those responsible for Ramli’s death one by one, he calmly questions them about their past. Asks if they feel regret, guilt or remorse for their actions. Again and again their answers remain the same: ‘the past is past’, ‘this is what happens in politics’ and ‘it wasn’t me that killed him.’ Their reactions to his questions range from denial, to confusion, to anger. Throughout Adi remains impressively composed, but as he meets more people the truth becomes increasingly hard to bear, and the pain written clearly across his face is truly heartbreaking.
Together, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are undoubted masterpieces of documentary filmmaking. Free of any ego, voice-overs or so-called experts, Oppenheimer lives, films and interacts with his subjects for months -even years- and let’s everything speak for itself. As The Look of Silence quite delicately demonstrates, it is in the quiet, introspective moments in-between action and conversation that the truth is most apparent. It’s another incredibly important piece of work from someone who is one of -if not the best- currently working in his field. It may be uncomfortable, but it is absolutely essential viewing.