by Kathie Smith
In 1965, a failed coup marked a significant shift in power in Indonesia. The country’s first president, Sukamo, was ousted in favor of Major General Suharto, who successfully suppressed the attempted coup with military might. The Indonesian Communist Party was blamed for the crisis, and simmering anti-communist sentiment exploded into a barbaric display of power and violence. Indiscriminate lists of communists were made, young street thugs were recruited as death squads (so the purge would be seen as an act of citizens rather than the military, even though everyone knew better), and, a year later, somewhere between 500,000 to 1 million people were dead. Those responsible for the purge and the gross misconduct of authority still hold power in Indonesia today and are hailed, at least in public, as heroes.
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous
Producer: Signe Byrge Sørensen
Premiere: August 28, 2014 – Venice Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: July 17, 2015
US Distributor: Drafthouse Films
Director Joshua Oppenheimer was catapulted to the forefront of the documentary scene with The Act of Killing, a film that shed light on the most horrific aspects of this historical crevasse. Earning a pre-release stamp of approval from Errol Morris and Werner Herzog (who both served as executive producers), The Act of Killing is one of the most unsettling docs to surface in some time, and one that openly embraces the brutality of its subjects for an effect that is irreverent, disturbing and, of course, controversial. But in the early 2000s when Oppenheimer set out to make a film about the Indonesian anti-communist killings, he had no intentions of patching together a surreal and somewhat glamorized testimonial of the perpetrators. The film he wanted to make was about a man, Adi Rukun, investigating the 1965 death of his brother. But when the army swooped in to block his efforts by threatening Rukun’s family, Oppenheimer was forced to take another approach. That approach led him into direct talks with the leaders of the death squads—aging men still lauded as heroes who killed thousands, often with their bare hands, under the banner of ridding the country of communists. Their willingness to boastfully reenact their vicious exploits, often with a flurry of movie-making pizzazz, was the dark tunnel of shock and awe that became The Act of Killing.
While entrenched in The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer was able not only to build a certain amount of trust and clout among the authorities (he was, after all, filming the story of their “heroic struggle”) but also to do a little research of his own into the death of Adi’s brother. What he discovered served as the basis for resurrecting his original project and allowed him to stand in solidarity with one of the families who were victims in a genocide that is still misconstrued as a valiant battle. The Look of Silence is not so much the other side of the coin from The Act of Killing as it is a reflection of events from a more personal angle and—maybe more importantly—a subtle form of empowerment for a group that has long been completely powerless.
Adi Rukun wasn’t even born yet when the army and the death squads running amok at the time murdered his older brother, Ramli. Ramli had crawled back home after being stabbed twice and left for dead, only to be taken away again, murdered with ruthless cruelty, and tossed in the river. Adi, born two years later, may not have known his brother, but he grew up with the legacy of his death and the emotional burden it left on his parents, making him a somewhat perfect person for an inquest. Armed with video testimony of his brother’s killers—one of whom even wrote an illustrated memoir of his achievements, titled Dew of Blood, highlighting Ramli’s treatment--The Look of Silence chronicles Adi’s confrontation with his brother’s fate as he faces Ramli’s tormentors, talks to his elderly mother about what she has endured, and considers his family’s, his village’s and, to some extent, his country’s scarred collective unconscious.
Adi’s thoughtful and kind demeanor governs the tone of The Look of Silence and Oppenheimer builds in moments of reflection throughout with still shots of tranquil village landscapes (albeit locations haunted by violence)—a sharp contrast to the swaggering and shocking bravado of The Act of Killing. We inhabit the intimate spaces of Adi and his family, including his two young children but more importantly his elderly parents. His mother, sharp as a tack despite her age, shares the events around Ramli’s death with an emotional and physical clarity like it just happened yesterday. His father—104 years old by his identification card, 17 years old by his own admission—certainly represents the physical degradation that a hard life can have on a person.
The film’s key moments, however, arrive as Adi comes face to face with the people responsible for his brother’s death, both directly and indirectly. Unlike the men Oppenheimer interviews for The Act of Killing, nearly all the men and women Adi meets react hesitantly, suspiciously, and defensively towards his inquiries. (So much for bragging to the American about killing the communists.) In one such case, Adi, who works as an optometrist in his day-to-day life, goes to the house of Inong, one of the men who was responsible for the actual killing of Ramli. Inong was only glad to share with Oppenheimer ten years before how he had helped kill Ramli in graphic detail, but as Adi presses him—all the while, still checking his eyes—on how many times he would cut someone with his machete when killing them, Inong turns pathetically wary: “I don’t like these questions.” And then he turns to Oppenheimer running the camera and says, “Joshua, I don’t like you anymore.”
As a documentarian, Oppenheimer has a knack for taking careful advantage of people’s personal emotional space (something that no doubt caught Errol Morris’ attention early on), and The Look of Silence capitalizes on this skill. Oppenheimer records a conversation between Adi and one of the death squad leaders whose adult daughter, his caretaker, happens to be in the room. The daughter first explains how proud she was when she realized her father helped rid the country of communists, but then the discussion digresses and the man starts describing how he would drink the blood of his victims to avoid going crazy (apparently a common practice). Adi listens with a concentrated look that subtly conveys his disbelief, disgust and sadness while the daughter, hearing this for the first time, nervously seems to be suppressing the compulsion to get sick—and she admits as much. The discussion ends in a heartbreaking attempt at reconciliation between the confusion and grief. Oppenheimer’s ability to capture such moments is astonishing.
Despite its less overt nature and more direct intent, The Look of Silence is still not a documentary for the faint of heart but is essential for attempting to understand and recognize human nature’s darkest tendencies toward power, arrogance and violence. (It’s far too easy, unfortunately, to find such examples in our own society, whether it’s in the acts of our own law enforcement or the acts of an American tourist in Zimbabwe hunting big game.) As Indonesia struggles to find its identity as this history looms over the present day, both on the micro level of individual communities and the macro level of world politics, Adi, his children, and the daughter of the death squad member represent an opportunity to change the course of conversation. The Look of Silence falls slightly short of The Act of Killing and Oppenheimer spends far too much time visually considering Adi’s father’s decrepit body, but The Look of Silence is a crucial humanist addendum to the far more audacious Act of Killing. Through his perseverance to negotiate and shift perspective on the killings one person at a time, Adi shows that silence in the face of tragedy may be the most deadly act of all.