In 1965, there was an anti-communist purge in Indonesia and the militia overthrew the government and ordered that all communists be detained, or killed. These supposed “communists” were anyone who stood against the military and they were met with brutal killings and imprisonments. Those same warlords are still in power and the genocide was never discussed. Adi is the brother of Ramli, an alleged communist who was brutally murdered by warlords. Adi’s mother and father are growing well into their 100’s and his death still affects them. Now, Adi is faced with footage of the men who killed his brother and has the opportunity to confront them.
The Look of Silence proves to be just as evocative as The Act of Killing, while still managing to tell a similar story through a separate lens. The primary focus of the Indonesian genocide remains the same and some archival footage is reminiscent of the warlords acting out how they killed the supposed “communists”, but in the film’s context they take on an even more powerful meaning when they describe how they affected just one single family. For nearly two hours, the audience sat in disbelief, horror, and sadness as they watched this film change the face of documentaries, again.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer ushered in a new way to tell a story in a documentary by having these Indonesian warlords reenact their gruesome killings on camera because they were all obsessed with film. Gangster films, dramas, romances, and action fueled their sadistic and movie-like killings and them watching their performances brought them to tears. Here, Oppeheimer has one man watch a interviews that had been done with similar warlords, this time focusing on how they killed his brother. With every new viewing, Adi learns more about his brother’s killers and the fact that they have no remorse, until he confronts them. That idea to have him face his killers and to film their reactions was incredibly dangerous for his and his family’s safety, but it makes for a more compelling story.
Adi didn’t even know his brother, but his death made a large impact in his family, in the sense that nothing would ever be the same. He didn’t have any connection with his brother, but felt responsible to find his killers and forgive them of their wrongdoing. He’s unafraid to talk politics and about things that make many uncomfortable and his digging around comes close to getting him killed. He’s opening the wounds that he’s told should remain closed and he’s going back to explore the past, something the warlords say should remain in the past, less he wants more genocide. He remains respectful to everyone, but his determination sees him asking the hardest questions.
Even more disturbing than the questions asked or the deaths described is the fact that so many of these warlords don’t take responsibility for their actions. Whether they were chopping off communists heads, drinking the blood of the dead to keep from going crazy, or guarding the prisoners, they’re all involved in helping slaughter one million innocent Indonesians. When confronted by Adi, many begin to grow emotional and cry, but they beg and plead and tell him they were just following orders. Someone higher-up was commanding them and they didn’t know people were dying. They attempt to bury the past, just as many attempt to bury slavery and the holocaust because it’s hard t talk about those important historical events. Their guilt, or lack thereof is disturbing and Oppenheimer catches footage of the type of person who blames and keeps society from progressing.
Much like The Act of Killing, many warlords are filmed gleefully discussing how they chopped off women’s breasts and stabbed many men until they died. They talked of dragging people naked and tied up down roads and chopping their heads off. They also discuss the fact that the “communists’ probably did nothing, but who are they to oppose orders? These sadistic men managed to keep their pasts a secret from their families and when confronted with Oppenheimer and Adi, the family claims they can’t see this side of their father/husband and that they should pity and have mercy on a man laid to rest. THEY ask for pity for a man who illustrated his meticulous killings and laughed about the ways his dismembered innocent human beings. Never have I felt so disgusted with a group of people we can’t even describe as human.
The Look of Silence is just as important as The Act of Killing and they’re films that should be seen together. Not only do they raise awareness to a genocide that many don’t know happened, but they’re also starting conversations in Indonesia about the genocide. Before these films, intimidation was used to keep the citizens from discussing the communists and in school they were taught about how the communists were the bad guys. Now, because of Oppenheimer and these brilliant films, people are talking about the genocide and are confronting the men who manipulated the country and there’s actually a dialogue in this world. These films may be hard to watch, but they are incredibly important for the future, for the Indonesians, and for what a director is capable of doing with film.
The Look of Silence Trailer