As the companion piece to 2012’s The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s new documentary The Look of Silence shifts the focus this time onto the victims of Indonesia’s anti-communist killings of 1965. While much more straight-forward and palatable than its predecessor, with the film trading off its polarising film-within-a-film format for more conventional interviews between victims and killers, The Look of Silence is a worthy continuation of The Act of Killing.
The Look of Silence follows just one victim, optometrist Adi Rukun, whose older brother Ramli was murdered by Kommando Aksi death squad members during the 1965 killings. Adi, who is shown footage of Ramli’s killers cheerfully re-enacting his murder, looks to confront and expose the aging men involved as they continue to be protected and respected by Indonesian society.
The central role of Adi, who is open in revealing his identity to the killers, in conducting the interviews makes every encounter tense and gripping. The cautionary words of Adi’s mother, who suggests he takes a weapon as protection, highlights the danger he places himself in by facing these still-powerful men. Brief yet suspenseful moments of calm silence as the killers and their families listen to Adi’s story soon erupt into defensive and aggressive claims by the perpetrators. Adi’s frustration with the killers’ denial of responsibility and repeatedly stated attitude that “the past is past” leads him to ask more emotionally-charged and hard-hitting questions, provoking these chaotic moments, though none lead to the self-revelations experienced by the killers in The Act of Killing.
It is clear through these interviews that the divisions that caused the killings still exist due to deeply-ingrained ideologies regarding religion and politics, with many killers justifying their actions as necessary due to the victims’ lack of religion or supposed communist ideals. The defensive perspective and values of the Indonesian government are shown as being almost perpetual and inescapable, as Oppenheimer focuses on the uncomfortable expression on the face of Adi’s son as his teacher praises the heroics of the government in authorising the killings. Despite this, the third act of The Look of Silence suggests that the ignorance surrounding the killings can be dispelled through the opening of a dialogue between both sides. Adi’s interview with a former Kommando Aksi member and his daughter reveals this, as the daughter’s initial pride in her father’s actions turns into silent horror as he tells of drinking the blood of his victims in order to stay sane; a practice echoed in the accounts of several other killers. Her request of forgiveness on the part of her father, whose declining mental health mirrors that of Adi’s father, is evidence that Oppenheimer is successful in his aim to use film to force change and awareness, if only initially on an individual basis.
Punctuating The Look of Silence and separating these emotional interviews are lingering, static shots of the Indonesian landscape, with many of these shots focusing on the place of Ramli’s murder: Snake River. These shots not only provide momentary respite from the constant and graphic descriptions of violence, but also, somewhat ironically, allow the viewer to deeply consider the acts that took place there. The complete absence of non-diegetic music throughout the film, which emphasises the reflective nature of these shots, also lends more weight to the words of both the victims and killers.
While not as revolutionary or impactful as The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer’s follow-up continues to expose the impact of Indonesia’s violent past, though this time it is the victims, not the killers, who control the conversation.