Fifty years after the horrific genocide in Indonesia where those that committed the atrocities are still in power, a humble optometrist named Adi bravely confronts those directly involved in the brutal murder of his older brother and asks them direct questions about it while giving them an eye test so that both he and these perpetrators finally confront what happened.
When he released his documentary The Act of Killing in 2012/13 Joshua Oppenheimer blew the world away with a film that utilised the unique and authentic power that only the documentary genre can produce in what was a completely unforgettable experience. Words cannot do the raw and unforgettable power of that film justice, and I would implore anyone who has not seen The Act of Killing to do so (to read my review, click here). Well, The Look of Silence is a companion piece to that with a far more personal narrative journey, but is just as much essential viewing as The Act of Killing and just as raw, unforgettable and immensely powerful.
Indeed, a documentary from the victim’s point of view was Oppenheimer’s original intention, but after continuous threats to the safety of him and all involved (both crew and the living subjects) he then made The Act of Killing instead which was of course from the point of view of the perpetrators. He did of course skilfully make it in a way that allowed the audience to enter deep into the mind set and ideologies of these people as they were given free license to create their own films about the atrocities. While filming the perpetrators he showed the footage to Adi, the protagonist of The Look of Silence, whose brother’s murder was well documented by those involved and quite famous as it was one of the very few (and possibly only one at the location it happened) that was witnessed by others.
Oppenheimer of course never intended to make a pithy po-faced documentary about a horrific chapter in 20th Century history; The Look of Silence is very much a personal journey for one man whose family was tragically involved. Oppenheimer never resorts to patronising spoon-feeding voice over narration, he allows the camera and words of Adi, his family and perpetrators that Adi converses with to explore the film’s themes and ideas with deeply involving, haunting and almost emotionally devastating authenticity and rawness.
Oppenheimer is obviously a master of his craft, and the narrative of The Look of Silence intertwines Adi watching Oppenheimer’s interviews with the perpetrators who describe in their own deeply unnerving way what happened, scenes of Adi’s family and Adi’s conversations with the perpetrators of his brother’s murder. The camera is often fixed on Adi as he watches on television the perpetrators describe with smiles on their faces how they murdered ‘communists’, or at one point a very disturbing American documentary about the genocide which appears to be extremely one-sided. This kind of authentic raw power can of course only be produced, as I stated before, by the documentary genre. Likewise the scenes of Adi’s family, whether it be the curriculum his son is taught at school about what happens to ‘communists’ or footage of Adi’s parents who lived through the atrocities and were helpless to stop their son from being brutally murdered.
Naturally, the most powerful and intense moments are when Adi speaks to those involved in the brutal murder of his brother. I will of course refrain from going into too much detail as to what is said in these as it is best to watch these scenes with little knowledge of exactly the words said. However how each individual describes what happened and their attempts to justify it provide a deeply haunting examination of the human psyche and how some people try various methods to deal with or even justify the acts they commit, even if deep down they are conflicted by it.
Though this may seem completely trivial given the subject of the film, there are also some incredibly cinematic and beautiful shots that Oppenheimer creates; Indonesia is a naturally beautiful country with natural resources and some stunning countryside, and Oppenheimer and cinematographer Lars Skree help to emphasise this, which only makes the subject of the film that more haunting as the shots of Indonesia’s tranquil and peaceful countryside seem even more unnerving as they are almost symbolic for the current forced silence and dark history that no one dare speak of nor confront.
Words cannot do justice to the bravery involved by all involved in the making of this film, especially as the perpetrators are essentially still in power, but also how it has made Indonesia finally confront this dark chapter in its history for the first time in fifty years. Oppenheimer has once again not only proved just how immensely powerful documentary film making can be, but also how incredibly important it can be on so many levels.
A deeply unnerving and unforgettable journey into the subconscious of human nature’s darkest side; The Look of Silence emphasises the unique power of documentary filmmaking and is essential viewing and filmmaking of equal measure.