Review: ‘The Look of Silence’ is Joshua Oppenheimer’s First-Rate Followup to ‘The Act of Killing’

Review: 'The Look of Silence' is Joshua Oppenheimer's First-Rate Followup to 'The Act of Killing'

Joshua Oppenheimer’s startling 2012 documentary "The Act of Killing" explored the trauma of the 1965 Indonesian genocide through terrifying presence of its perpetrators, aging gangsters who boasted of their murderous achievements. The filmmaker went so far as to allow the men to reenact the horrors in embellished fashion, putting a closeup on corruption with no real cinematic precedent. "The Look of Silence," Oppenheimer’s followup, takes a less outwardly daring path — but even as it quietly engages with the same topic, its intentions are more audacious.

As with "The Act of Killing," Oppenheimer prefaces his movie with a title card explaining how the Indonesian military killed a million people over the course of a year after it overthrew the government. One of the victims was the younger brother of a man named Adi, an optometrist living quietly with his wife and young children in a small village. The centerpiece of "The Look of Silence," Adi launches on an unsettling mission to track down countless retired torturers — under the guise of paying them medical visits — to ask them about their behavior. The result is the opposite of the unnerving showmanship that dominated "The Act of Killing." A soft-spoken, levelheaded interrogator, Adi is an object of continual fascination as he attempts to get real answers from unwitting and potentially dangerous men.

Compared to "The Act of Killing," Oppenheimer’s technique with "The Look of Silence" is deceptively simple, but it applies a more traditional style of documentary storytelling to extraordinary goals. Oppenheimer contextualizes Adi’s plight by fleshing out his family life: He regularly cares for his 103-year-old father, a wizened, senile shell of a man who thinks he’s still a teenager, while keeping his weak-willed mother at bay. While she tenderly recalls losing her other son, her reticence to discuss it strikes a notable contrast with Adi’s desire for confrontation.

But Adi, who lives a humble life with his children of his own, feels a different sort of pressure. Oppenheimer shows us footage of Adi’s son receiving propagandistic lectures at school, where he’s taught that the genocidal antics were justified. As a result, "The Look of Silence" chronicles a generational shift terms — from complaisance to activism — through an intimate lens. Adi’s sense of responsibility is personal.

His ensuing conversations with various torturers — and in several cases, their mortified adult children — form a natural response to "The Act of Killing," which evaded any direct showdowns in order to present the torturers’ lunacy in unfiltered terms. Adi’s questions change the equation, but come no closer to convincing the men of their guilt. When he asks them to explain their actions in moral terms, Adi is confronted by non-answers. "If they’re bad people," one killer says, "you hack them up."

While he may not arrive at any real answers, Oppenheimer stages Adi’s plight in poetic terms that enhance the portrait of his ambition. The movie’s chief visual signifier is a set of colorful lenses that Adi places over the eyes of various men while measuring their vision and asking them about the past. The result, of course, is an attempt to make the subjects see clearly in more ways than one.

The rest of the movie applies a similarly lyrical approach. Though Adi never engages in prolonged monologues to express his grievances, Oppenheimer implies the depth of the man’s frustration by capturing him seated in front of a television, watching footage of Oppenheimer’s interviews with two boastful torturers. The synthesis of this unsettling material and Adi’s solemn face says more than any dialogue could accomplish. (That would be the eponymous look of silence.) In another effective visual metaphor, Oppenheimer cuts to butterfly larvae gently twitching from the convulsions of the insects inside, poignantly suggesting that the prospects of a better tomorrow are embedded in the restrictions of the moment.

Even so, "The Look of Silence" is far from idealistic. Adi’s quest never yields the answers he’s looking for. Speaking with the offspring of various murderers, he’s more regularly met with anger and resistance than remorse. Through this resistance, Oppenheimer exposes an issue yet to be resolved by magnifying the denial and self-aggrandizement threaded into the national climate. "Your questions are too deep," says a former squad leader. "I don’t like deep questions."

But "The Look of Silence" finds Adi asking them anyway. Despite the subdued narrative, Oppenheimer’s approach still features a transgressive quality. Since many of the perpetrators of the genocide remain in power, Adi has put himself in the line of fire with his participation. But that very sense of danger gives "The Look of Silence" an immediacy it would otherwise lack. Whereas "The Act of Killing" isolates certain evil temperaments, its followup charts a bold path towards doing something about it.

Grade: A

"The Look of Silence" screened this past week in Venice and Telluride ahead of an upcoming engagement at the Toronto International Film Festival. Drafthouse Films will release the movie in July 2015.

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Comments

Jas Ven

The Look of Silence is a powerful and important film which aims to make these perpetrators of violence accountable for their actions. The same must be done towards the U.S. government, which played an important role in the 1965-1966 mass killings in Indonesia. The East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) is a U.S.-based grassroots organization which educates, organizes, and advocates for human rights, societal and economic justice, democracy and genuine self-determination in East Timor. We are urging the U.S. government to acknowledge its own responsibility in these killings and declassify and release all its records about that time. Please sign ETAN’s petition urging the U.S. to release its records and acknowledge its role in the crimes of Indonesia mass violence.

