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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Review: The Look of Silence (2015)

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Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

"You can't imagine what would have happened." That's the response given to the interviewer when he asks what would have happened to him if he were asking the questions he's asking during the period of the "Communist" purge. It's a chilling thing to read in print, but it's even more so to see and hear it said, its impact in no way dulled by the fact that it's surrounded by other deeply disturbing moments. The Look of Silence is director Joshua Oppenheimer's companion piece to his 2013 documentary The Act of Killing, and tackles the same subject as that previous film (the Indonesian killings of 1965-66) but from the perspective of the family of one of the victims, and in the absence of the overt stylization of the first film. Though it would hardly seem possible, The Look of Silence is somehow even more powerful and harrowing than the previous film.

In revisiting the subject of his previous film, Oppenheimer employs Adi, an optometrist whose older brother was murdered during the purge, as his on camera surrogate, filming as Adi speaks to people in his village about the Communist purges which left half a million people dead. Though the events that Adi is investigating took place 50 years ago, Adi's investigation is fraught with danger and tension, his questions met largely with hostility, and sometimes with veiled threats, and his participation in the documentary causing concern both to his mother, who already suffered the loss of one son, and to his wife, who worries about the ramifications of what he's doing on them and their family. However, Adi has reasons for why he's risking so much, one being to make the perpetrators publicly acknowledge what they did (not for the purpose of revenge, mind you, but as a means of forcing the killers to admit that his brother was a person and not some random piece of refuse that they disposed of), the other being to make his son see the historical truth behind the propaganda that he's taught in school and cheerfully parrots back to his father. It's his son's confusion when corrected about the misinformation he's repeating that seems to give Adi the strength he needs to take this journey, acting as a constant reminder of the necessity of bringing the truth to light: the longer the conspiracy of silence and ignorance remains unchallenged, the more thoroughly the memory of his brother, and other victims, becomes erased.

Adi speaks to the now elderly members of the local death squad, and to politicians. He doesn't hide who he is but doesn't always make a point of it either, sometimes not revealing that his brother was a victim of the purges until well into a conversation, and he doesn't confront people with anger, though that's how they sometimes respond. One of the fascinating aspects of the film is watching the mental somersaults that the people Adi speaks to have to perform in order to justify their actions and the actions of their family members, or to make themselves appear as blameless as possible. One man, who was a member of the death squad, informs Adi that it would be sinful to cut a human being more than once so he made sure to only deliver one cut, to the throat, when he killed. When Adi points out that the man has already described cutting one man multiple times, the response is that when someone is bad it's okay to hack them up (this is laying aside the man's admission that killing is against the teachings of Islam but that he participated in mass killings for religious reasons). In another scene (arguably the film's most powerful) Adi visits a member of the death squad and his daughter, the daughter revealing that as a child she was proud of the fact that her father played a role in ridding the country of Communists. As the man describes some of what he did (including collecting the blood of victims in a glass and then drinking it as a result of a superstition that the only way to kill a person without going crazy was to ingest their blood), the camera focuses on the daughter's face as it becomes frozen in discomfort and horror. When Adi reveals that his brother was a victim of the purge, both the man and the daughter are shaken into momentary silence (this is the look the title refers to) and then the daughter begins tossing out excuses - that she didn't know (though she just said that it used to be a source of pride), that her father is a senile old man (though he's just described his past actions in some detail), that what's important now is forgiveness and putting the past behind them. That's all anyone that Adi speaks to seems to want - for everyone to move on, but to do so without actually acknowledging what they're moving on from and without anyone having to accept culpability for it.

This desire on the part of seemingly everyone around him to simply erase the unpleasant parts of the past drives Adi on a personal level and Oppenheimer on a professional one. Though it is sort of glanced over in The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer uses The Look of Silence to make a more direct point about the guilt of Western governments in the purges. One interview subject states that they (meaning "the people," who the official history states rose up on their own to rid the country of Communists without the participation of the government and military) learned to hate Communists from the Americans, a claim which might seem specious were it not for clips from an NBC newscast from the 1980s in which the reporter on the ground in Indonesia speaks to a local about the mass deaths of Communists in the 1960s and is told that those Communists who died turned themselves in and asked to be murdered (a claim which is made with a straight face and went apparently unquestioned by the reporter). Communism was a convenient excuse and one which ensured that, despite the deaths of half a million people, there would be no Western intervention. But there's more than merely an ideological (or "ideological") root to these horrific events, as the news clips demonstrate the economic "justification," showing all the alleged Communists who weren't murdered but were instead turned into slave labor at rubber plantations. Oppenheimer makes these political points without a heavy hand and the impact is all the greater for how thoroughly he explores the personal, human impact of these events that are ultimately larger than any one person, government, or part of the world.

Even though Oppenheimer, by virtue of the fact that he has Adi there on screen acting as his surrogate, presents The Look of Silence from a more arm's length directorial position than he did The Act of Killing (where he remained unseen, but his presence off screen keenly felt), it plays as a much more personal story. Parts of the film consist merely of the camera watching Adi while he watches Oppenheimer's footage of members of the death squad discussing what they did, speaking not just in broad terms but talking specifically (and in terrible, graphic detail) about Adi's brother and how they murdered him. It is impossible not to be shaken watching these scenes, or to be moved by scenes involving Adi and his parents, both of whom are over 100 years old (I confess that their advanced ages and Adi's relatively young age left me wondering if perhaps they're actually his grandparents and the man who was murdered really his father rather than brother), his father now deaf, blind, and suffering from dementia. Compared to The Act of Killing, which was theatrical in its very nature, The Look of Silence is a film stripped bare, presented without ostentation or flourish. It doesn't require either; it's so deeply human, so naturally moving and heart wrenching. Difficult as it can be to watch (and it is), The Look of Silence is an incredible film that ought to be seen.

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