Following up a film as original and devastating as The Act of Killing would never be an easy task. As executive producer Werner Herzog said of that film, “we won’t see a film of that power and that surrealism in the next one or two or three decades.” Perhaps mercifully Joshua Oppenheimer has no intention of remaking The Act of Killing. Instead with The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer turns his cameras away from the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide onto the victims.
In The Act of Killing we followed Anwar Congo and his cohorts who murdered hundreds of “communists” in the ’60s when the military overthrew the government. The Look of Silence follows Adi, a man whose brother was killed during the genocide and who wasn’t himself born until 1968, after the bulk of the murders had been committed. Adi is an optometrist who uses the vulnerable eye-test situation to interrogate those who were responsible for the death of his brother Ramli.
These interviews with the killers, the families of the killers and those who worked unquestioningly for the military reveal a side of the murderers that The Act of Killing didn’t explore. The kind of bravado and bragging that we saw in Oppenheimer’s previous film is present here too, but when Adi informs his interviewees that his brother was killed in the genocide, the bravado often vanishes. In one scene, a high ranking official responsible for the murders, who moments before was bragging about his achievement, instantly backtracks after Adi’s revelation, claiming he wasn’t responsible.
The give and take in these interviews is fascinating. The daughter of a killer sits with her now senile father as Adi talks to them about the murders and she reveals her shock upon hearing that her father drank the blood of his victims. Adi and the daughter, each a generation removed from the genocide, break down the barrier of silence and embrace, giving the impression that restitution is possible, as long as those who descend from the victims and the perpetrators can talk and reconcile. Later, the sons of one of Ramli’s killers don’t want to hear what Oppenheimer and Adi have to say, shouting them down. It’s clear that a new and open Indonesia is not just around the corner.
Between these interviews we see Adi and Ramli’s parents, the mother who is still clearly horrified by what happened to her son all those years ago, and the father who is now blind, deaf and prone to hallucinations, unable to remember his dead son at all. They offer a poignant counter-balance to the killers, who claim that drinking the blood of their victims prevented them from going insane, whereas Adi’s mother claims that his birth was what saved her from insanity. In Adi’s father however, Oppenheimer managed to find the most appropriate metaphor for how Indonesia continues to deal with its history, particularly in the scene where the Centenarian crawls in panic along the floor of his own house, sure that he has somehow wandered into a stranger’s home and is about to get beaten up.
The Look of Silence is essentially about the silence surrounding the Indonesian genocide in Indonesia itself. The fact that those who perpetrated the horrible crimes are still in power and treated as heroes is a great injustice, the trauma of which is something Indonesians will have to deal with. But there is a lesson here for all nations about the willingness to discuss our own history, whether we be the descendants of victims or perpetrators, and to do so without malice or an eye towards revenge. This is true of the Turkish and their treatment of the Armenian genocide, the US and its devastation of South-East Asia and the Catholic Church in Ireland and its abuse of mothers and children throughout the 20th Century. A mature dialogue between the victims and the perpetrators is the only way forward, but as the film shows, this is not the easiest of tasks.