The Look of Silence

The Look of Silence ★★★★½

In Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing, the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide were given the tools to re-enact the atrocities they committed as whatever fantastical motion picture creation they imagined. With The Look of Silence, the perspective is flipped to that of the survivors and the otherworldly fantasy is drained away.

The brother of a man brutally murdered many decades ago sets out to confront his killers, who still live - comfortably, famously and without remorse. Coming to them under the pretense of testing their failing vision, he gradually introduces hard questions, upsetting their moral delusions and hoping to bring forth a new acknowledgement of the barbarity they engaged in. His mother laments her son's death and his father, blind, nearly deaf and frighteningly gaunt, cannot even recall who his son was.

If there is any surreality to speak of left over from The Act of Killing, it is the haunting shadow of death that hangs over a quiet land, teeming with ghosts crying out in vain. The painful silence that the film's title alludes to is all around. It is in the image of a lonely river at twilight (a river once polluted with blood and body parts bobbing dreamily with the current). It is in the gaze of a man looking into the very same eyes that watched giddily as his brother was castrated and disemboweled. It is in the nervous fidgeting an old murderer does when the laughter from his "heroic exploits" dissolves from the room and the memory's grotesque reality lingers in the air.

Oppenheimer has created another near-masterpiece that works as a perfect companion piece to The Act of Killing. It's an extremely forceful work, but in a very subtle way. We don't see pictures and an old American newsreel offers the only direct view into the violence of the time (which is of course, very glossed over). Instead we are left to listen to the killers' accounts and closely observe their reactions to the subject's attempts to tear them from their comfort zones. It's eerie and truly fascinating to watch these men recall what they did and what they're justifications are.

How does one live with themselves after killing (personally and indirectly) thousands of people? Deluding yourself is the only way. Framing the barbarian as the hero. Deflecting the significance because "it happened so long ago." Refusing to watch the footage of your father happily admitting to being a murderer and accusing the messenger of emotionally assaulting you because you "didn't know about it and it has nothing to do with you."

There's loads of disturbing truth in the telling lines and images of Oppenheimer's film. We listen to two men describe the way they beat, slaughtered and dragged shrieking innocents to a watery dumping ground before pausing to admire the prettiness and aroma of a roadside flower. We hear them admit that one of their victims was "probably a good man, but it was a revolution, what can you do?" We hear an old commander pompously declare his reprehensible deeds and then weakly backtrack once he realizes that the person he's speaking to is a victim's relative. We witness another one dismiss it all simply as "politics." The capacity human beings have to rationalize and normalize wickedness is on full display and it's absolutely mesmerizing in a terribly morbid way.

Throughout it all the audience is presented the image of the subject sitting alone with a small TV set playing the interviews of his brother's gleeful killers. Looking on, he does not blink or cry. There is only the vacant stare of disbelief and hopelessness. That kind of visual is all too common in The Look of Silence and it wouldn't be a stretch to say that by the end, that expression will likely spread to the audience.


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