DIR: Joshua Oppenheimer • PRO: Signe Byrge Sørensen • DOP: Lars Skree • ED: Nils Pagh Andersen • MUS: Seri Banang, Mana Tahan • CAST: Adi Rukun
Oscar-nominated American director Joshua Oppenheimer garnered worldwide attention and great critical acclaim for his profoundly staggering, unnervingly illuminating and visually enthralling 2012 documentary The Act of Killing. Focusing on the Indonesian genocide by paramilitaries and gangsters of an estimated one million perceived Communists between 1965 and ‘66, almost fifty years on, Oppenheimer revisits the cinema-loving perpetrators to re-enact their crimes to camera, as both the administrators and victims of death, in any film genre of their choosing. What unfolds are incredulously bizarre and chilling dramatizations of one of the most horrific systematic mass murders of the twentieth century by the executioners, who as producers and actors of their own scenes, recreate the methods and means of exterminating those victims who conveniently fell outside their political ideologies.
Filmed alongside The Act of Killing between 2005-2010 to protect the identities of his subjects from the same people who have remained in Indonesian power, Oppenheimer’s companion piece, The Look of Silence, flips the narrative perspective from the murderers to the victims and follows forty-four year old optometrist Adi’s attempts to unearth the circumstances surrounding his brother Ramli’s brutal execution. Born after Ramli’s murder and bearing witness to his elderly and senile parents subsequent torment as survivors, Adi defies the overriding fear of recrimination prevailing contemporary Indonesia to confront the long chain of responsible perpetrators and interrogate their nebulous motives for his brother’s execution. Supplementing his day job testing the villagers’ eyes, Adi interviews those directly involved in Ramli’s death and as a spectator, indirectly watches his dramatized execution on a television set, in an attempt to comprehend a death that has torn his family apart and silenced a nation for fifty years.
While entering the minds of the perpetrators in The Act of Killing was motivated by action, looking at the legacy of genocide through the eyes of its survivors drives The Look of Silence. As he seeks to reconcile a disturbing and silent past, Adi’s collectiveness amidst the abject misery of his quest, delineates a much more slow-paced narrative stripped of visual allure, creating a different type of iciness than its more macabre, surreal and visually magnetic predecessor. By focusing on the legacy of one particular victim’s death through the eyes of his family, not only does Oppenheimer resurrect and give identity to one of genocide’s faceless victims, dehumanized by the incredulous dramatizations in his first film but he also erases any possible engagement with his ‘actors’ performances that are so artificially constructed in The Act of Killing, it can, at times, become all too easy to distance from the horror they are orchestrating or serve to reassure that we are simply nothing like the monsters.
That is not to say that The Look of Silence is not equally cognizant of its own simulated reality. The executioners’ awareness of their staged performances within a dramatized framework are also heavily coded in the artifice of cinema and although not as jarring as the action in The Act of Killing, are just as staggeringly torturous and sadistic. The transformation and performance for the cameras, some revelling in showmanship, others agitated at being confronted with the silenced past but all unequivocally refusing to express regret or harbour guilt, creates a simulated reality that sits alongside Adi’s own filming of reality, as his father crawls around the floor in the severe stages of Alzheimer’s disease, unaware of who or where he is, blurring the boundaries between both realities but both motivated and rooted in a genocidal past.
The defiance of monstrosity is insistent and persistent, dispelling any counter-challenge to their version of events with a scripted dialogue of denial and assuming the role of actors, echo the carefully constructed sentiments of the post-genocide generation that continues to imbue the nation’s narrative of denial to this day. The prevailing anti-Communist discourse in contemporary Indonesia justifies its past by merely aligning itself with the overall international Communist fear that pervaded the 1960s but by interrogating such justifications from the perspective of witnesses and survivors, Oppenheimer philosophically and objectively debunks this script, amplifying a conversation in contemporary Indonesia that not only has long been long silenced but also been built on lies, fear and deceit.
The Look of Silence therefore is an invitation to look at an inaccessible past and assimilate the transgressions of moral boundaries that have shaped its present by challenging the perceptions of those transgressions, which have been continually constructed as normal. As is evident from the two narrative perspectives in both films, Oppenheimer does not condemn the persecutors or shower their victims in sympathy, nor does he reproach his audience for their curiosity in the repulsive. He does however, impel his murderers, his victims and his audiences to confront the acts and legacies of mass human brutality through the simple acts of performing and watching the executional tactics which paralyzed and stained a nation that still refuses to talk.
While the The Look of Silence asks to be viewed through different eyes than its predecessor The Act of Killing, both are frighteningly significant films that carry equal weight in ending decades of orchestrated silence that would have otherwise remained unseen and unheard. While the former may not jolt as much as its predecessor owing to its oppressors’ absurd cinematic dramatizations of their own slaughtering methods, it does offer a hopeful platform whereby the existing powers, who persistently depreciate the barbarity of their horrendous crimes, are visibly confronted and challenged, thereby revising an episode they have consistently insisted on devising and narrowing the gulf between the anonymous murderers and the silenced victims of genocide.
The Look of Silence is released 12th June 2015