The Look of Silence Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer

[Drafthouse Films; 2014]

Styles: documentary
Others: The Look of Silence, Shoah

The father of Adi, the appraising conscience of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, is little more than skin and bones. He can barely hear, he can barely see, and in his advanced age (he’s over 100 years old) he can fail to remember that he lost another son, Ramli, in the military coup that led to the purging of a million suspected communists in 1960s Indonesia. His wife won’t sleep next to him because he “smells like pee,” but he can still talk, and he can still sing. “You’re so sexy! I can’t stand it,” he belts at one point, reveling in memories of his bygone virility. “You can see me. I can’t see you,” he says earlier, plainly stating his current state.

The Look of Silence has a totality of vision that encompasses both of these statements. The nostalgia of an old horndog is as pivotal to its thesis as the acts of offering and returning a gaze. Oppenheimer’s previous film, The Act of Killing, attempted to puncture the self-perceived glory and moral authority of those in Indonesia’s power structure by allowing them to relive their ascendance. A gang of thugs reunited and recreated their most heinous acts in the style of Hollywood films. Slapping the artifice of classical genres on their crimes didn’t seem to phase them; nor, for a while, did the act of performing them. Gradually, with careful prodding from Oppenheimer, one of the criminals faces up to the terror of his brutality and acknowledges what a wretch he is. The film remains ostentatious and astonishing, even if one isn’t quite sure how to square the ethics or value of how the project attempts to humanize gangsters so averse to humanism. The Look of Silence is a pointed corrective to those qualms.

How do we choose to remember ourselves, and how do we choose to remember others? The killers — here a different group than those from the previous film, based in another region of the country — remember themselves as giants, and their victims as trophies. They’ve coasted to old age on the power their movement maintains, as the governing force of Indonesia. They remember the names of some of those they killed — they remember Ramli — but treat them with anonymity, one of thousands hacked up and tossed into a river. Adi’s father, meanwhile, repeatedly claims that he’s a teenager. He, like the killers, perseveres through a notion of who he once was. When he realizes who he is now, he’s openly terrified, fearing he’s lost. Adi’s mother exists in a different, but eternal past. She’s painfully quick to relive the moment her first son was torn away from her. She is forever in mourning, a victim of her own country. She claims her new son, Adi, brought her back to life, but watching the film, neither we nor Adi feel so sure about that. Maybe Adi is just the ghost of Ramli, reincarnated two years after his death. Adi is surrounded by grief and two poles of our capacity to forget. He has a family of his own and works as an optometrist, but you get the sense that The Look of Silence is his opportunity to reclaim some agency for he and his family.

Adi, with Oppenheimer, moves to approach the killers by offering them eye exams. Before these appointments, he studies them. Oppenheimer sits Adi in front of an old television and shows him clips of the killers revisiting the sites of their crimes. The clips are quite similar to those in The Act of Killing. Adi doesn’t react with fear, disgust, or any evident emotion. His look of silence is innate, a necessary consequence of growing up in the family and in the country he has. Oppenheimer seems to mirror Adi’s comprehension by first presenting the killers on that boxy TV, and then filling the film’s screen with that same video. (One clip Adi takes in is a newsreel, offhandedly acknowledging US involvement in the military coup and future investment in developing Indonesia’s natural resources.) When Adi meets the killers, the scenes are simultaneously awkward and gripping: their stagedness is a given, and Oppenheimer is shrewd to make a point of his presence outside of his recordings. Logistically impossible reverse shots are captured, and at times the conversation seems to defy chronology. The chirp of crickets — seemingly omnipresent throughout this devastatingly quiet, eerily serene film — modulates in volume from scene to scene. When Adi halts, Oppenheimer pushes the killers and their families to say more. His coaching is evident, and addressed on camera. Some of the killers protest, and some offer their own vacant looks. Some of their families relent and apologize on behalf of senile or dead patriarchs.

The whole affair is a grueling effort to have a gaze met and returned, and to examine the aftermath of that acknowledgement. But before this, the killers must figure out how to reappraise their past: Adi catches them in lies and tries to correct them in order to begin this process. Oppenheimer constructs these scenes with an uncanny blend of structural artifice and emotional transparency. The most rudimentary elements of moviemaking — camera placement, shot juxtaposition — coax out the story he labors to tell. Cinema is, both explicitly and implicitly, the tool he exploits to force the people of Indonesia to reckon with one another. The rattle of larval butterflies suggests the possibility of a rebirth, but the sight of paramilitary trucks rumbling through a dirt road augur the potential for a nastier eternal recurrence.

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