THE LOOK OF SILENCE
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
MPAA Rating: (for thematic material involving disturbing graphic descriptions of atrocities and inhumanity)
Running Time: 1:43
Release Date: 7/17/15 (limited); 8/14/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 13, 2015
The man at the center of The Look of Silence is a decent person. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, he watches a video of two men tell the story of how they killed truckloads of suspected or actual communists from a nearby prison camp, believing that they were doing what was best for their country—a matter of necessity for the survival of the state.
One of their victims, they say, gave them a difficult time. They repeatedly stabbed this man, disemboweled him, and threw him in the Snake River, just as they had done to dozens or hundreds of people before him. He somehow survived and fled, before a squad commander captured him again. The men returned this man to the bank of the river, finishing the work they previously had failed to do.
The murdered man was the brother of the man watching the video. He watches, almost without blinking, as these men tell this story. When he finally speaks, he says that he thinks he has spotted some regret in these men. They seem numb as they get further along in their tale. If that's the case, he believes he might be able to forgive them for murdering the brother he never had the chance to meet and devastating his family. At that moment, we realize this man is something far beyond decent.
In The Act of Killing, we heard the horrors of the mass killings that took place in Indonesia between 1965 and 1966 from the people who perpetrated those murders. They had reasons. They had excuses. Just like the men in this particular video, they were more than eager to show a man with a camera exactly how they performed their evil deeds. They laughed about people being tortured, strangled, and beheaded. They smiled at the sound of people screaming during a recreation of the burning of a village.
They were proud of their actions, and since the political system that orchestrated the killings of between 500,000 and 2 million people is still in power in Indonesia, these murderers were and continue to be treated as national heroes. Regret is not part of their psyche.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer's previous documentary informs his follow-up film in an assortment of ways. Even the text prologue in this documentary, which gives us the general outline of what happened in 1965, is exactly the same as the one from the film's predecessor.
The most vital connection between the two films is the knowledge of how these killers feel—and, perhaps more accurately, what they don't feel—about the crimes they committed. There's a dismal sense of dramatic irony to the proceedings here. Adi, the man whose brother was slaughtered, thinks he might uncover some guilt or regret from these men, if only he could speak to them about what they did, how it has affected him and his family, and how mistaken they were in believing that they were doing what was right and good for their country. Oppenheimer, who has spoken to and developed relationships with these people for about a decade, gives Adi, a modest optometrist, that opportunity.
We know how these conversations will end, and we also know that Adi is dealing with people who are incapable of or uninterested in feeling regret over what they have done. These are true believers in that old, wicked cause, and they are also either in power or connected to people of great influence. Adi isn't simply entering into an impossible situation, in which there is no conceivable victory condition for his objective. He is putting himself and possibly his family in grave peril. Every encounter between Adi and one of these men is terrifying.
Adi's endeavor is one not only of great naiveté but also of tremendous courage. With the same unflappable demeanor with which he watches the two men discuss and recreate the murder of his brother, Adi looks at these men, who personally killed or oversaw the massacre of hundreds or thousands of political "enemies," and tells them that they were tools of the propaganda effort of a military dictatorship. One of the men who killed Adi's brother simply says that he doesn't like political discussions and orders Oppenheimer ("Joshua," as he and other interviewees call the director) to stop filming. The director doesn't, of course, because, as we learned from this film's companion, Oppenheimer knows these men deserve much worse than the momentary discomfort of being filmed when they don't want to be.
After serenading his interrogator with a song on an electric keyboard, another man, the commander of one of the Snake River death squads, responds to Adi's line of questions by pointing out that "secret communists," like Adi might be, are the "real enemy" now. He asks where Adi lives. He tells Adi that the optometrist "couldn't imagine" what would have been done to him if he had dared to ask such questions back in 1965. The former commander then says what we suspected when Oppenheimer first showed us the current state of this country: A mass killing is just a politically expedient excuse away from happening again.
We also see that possibility in an early scene that follows Adi's son to school, where a teacher proudly toes the government line about why the mass killings were necessary. Adi tells his son the truth—that communists, union members, and immigrants were the scapegoats used to cover up a military coup. We meet Adi's father, a feeble man of 103 who is blind and deaf, as well as his mother, who is so humble that she doesn't know her age, since she believes celebrating birthdays is an act of excessive pride. The mother still dreams of her murdered son, and with heart-wrenching detail, she tells us what happens in those horrifying dreams. We get the sense that Adi is doing this more for her than for himself, although she is dismayed upon learning his plan. She offers one piece of sage advice: Bring a knife.
From a journalistic standpoint, some of Oppenheimer's techniques remain questionable (He pushes a deceased killer's family members, who insist they didn't know what he had done, to explain the man's actions, although he doesn't address that video evidence might show the man's widow to be lying). The Look of Silence, though, is not an act of journalism. Like and perhaps more so than its predecessor, this film is an act of moral necessity.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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