“If we didn’t drink human blood, we’d go crazy”
Just when you thought a documentary couldn’t get more harrowing than Joshua Oppenheimer‘s look at murderers in The Act of Killing, the director gives editorial power to their victims in The Look of Silence. The descriptive label “companion piece” is apt because they both exist in tandem to find the truth from every angle of the 1965 Indonesian genocide wherein all who opposed a military coup (“Communists”) were rounded up and exterminated. Rather than Oppenheimer behind the camera asking questions of these monsters still in charge of the country and basking in the wealth their heinous crimes afforded them, the narrator switches to a forty-four year old optometrist called Adi (his complete identity hidden in case his interviewees covet more blood) in full view of subject and audience.
Adi wasn’t born until about two years after these million innocent Indonesians were slaughtered in the name of greed and power, but he was intrinsically affected by the blight on national history nevertheless. Not only was he subsequently raised in the fallout under an education system that’s still brainwashing to this day via entrenched fear so those responsible are lauded as heroes and those dead enemies of the state, but his own brother Ramli is revealed to be one of the poor souls this revisionist tale of uprising tread upon. His murder wasn’t just another face in the crowd, though. His execution was so prolific that the men who held the machetes and those commanding the deed from positions of authority all remember his name with discomforting pride.
Ramli is the impetus of this story—a name Oppenheimer came across too many times in stories from those interviewed around his village during the eleven-year production schedule of The Act of Killing. How could he not search for the victim’s family to hear their side of the tale? What sets Oppenheimer so profoundly apart from many documentary filmmakers, however, is that he didn’t instinctively make the discovery about him. Many would have consciously or unconsciously exploited Adi and his parents (Mom’s tamarind cutting housewife caring for Dad’s 103-year old blind cripple) by inciting a response either individually or in a “Jerry Springer”-esque way by forcing oppressor and oppressed together. Instead he gives Adi the film by relinquishing all power to become cameraman and liaison towards potential closure.
The Look of Silence becomes a document of unparalleled bravery in this respect—the title itself describing Adi’s disquieting, tear-filled stare as he watches Oppenheimer’s early-aughts footage. Here are the actual men who stabbed and beat his brother helping each other down the Snake River hillside bathed in blood just a half century ago. They speak Ramli’s name with laughter at the memory of what they did and Adi’s reaction, besides distraught silence, is to wonder whether their numbness to the severity of their crimes comes from so much regret and guilt that their brains cannot fully process what they’ve done. His parents know—every victim’s family does—who killed their son. His Mom admits walking by them in town. Adi seeks their acknowledgement.
Interspersed alongside Adi’s television sessions watching Oppenheimer’s interviews and moments with his own children to understand how pervasive the dictatorial regime’s lies have become are eye exam sessions placing him at arm’s length with his brother’s killers. It’s an ingenious conceit being that these men have “befriended” Joshua from his time with them before. They trust him to return to their homes with the camera and this stranger looking to hear stories of the past. Unlike the director’s more passive role in letting his subjects willfully incriminate themselves with stories of “heroism,” Adi’s questions hit much closer to home. He pokes and prods to force them into admitting blame. They become steely or angry, defensive or dismissive. And then Adi tells them who he is.
There are no words to describe the change in demeanor and expression that occurs when Adi admits his relation to their victims. Some grow remorsefully quiet, some aggressively cocky, and others trapped inside a convenient lapse of memory. Men so prideful and nostalgic telling an outsider like Oppenheimer’s Dane about their exploits now find themselves on the hot seat as the veil of faux-glorification comes down. Part of their transformation is targeted at the director for “fooling” them, but most is focused directly on Adi. While you almost have to feel for the handful suddenly left speechless when words couldn’t be stopped seconds earlier, fear is unavoidable for those we can see thinking about the brutal punishment they would have inflicted upon both men fifty years prior.
Adi is literally putting himself and his family at risk by doing this because refusing to disclose his last name or village isn’t a guarantee these men won’t find him. Some may even feel obligated after realizing they’re response was to throw the government under the bus with a “we were under orders” defense. To go from chin held high to tail between legs so swiftly is to dismantle the lie schools have been teaching and international media fed. Whether they apologize with words or eyes, the instant they acknowledge wrongdoing rips a crack in the façade built over decades of deceit. The same goes for threats that Adi is opening closed wounds. To say the killings may now restart proves how baseless and evil they always were.
Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence allows Adi to respond to The Act of Killing and its role in exposing the truth. That first film emboldened him and other survivors to explain what happened—to corroborate the stories the killers have told but with the solemnity and pained sorrow they deserve. It can get repetitive as Adi goes from guilty party to guilty party—even confronting his own uncle who worked security at the prison—but that’s a necessary result to understand how prevalent the corruption and amorality. And by the end we start to see the film’s real purpose in its more intimate venue than its predecessor. Oppenheimer showed the world that these men were monsters. Adi now ensures Indonesia knows. This is what your fathers really are.
courtesy of Drafthouse Films