Rightfully nominated for best documentary at this year’s Oscars, The Look of Silence is the continuation of Joshua Oppenheimer’s crusade to bring attention to the mass slaughter of Indonesians in the late ’60s to aid a military coup. It spotlights a regime that used murderers, justified by labeling the victims as communist sympathizers, to elevate themselves to power, where they remain still. His previous, and also Oscar nominated, foray into this topic was The Act of Killing, a film that interviewed the perpetrators of these crimes and gave them the chance to brazenly showcase their deeds in increasingly elaborate reenactments. It was a powerful and disturbing insight into these deluded, twisted individuals.
The Look of Silence switches viewpoint to one of the people affected by the killings, filling a void in the tale and providing a perfect companion piece to The Act of Killing. Adi Rukun’s older brother was murdered in that coup; years later, he now works as an optometrist, many of his customers being former members of the kill squads and military. During his visits to fit them for new glasses he questions them, gently pressing them for details, uncovering more fragments of the story of how his brother and other innocents were persecuted and slaughtered. His search for information sits uncomfortably with both the individuals and his immediate family who still fear repercussions from the state.
Oppenheimer has not only stepped up to craft a film that works as a worthy companion to The Act of Killing, but a film that is more focused, more personal, and more affecting. It is both a noble use of cinema and also a magnificent showcase for his talents, with the film superbly edited, cut, and shot; at times the beautiful lushness of Indonesia makes you forget the horror of what you are watching.
Unlike the previous film, Oppenheimer removes himself from interviews, his mantle in the questioning of subjects taken on by Adi, someone who provides a different moral center, a victim himself and someone no less determined to uncover the truth. It’s a counterpoint to the documentarian approach, a pressing internal need fueling his questions. With the over the top nature of Act missing, this personal slant is crucial to driving the film. There is a tranquility about Adi that often leads people to open up to him, but a fierce determination bubbling away within. This is not a man driven by revenge or anger but a quiet dignity. It is impossible to not be moved by his efforts.
The slow, personal simmer the film takes means the impact creeps under your skin rather than being a blunt force trauma as in The Act of Killing. Unlike that companion piece, these men interviewed are not so grandiose; there is no Hollywood style reenactment, no bragging self-styled gangsters, just retired old men and party officials. These are not strangers, these are neighbors, friends of his parents, people within his community. What remains the same is their determination that they did right thing, the honorable thing even. Gone are the moments of realizations for these criminals, replaced by abject horror from their own family members as they listen in to the interviews. As befitting the film’s title, these conversations take time and often lead to extended periods of quiet. It is in these moments of silence the film is often at its most powerful, the actions of these men and the effect upon generations of Indonesians resonating with the audience.
In addition to the interviews, Oppenheimer exposes us to Adi’s life and family, his elderly parents dealing with senility and still hurting from the loss of their son, although still reluctant to talk about it. It’s a stark contrast with Adi’s determination to uncover information and seek justice for his brother’s murder. This reflects the changing demographics of the country; a new generation has come to the fore under this military dictatorship, one starting to seek the truth and change. Adi’s relationship with his own daughter reinforces this further. Indonesia is is a land where murderer and survivor live side by side, fear keeping the populace subdued. Only the brave few speak out or seek to spread the truth. Oppenheimer’s work comes at an important time, these captured “confessions” of the acts, the ignorance, and the evils of the perpetrators only helping the movement and informing the next generation who will push further still. More than this, we also see humanity at its best. There is much to admire in Adi and people like him, showing emotions and aspects of the human spirit that speak to all of us and allow the film to transcend its Indonesian setting. This is the film’s legacy, and it truly is an important one.
THE PACKAGEThe Look of Silence is frankly a stunning film at times, and thankfully the transfer does it justice. Deep colors, sharp detail, wonderfully textured. Oppenheimer has a superb eye and the presentation on this release does it justice.
Special features include several trailers for Drafthouse films as well as a digital copy. There is also a commentary from Oppenheimer and executive producer Errol Morris, which is a rather illuminating conversation touching on filming in Indonesia, the subjects focused upon, and what they hoped to achieve with the productions. One quibble is that Oppenheimer’s voice is rather quiet. Having attended his Q&A for this film at last year’s SXSW he does speak in rather hushed tones and this should have been adjusted for. Speaking of Q&As, also included is one such event from the 2015 Berlinale Festival, which covers similar themes to the commentary but also touches more on the cinematic themes and inspirations behind Oppenheimer’s work.
Also included is footage of the Indonesian premiere, an event set up by Human Rights campaigners which served as something of a protest against the lack of culpability in the country and the military’s continued regime. Finally, there is a solo interview segment for Oppenheimer where he discusses his motivations and approach for the pair of films.
What these features highlight most importantly is the danger and determination of all involved in making this film, reinforcing the respect and admiration the viewer develops for all involved, from Oppenheimer himself to every single person named as “Anonymous” in the credits.
THE BOTTOM LINEThe Look of Silence is not just the best documentary of 2015, but one of the best films of the year. It casts off the flair of its partner piece, The Act of Killing, for something more personal and yet no less potent. It’s a truly admirable piece of work, a film that lingers and changes your view of the world and more importantly the people in it. A resonating reminder of the power of filmmaking.
The Look of Silence was released on January 12th, 2016.