Something We Cannot Change

The Look of Silence / Indonesia & Denmark / 2014 / dir. Joshua Oppenheimer / 103 mins / documentary


American director Joshua Oppenheimer has released his last film on Indonesia’s dark past. However, The Look of Silence seems more like the collection of the deleted scenes of The Act of Killing, and not a film about the victims and their memories.

History gives us guidance to understand today’s social, political, economic and even financial situation, but more often it is still a 1000 pieces jigsaw, since no one can ever believe that she/he owns the entire knowledge of human history. What is more, knowing history might mean participating in someone else’s agenda, which sometimes lies far away from the truth. Have you ever wondered why certain events are taught in schools and not others? Have you ever celebrated the conquistadors as heroes, who in reality killed the great per cent of the indigenous population of the land they had conquered? Have you ever heard a story that was declared insane first, but turned out to be the truth? These are only a couple of examples, perhaps the most obvious ones. So we all should stop for a moment and meditate on the notion of history and its various aspects in order to place ourselves in a position that allows us to see the bigger and more balanced picture.

Nobody argues that Joshua Oppenheimer’s endeavoured to present the history of the Indonesian territories from two points of view, yet the results are questionable to a somewhat large extent. In his previous documentary entitled The Act of Killing he introduces one dreadfully proud segment of society, namely the people who tell and show us – with a smile on their face – how they killed their fellow Indonesian citizens.

In 1965-66 more than 500 hundred thousand (communist) people were killed as part of a military coup by death squads in the country. Although these violent executors openly talk about their fatal actions, those are not necessarily part of the common talk of the Indonesian society. This is, of course, the possible consequence of them being still governing the country. Their version of history, in which they believe, is nothing less than glorious.

By watching The Look of Silence we become familiar with another version of history, meanwhile we are also informed about the fact that in schools not the their adaptation of history is taught and learnt. The main character is Adi now, we see the world and the perpetrators through his eyes. Adi’s brother, Ramli, who was imprisoned for being considered a communist, was brutally murdered in 1965. Yet, according to his killers, he was probably a “nice guy”.

In The Look of Silence Oppenheimer focuses on the victims, at least, this is what the description of the film says. But regardless of the existence of that short text, one would rather say that the proud killers’ presence still outweigh the presence of the deceased individuals’ family, the members of which always sit or stand very close to the cameras. Of course, close-ups are inevitably more frequent than other shots: those are used when Adi is watching when his brother’s killers recreate the murder, and when he confronts the perpetrators who are still in charge of the region he lives in. Those shots definitely trigger emotions, but what about a scene where a hundred-year-old, almost blind man feels unsafe and trying to figure out where he might be.

Humour helps people to cope with strong negative feelings, still in this case it might be perceived differently. It seems Adi’s father is becoming a subject of public ridicule, an this gives a rise to moral and ethical questions. What happens when someone cannot take care of herself or himself anymore, who is responsible for her or him? Who can decide instead of them? Can be the wife or the son? These problems also pop up when children are involved. Documentaries belong to another realm of cinema so what might be allowed in a feature film, not automatically permitted in a film that documents reality in a sincere and serious manner.

One can really say that some of the director’s decision are quite controversial, but his merit is that he’s provided a platform for a discussion. Even if history cannot be changed, the events taken place 50 years ago without doubt can be discussed, first and foremost, by the members of the Indonesian society. Thanks to Oppenheimer’s films this discourse can start – in case it hasn’t even started yet.

Barbara Majsa

Barbara is a journalist, editor and film critic. She usually does interviews with film-makers, artists, designers, and writes about cinema, design and books.