The Look of Silence
Screened as part of CPH:DOX 2014
It might surprise people to hear it, but Joshua Oppenheimer is a Denmark-based filmmaker, and The Act of Killing was considered so Danish that it was almost the country’s submission for the Foreign Language Academy Award last year. The director is American, and it’s shot in Indonesia, but most of the rest of the crew is Danish.
The Act of Killing was the opening film at DOX two years ago, and went on to win the DOX award. It’s unique style and crushing content made it a great success abroad last year as well. However, there was some critique, that the film let the killers off the hook a bit by never including the victims’ point of view. But Oppenheimer always considered The Act of Killing as part of a pair of films with The Look of Silence, and this second film expands the picture immensely and includes those confrontations that the first film perhaps needed. The Look of Silence also includes the recordings that began it all, made back in January 2004, featuring two killers taking turns acting out the massacre they participated in at Snake River back in 1965. This new film features Adi, an optometrist whose brother Ramli was among the murdered back then, who seeks out the old killers, checks their sight, and confronts them with their role in the murders. The killers happily brag about the things they did, but when confronted they backpedal, become angry, unsure of themselves.
It becomes clear how damaging to society the whole history has been, not just with the massacres themselves, but that the regime was able to wash their hands of it, and make it fit as an unfortunate but necessary part of the Cold War. As Joshua Oppenheimer himself stated at the Q&A after the showing, the delusional bravura displayed by the killers is a systemic problem, something caused by the equivalent of the Nazis winning World War II and convincing the rest of the world that the Shoah had been a necessary thing to do. As in the first film, in places you get the feeling that the killers themselves were used. A key factor in the Indonesian genocide was that it wasn’t done by state machinery, but by regular people. Perhaps that is why it became ritualised, with several of the killers admitting to drinking their victims blood. The state just gathered the unfortunate prisoners, and then transported the prisoners to the execution spots, and then stood by waiting a proper distance away. When Adi confronts an old militia member, who later on became a politician, the guy says that the killings were ‘spontaneous’. When Adi says that they were clearly organised, the guy admits as much, but says that the popular feeling of hatred was what he meant was spontaneous. And furthermore, the victims can’t have been that unhappy, since otherwise he would have never been reelected ever since, and he obviously does not intimidate anyone into voting for him, no, and by the way, where does Adi live?
Adi the optometrist sadly enough never makes any of the killers look at the world differently. They cannot admit to themselves that they did wrong. But at a few points, he changes the view of the killers’ families. In one interview a daughter participates, talking happily about how she learned that her father killed a bunch of communists. When she learns about the savage details, for instance that he drank the blood of the victims to remain sane, she asks Adi for forgiveness. A son blames Adi for opening ‘the wound’ and states that if he hadn’t begun his research, Adi and him could have been much more friendly. Adi coldly answers that the victims always knew exactly who had done the killings, stunning the family. Perhaps Adi – and Oppenheimer, and the rest of the crew, including many Indonesians still listed in the credits as ‘Anonymous’ – have already been successful in changing some Indonesian minds. Oppenheimer also explained that they never even send The Act of Killing to the Indonesian censors, since they were sure it would be banned. But The Look of Silence has already premiered in Indonesia, to an audience of thousands, and Adi was met with long standing ovations. And this time, they are going for approval from the censors. In other words, this project, on top of being extremely emotional and brave documentary filmmaking, might actually be changing the world for the better!