“THE LOOK OF SILENCE” (2014): Survivors face the killers

Poster of the film.

In the very innovative documentary The Act of Killing (2012), Joshua Oppenheimer and his collaborators explore the mind of some of the assassins who perpetrated the Indonesian genocide in 1965 (for historic background, see the post on this documentary). The Look of Silence (2014) complements and completes The Act of Killing: it goes on enquiring into the butchers’ memory, and includes the victims’ relatives, the survivors, who were absent in the first film. While The Act of Killing lays bare the memories and fantasies of amoral killers through the procedure of inviting them to write, direct and stage a film on their own crimes –an experimental approach which offers an outrageous, hideous, yet clarifying result–, The Look of Silence follows an apparently, but only apparently, more traditional method. Much of it consists of interviews with Indonesian murderers, both physical executioners and some of the chiefs that ordered the slaughters. But in spite of the seemingly traditional format of the interviews, this second part of Oppenheimer’s diptych applies a new approach to documentary as well. It turns out that the one who interviews the assassins is a victim’s younger brother, an optometrist (an specialized oculist) named Adi Rukun, who at the moment of the filming was about his forties.

Adi arranges the meetings with most of them with the offer of checking the state of their eyesight. While he tries different lens in search of the suitable one, he asks them questions about the 1965 facts, and in the end he reveals his identity of brother of a killed man. Oppenheimer and another, unnamed director shoot the dialogues. The interviewer keeps calm even when we sense rage and outrage in his expression, even when he expresses orally an accusation. Everything is held back in the verbal aspect, and at the same time unbearably tense in the level of latent meanings. Interviewees’ reaction, when they understand that the meeting is a pretext to make them speak of their actions, is normally that of bewilderment and irritation. The genocide – a million people killed under the accusation of being “communists” – has never been tried in Indonesia, and the still alive assassins have power and money (usually stolen from the victims). That is why they are utterly surprised when somebody approaches them with the intention of shedding light on the facts and clarifying responsibilities. Almost no one had dared to do it, nor in Indonesia nor abroad, in part because Western leaders (specially those of the United States and United Kingdom) were accomplices and instigators of that slaughter of real and supposed communists. In truth, at the beginning of the interviews the assassins are proud of themselves, they even boast about their crimes, which are approved of, and applauded, by the Indonesian establishment; it is only when they understand that the optometrist is accusing them that they become annoyed, and in some cases aggressive.

Adi interviews one of the chiefs who ordered the killings.

The interviews of a victim’s brother with their killers are a surprising element, as surprising as the staging of the assassins’ memories and fantasies in The Act of Killing. Both approaches give unexpected, illuminating results concerning butchers’ psychology (it can’t be called thought), an inside vision unreachable through journalist report or by a neutral, external exposition.

The Look of Silence contains other right devices which produce not only cinematographic, but knowledge effects. Adi’s viewing of videos where the killers from half a century ago remember with pride their crimes – one of them the murder of his brother – make us feel we are seeing the situation through his eyes, invites us to put ourselves in his place. Murderer’s declarations in front of the camera lend a startling air of reality to the film. The fragments where Adi’s parents appear – she as a still lucid woman, he as a skinny, senile, almost blind old man, who can’t remember neither the dead nor the alive son – show the relatives’ affliction in an unsentimental, respectful fashion.

The ensemble of these different levels creates a rich, complex vision of 1965 facts, and of their aftermaths, seen from all the possible perspectives. That is, after all, the goal of this diptych on the Indonesian slaughters: to give a whole comprehension of that atrocity, to observe it from every point of view (not only that of the victims, with which spectators empathize spontaneously, but also from the horrible killers’ point of view) with a view to making justice even if only half a century after the facts.

The goal of this diptych on the Indonesian slaughters: to give a whole comprehension of that atrocity, to observe it from every point of view (not only that of the victims, but also from the horrible killers’ point of view).

But, in addition to this commendable, hazardous historic aim, the diptych has a deeper and more philosophical goal. It shows human violence from the inside, not through the usual shallow portrait of the good and the bad, so reassuring and easy for viewers (who afterwards don’t need to think any more about it), but showing cruelty, amorality and pain as features inherent to humanity, an unpleasant revelation. Both the assassins’ impunity and thoughtlessness and the survivors’ dull pain and fear are disagreeable phenomena which couldn’t have being tackled by a conventional report. These two films’ main contribution is to reveal what is contained in the minds of both groups.

The family of the dead discovers how he was murdered through ten years-old videos Oppenheimer shows Adi, in which the killers remember the facts. They disembowelled him, and his intestines were hanging from his stomach, they cut him with a machete and finally they emasculated him and left him to bleed to death. After that, they threw his corpse to Snake River, like those of many other “communists”. The river was so full of dead bodies that nobody wanted to eat its fishes nor drink its water.

Adi watches one of the videos where the killers boast of their crimes. In these images he discovers the way they murdered his elder brother.
The spectator sees the videos through Adi’s eyes, and in this experience he or she identifies with him, enters the Indonesian tragedy, is no longer a detached observer.

