In his previous film, the sensational The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer explored the genocides that occurred in Indonesia during 1965-66 through the eyes of the most unlikely of sources…the men who did the killings. By having the death-squad leaders re-enact their murders in the film style of their choosing, Oppenheimer exposed the chilling mixture of pride and corruption that still resided in each of them and the Indonesian government at large. The Look of Silence, which can be viewed as a companion piece to The Act of Killing, covers similar territory, but aims to dig a far deeper trench of emotions than its predecessor.
Instead of leading the investigative charge himself, this time around Oppenheimer places the responsibility on the shoulders of Adi Rukun, a traveling optometrist who goes around fitting the elderly, several of whom are former death-squad members, with new glasses. Adi’s brother, Ramli, was one of the millions of people who brutally lost their life at the hands of the corrupt regime after being unfairly labelled a communist. Though born two year after his brother’s demise, the reverberations of Ramli’s passing still shake the Rukun clan to the core. Like many others present around the time of the Snake River mass murders, the Rukuns are now forced to support a government, and live alongside the families of death-squad members, as if nothing ever happened.
“The past is the past” is a common refrain that Adi hears when he sits down to chat with several of the death-squad leaders. While proudly detailing their roles in the genocide, including drinking the blood of their victims to stave off bouts of madness, the men are reluctant to truly take any blame for their actions. In fact they, and most of those who consider themselves to be on the winning side of the anti-communist regime, would rather blissfully ignore the harsh realities of the atrocities. At one point Inong, one of the men whose role played a part in Ramli’s death, uncomfortably snaps at Adi “you asked much deeper questions than Joshua ever did.” He follows up the statement up with a not too subtle warning of the immediate danger that will fall upon Adi and his family if he continues to pry open old wounds.
What individuals like Inong and others fail to realize in their tense interactions with Adi, who always remains calm even when they try to bait him into cowering, is that the wounds never healed in the first place. Sure the fields of Snake River may be covered in grass, but the fact that they have been fertilized by the bodies of the dead has not been forgotten.
The point especially hits home when Adi visits the family of the late death-squad leader who not only killed Ramli, but gleeful documented the horrific night in question by illustrating the events in his book. Stunned to hear that the patriarch took part in sadistic murders, the family’s reacts with a mixture of anger and remorse. Some blame Adi and Oppenheimer for stirring up long forgotten events, while others beg for forgiveness claiming they had nothing to do with the incident. However, by turning a blind eye to the situation and perpetuating the anti-communist propaganda, whose lies are still taught in schools today, they all bear some responsibility.
Their silence was just as damning as those who mutilated millions
Similar to the optometrist at the core of the film, The Look of Silence is concerned with getting a nation to truly open their eyes and acknowledge the genocides for what they truly were. It is only by seeing the full extent of the gaping generational wounds can the healing process in Indonesia properly begin.
Joshua Oppenheimer not only succeeds in surpassing the heights he had set with The Act of Killing, but does so with vivid emotion. He presents a documentary that is as riveting as it is important. Just as Adi Rukun sits in disbelief of what he sees – his sad eyes echo the emotional pain found on his mother’s face – the audience sits stunned by the resilience he displays in the film. Through Adi’s braveness, Oppenheimer is able to craft a film that shows why it is essential that we never stop questioning, and fighting to rectify, the atrocities of the past.