director Joshua Oppenheimer
Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence is a very different film than his The Act of Killing (2012) though it deals with the same facts and histories of the Indonesian Genocide of 1965-1966 and its reality in present day Indonesia for survivors and perpetrators. The Look of Silence is a more conventional film, not predicated on the surreal reenactments and theater of The Act of Killing, but rather its focus is on Adi Rukun, a 44 year old optometrist who dares to question the killers of his older brother and thousands of others, questions that raise ire and threats from the aging criminals who still retain great power in their communities.
The film is a response in some ways to the work that Oppenheimer put into The Act of Killing. Adi was a friend of Oppenheimer’s as he researched and developed the earlier film over a period of a decade. Adi witnessed a lot of the footage that Oppenheimer shot of the murderers recalling their crimes with pride and braggadocio, including very specifically the murder of Adi’s own brother (who was actually killed before Adi was conceived). This is Adi’s movie, the story of his family, his 103 old father, blind and barely mentally “there”, his elderly mother who still cares for and washes his father, whose mind is still intensely sharp and whose recall of the murder of her son still exquisite in its pain.
Oppenheimer’s films don’t always spell everything out, he shuns text presenting information in films and leaves the subjects to tell their stories in their various ways. He still is very much “in” the movie himself, having worked very hard to insinuate himself into this world allowing him access to the subjects to tell their stories. His process is about recording and making explicit knowledge about the genocide that is actively suppressed and recast by the government.
Oppenheimer has stated that this film was much more physically dangerous to make, not just for him and his largely unnamed crew, but in particular for Adi and his family. The potential repercussions required their family to relocate away from those who might try to not just threaten them but make good on those threats. Adi’s questions are polite and yet inflammatory. One certainly hopes for his and his family’s continued well-being.
These two films are a pair, different as they are, both very polemical and political. The films have both since been released in Indonesia and have initiated some aspects of change in the culture and dialog about the true history of this all. And in the long run, that is Oppenheimer’s intent. What comes of that, I suppose only time will tell.
What these films mean for those of us in “the West”? Knowledge of this hidden history is significant and important, especially the facts and truths (not delved into deeply here but clearly alluded to) about the West’s involvement in these horrors, political, government sanctioned support and corporate insinuation (e.g. Goodyear employing slave labor at rubber plantation, slaves who would later be slain as communists.)
It’s a fine film and hopefully an important one. But it’s not as profound and uncanny as The Act of Killing. Really, how could it be? The Act of Killing is one of the most fascinating and profound films I have seen. I wondered if The Look of Silence would be anything like it. It’s not, which is right in its own terms.