PRADIP BISWAS, FILM SCHOLAR, AUTHOR, THE INDIAN EXPRESS NEWSPAPERS, INDIA

FIPRESCI AWARD WINNER

*THE LOOK OF SILENCE: OPPENHEIMER’S WORK ON FRACTURED HISTORY

BY PRADIP BISWAS, THE INDIAN EXPRESS NEWSPAPERS, INDIA

JURY MEMBER INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL AND FRIBOURG INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, SWISS

CURATOR: ROTTERDAM, FRIBOURG, PUSAN, MOSCOW, VARNA, IFFI, IFFK ETC

Joshua Oppenheimer’s stunning follow-up to The Act of Killing’ shifts focus to the victims of Indonesia’s communist purge*. **Joshua Oppenheimer < The Act of Killing >, a blistering 2012 documentary about the Indonesian communist purge of the 1960s, that
following it up so shortly with a second film on the subject might seem
complacent on paper. It is followed by The Look of Silence, a cruel
depiction through visual footage and tales of communist massacres by the
military authority of Indonesia. This is not all, the film in a rapt
documentary anger reveals what exactly happened in the 60s ruthlessly. Silence uses the image of seeing and not seeing to confront Indonesia’s response to its bloody historic past. It has an enigmatic title that may indicate the numb silence which is the only verrtical reaction to a certain kind of brutal savagery and low-down inhumanity. However, it perhaps may mean the way that a nation sees but not see, watches in such a narrow selective and slanted way as to mask meaning, perceives it in such a way as to smother dissent into silence.

The Act of Killing shows Oppenheimer tracking down the blighted, ageing members of the Indonesian civilian militia who with the tacit approval of the army and government carried out the mass-scale slaughter of a million suspected communists after the 1965 Suharto coup. Oppenheimer persuaded them to re-act their crimes in the styles of their preferred movies. This technique is claimed by Peter Bradshow a veritable Marat/Sade of 20th-century history that courageously and authentically has exposed the nature of the offence more effectively than traditional documentary procedure. It revealed that the barbarity is not merely an act of ideological brutality, a dialectical coda but group dysfunction, a jagged convulsion of mass psychosis, and that the perpetrators are entirely unrepentant. Indeed, the idea of submitting their acts to some kind of ethical assessment or justification seems to have never occurred to them. Oppenheimer has a claim to have made a sort of history with that proven dialectical analysis and with panache
This new documentary of 99 minute duration is far more powerful, and said to be conventionally confrontational than the previous one, and the people involved seem at last to have grasped how horrifying they look and so there is more of the familiar embattled-interviewee choreography: then the out-burst erupted to claim the demands to stop filming, the threatening addresses to the director “Josh” behind the camera, and then the forcible removal of the radio microphone. This is another kind of fascism that straight-jacketed Oppenheimer from wrapping up his humane work.
Watching the documentary one strongly feels and realizes that this film is just as piercingly and naturally irritating and horrifying as before. Oppenheime is said to have filmed with exactly the same cosmic visual sense, the same passionate yen of the Indonesian landscape, and dialogue exchanges are captured with the same carping and chilling crispness. What is of utter surprise is that The Look of Silence has it that Oppenheimer has the killers on video tape doing just that — he appears to have discovered these stomach-turning characters around 10 years ago, while researching The Act of Killing. Viewers see Adi impassively watching their murmuring performance on television, and then going around to interview the killers. In some cases fitting them with glasses, in interview situations set up by Oppenheimer. Incredibly, Josh is still not especially suspected or loathed by these villains, and they are of course utterly indifferent to his film and how it has been received.

This disgusting and whips up hatred for the Indonesian rulers who became
monsters to practice cannibalism. Oppenheimer with a vision makes it his target point to expose the killers who brought about mayhem of one million communists. This is so rare in the Asian history. There are as few safe moves as there are distorted notes. However, in The Look of Silence a fiercelystunning companion piece that shifts its emphasis from the perpetrators of THE ACT OF KILLING.

The person at its centre is Adi, an opthalmologist in his early 40s who travels around making housecalls, fitting people for spectacles — and so the imagery of seeing and willed myopia is established from the outset. Adi’s brother Ramli was killed by the militia just before Adi was born, a petty criminal who was dragged out of prison along with hundreds of others and slaughtered so that the militia could boost their own version of a “bodycount” a righteous tally of supposed communist-slayings. Ramli was butchered in various sickening ways which the perpetrators chillingly boast about.

The Look of Silence Oppenheimer has the killers on video tape doing just that — he appears to have discovered these stomach-turning characters around 10 years ago, while researching The Act of Killing. We see Adi impassively watching their giggling performance on television, and then going around to interview the killers, in some cases fitting them with glasses, in interview situations set up by Oppenheimer. Incredibly, “Josh” is still not especially suspected or loathed by these villains, and they are of course utterly indifferent to his film and how it has been received.

The Character Adi is in the centre of documentary. After The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer has been lambasted and panned fiercely in some quarters for sensationalism and exploitation. And it is understood that his clinical view of Adi’s desperately unhappy parents will expose this director to more objections on this score. The Look of Silence — like The Act of Killing — is engrossing and important film-making and so relevant. This disgusting and whips up hatred for the Indonesian rulers who became monsters to practice cannibalism. Oppenheimer with a vision makes it his target point to expose the killers who brought about mayhem of one million communists. This is so rare in the Asian history.

There are as few safe moves as there are distorted notes. However, in The Look of Silence is a fiercely stunning companion piece that shifts its emphasis from the perpetrators of THE ACT OF KILLING.

Jouseph

This is a great review of avery good film.

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