After discovering the horrible death of his brother, two years before he was born, Adi decides to interview the killers and their bosses, and to film the conversations. He knows the murderers’ names. What is needed now is to talk to them. This requires much courage, both because to approach his own brother’s killers is traumatic and because of the high probability that the assassins who are still in power take violent reprisal against him and his relatives. In spite of these risks, Adi talks to them while examining their eyesight. Asks them questions one has to be very brave to ask to vicious people, and phrases them with a restrained tone, which only partially veils his anger.

Throughout the conversations surface many actual informations: the killers drank their victims’ blood “not to get mad”, communists were malignant because they didn’t believe in God and were promiscuous, Indonesian army took the victims to the places where they were killed but didn’t smear their hands with blood and left the job to civilian death squads so as not to be accused by international community.

An usual evolution of the conversations is the interviewee passing from an initial stance of pride and satisfaction concerning their acts to a negation of any responsibility after finding out the optometrist is the brother of one of the dead. One interviewee tells him that those questions would have caused him many problems five decades ago – it sounds as a threat -, and asks him where is he from, which Adi doesn’t answer because he knows his life and that of his family would be in danger.

In these conversations are heard things like “If they are bad people you can dismember them”, or “We did it because American people taught us to hate communists”. One of the interviewees is Adi’s uncle, who kept a close eye to his brother in prison the night before he was killed. Adi asks him why he helped to kill his own nephew, if he doesn’t feel guilty, or responsible. The uncle answers that he didn’t kill him: he just fulfilled orders, he was protecting the State.

The only violence in The Look of Silence is that of descriptions. Nonetheless, since attentive spectators represent themselves images from those descriptions, the result may be even more sickening than if the facts were shown in real scenes, or were re-enacted like in The Act of Killing. Since mind creates actively situations from words, and doesn’t restrict itself to receiving passively images, it experiences them with an increased intensity, and perhaps will find it harder to get rid of them when needed. What is left out of scene (the obscene), but is felt, are real sadistic brutalities. Killers’ descriptions are like translucent screens, which allow the vision and at the same time blur the lines.

Since mind creates actively situations from words, and doesn’t restrict itself to receiving passively images, it experiences them with an increased intensity, and perhaps will find it harder to get rid of them when needed.

There is more in The Look of Silence than interviews, old videos of butchers boasting of their actions and images of Adi watching these videos on a television set. There are also Adi’s conversations with his mother (specially painful the moment in which he reveals to her that her brother, his uncle, took part in the assassination of her other son), with his wife (who discovers late that her husband is talking to murderers and accusing them, and reproaches him for putting his own life in danger without thinking of his family). There is also a scene of an Indonesian school where a teacher indoctrinates his pupils about the 1965 facts, tells them that communists were wicked, violent people who deserved their lot (he says, for instance, that they cut their enemies faces with razor blades, which doesn’t seem the sort of information one should give to children, even if it were true). There is a surrealist fragment of a tv report by the CNN channel where a so-called journalist interviews an Indonesian man, who explains the communists were so sick of themselves that they asked on their own initiative to be killed or incarcerated, and that they go to work in good spirits, though at gunpoint, to the American companies’ factories, for instance that of the tyre’s giant Goodyear, which have settled in the island chain. This piece of pseudo news was broadcast in American television, and it is one of the most extravagant fragments of a film packed of them.

Adi and his mother.

That Adi is an oculist and tries to make his interviewees look and see what they did seems a deliberate metaphor, but it turns out to be one of those coincidences witch which reality likes to exceed fiction. In essence, nobody wants to see well. Not even Adi’s father, almost blind, want his view to be cured. Maybe life is more tolerable if one doesn’t see properly.

There is an undeniable metaphor in the tiny insects, still in larval state, which appear in different moments of the film, trying to emerge from the shell where they are locked. This image transcends its own physical reality, though its meaning isn’t unequivocal (as it wasn’t unambiguous the image in The Act of Killing of a huge metal fish where the insane butchers entered). Do the insects represent the truth trying to emerge, Indonesian society struggling to come to terms with its past? Both things? Anything else?

The Look of Silence is a magnificent film, deeply conscious of cinematographic language, both in terms of image and of sound. Scenes are constructed through shots/reverse shots of perfectly measured rhythm, where Adi’s and murderers’ faces are alternated in a way that creates instants of deep tension. There are also long takes in which the camera lingers in a face. And silences are wisely captured when nothing is left to be said because the crime has been laid bare, as well as sadism and impunity, and there is only indifference or affliction. The “silence” of the title may refer to the impunity, but it also alludes to the mutism which fills the down time in conversations, painfully. It could be that no other film-maker has been able to fill the silence, to make it so dense and thick, since the time of Ingmar Bergman.

The third possible meaning of the “silence” in the title refers to that kept by Indonesian people who suffered horrible losses and weren’t able to talk until now, due to fear of violence. Adi, with his commendable courage, breaks that silence and sets an example for many survivors, both inside and outside Indonesia. An extremely difficult, hard, dangerous example.

The Act of Killing observes the killings from the butchers’ perspective; The Look of Silence observes them from the survivors’ point of view. However, the whole of these two superb films doesn’t limit itself to the Indonesian history they manage to reveal in depth, but reflects a more general human nature in which, inconveniently, spectators partake in some measure.


Director: Joshua Oppenheimer and Anonymous
Country: Denmark, Finland… (10 countries)
Original language: Indonesian
Locations: Indonesia
Running time: 103 minutes
Web and trailer:  http://thelookofsilence.com/

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