Sunday, 6 December 2015

REVIEW: The Look of Silence (2015)

Considered one of the best films of the year in 2012/3, The Act of Killing was a disturbing documentary about the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide of 1965 who still live in impunity, considered heroes for their slaughter. Joshua Oppenheimer’s new film The Look of Silence has often been considered as a film that addresses the criticisms that The Act of Killing encountered, though the two films were really made concurrently. While the earlier film was questioned for its lack of context and its willingness to allow the perpetrators to speak in place of their victims – even going so far as to almost complicit with their crimes – The Look of Silence offers a more confrontational approach to the killers and places the victims in the centre of events.

The film follows Adi, an ophthalmologist, whose own brother Ramli was murdered before Adi was born. After watching some footage shot by Oppenheimer of two killers bragging shamelessly about their crimes in scenes similar to those in The Act of Killing, Adi and Oppenheimer embark on a series of confrontations with some of the killers, using his experience as an ophthalmologist as a cover.

The Look of Silence is a tough watch, but it is also easier to like, freed as it is of the moral complicity of The Act of Killing by focussing on the pain of the victims and by confronting the killers. In each interviews, Adi casually asks the killers about what they did and what they think about it, allowing them to boast and confess their crimes, before revealing his identity and the details of his brother’s death. Interviewees includes the heads of local families, leaders of death squads and even M.Y. Basrun, speaker of the legislature. Each, when told the truth about Adi and his motives, offer similar, depressingly human, rationalisations for their crimes, feeble threats and panicked denials. Oppenheimer’s camera lingers on the faces, both of Adi and his interviewees, often concentrating on their faces when there are no words left to say – the titular look of silence.

Beyond the trickery and the sight of the murderer’s finally having to squirm out of the facts of the past (shades of Shoah here), the film is constructive. It displays the silence and fear of the victims. Adi is told by Basrun that the killings will begin again if the victims’ families continue to want justice. Another interviewee suggests that Adi is part of a communist plot and threateningly attempts to find out what his name is and where he is from. It also shows that, despite the frequent calls of the killers and some of the victims to forget the past, Indonesia will not overcome its problems until these questions are asked and the impunity of the killers is removed. The film ultimately makes the case for truth and reconciliation, but also shows that the victims who remains in Indonesia are still in a very tenuous and dangerous position – a criticism of the here and now in Indonesia and, hence, important and valuable.

More than The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence is about the lies that surround Indonesia’s past. Early in the film, we see archive footage of an American news report about the genocide which, though not hiding the violence and the suffering (how could it?), complacently suggests that the killing was being done with the support of the population, was indeed being carried out by the people themselves, was not being orchestrated by a military dictatorship. We see footage of Goodyear Company’s Sumatran rubber plant, where the workers are all accused ‘communists’ working as slaves at gunpoint – the American reporter is sickeningly casual about this open abuse. Later, we are in a classroom, during a history lesson, hearing a teacher shamelessly indoctrinating his students, including Adi’s son, giving gruesome lessons about communist atrocities and recommending full compliance with the state. Though both scenes are about the past, they are also about the present, and reveal the film’s strategy of talking about the fear, suffering and silence of the modern Indonesian state by revealing the horrors of the past. The film acts as a powerful corrective to the lies of Indonesia and the West today.

Centring on Adi, who confronts the killers with a remarkable bravery and composure, The Look of Silence puts the focus on the victims and, in the meetings between the victim and the killer, on the future. Though Oppenheimer is not particularly interested in authenticity – there are many scenes here that feel staged – he has created a work that confronts the lies about Indonesia’s past and which gives a voice to the victim’s, one expressive not of their wish for revenge but of their wish for the truth, justice and ultimately safety and security. It is a powerful statement and an important, disturbing film about Indonesia and about all of us.

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