FILM REVIEW: The Look of Silence

“Under your legislature over a million people were slaughtered…”

“Well, that’s politics…” *laughs*

The response of one of the Indonesian heads of state, under whose watch the military slayed, to order, over a million Indonesian communists.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s previous foray into the tragic events of 1960s Indonesia took on a bizarre, macabre style in that men that had directly been responsible for the slaughter of so many innocent souls were invited to re-enact their killings for the camera in a cinematic style of their choosing. Oppenheimer chose not to take sides, instead allowing the perpetrators time and opportunity to mull over their deeds and by and large come to very grave realisations about their past wrong doings.

In The Look of Silence, his follow up offering, the stance is a little different…

Adi’s is a very personal story.

He lost his brother, Ramli, to the barbarity of the military regime in unspeakably horrific fashion. His quest? To approach those involved through the guise of his profession, an optician, and in doing so, ask each of them the pertinent questions, face to face.

These are old men now whose health is not what it was, so it’s not so much a mission of vengeance, more a psychological probing to ascertain the details of what they did, but more so, to make them re-live it in their own heads, to make them take personal responsibility for what they did and look for any signs of remorse and regret; more in hope than anything.

One by one those implicated are questioned and one by one they squirm,  wriggle and attempt to justify their actions, but their reasoning is hollow and shown up for what it is, the feeble defence of the guilty.

Quite how Adi maintains a dignified stance throughout (although the cracks start to show as the film progresses), is best known only to him. I assume the knowledge that to make too much of a commotion about the issue, whilst not exactly incurring the wrath of frail old men in varying states of senility, may however alert the authorities to his motives and put both he and his family in grave danger. Still to this day, to rake up the atrocities of the past in public is not a particularly wise move.

This line of one-on-one questioning is inter-cut with footage of Adi watching a video of his brother’s murderers, walking the viewer through the actual steps and actions they took in torturing, mutilating and ultimately killing him. The matter-of-fact nature of this is both startling and surreal in equal measures. It’s hard to know what’s going through Adi’s mind as he watches; the camera trained close up on his face; The Look Of Silence, indeed…

There’s a resigned melancholy that pervades this film. Adi’s long suffering elderly mother and father are a couple pushing 100 or more. Adi’s father insists he’s no more than seventeen but admits to having forgotten his true age. His mother’s days are filled with the considerable task of taking care of her mostly deaf, blind and senile husband and attending to the daily chores. Any time that she does have to herself she seems to spend in quiet contemplation; it’s a fair bet that much of this time is spent reflecting on the injustice of her son Ramli’s brutal death.

It is quite simply an astonishing film.

With the closing credits rolling, largely credited to ‘anonymous,’ it’s difficult to argue that The Look Of Silence, along with The Act of Killing, will both become benchmark documentaries for many years to come.

They are masterful observations of psychology and the human condition. Without resorting to gratuitous violence or milking the terror through bloodied, historic reconstructions, they perfectly encapsulate the all too familiar story of a brainwashed, herd mentality and man’s subsequent inhumanity to his fellow man.

A masterpiece.

Hard going, but essential viewing.






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