THE LOOK OF SILENCE (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2014)
323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St.
Saturday, June 13, $14, 9:15
Festival runs June 11-21 at multiple venues
Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence opens with an old man, wearing a pair of red optic trial lens frames, gazing into and around the camera for twelve uncomfortable seconds, in complete silence, showing no emotion. It is a striking metaphor for the rest of the film, a shocking documentary about the 1965–66 Indonesian genocide and a bold man determined to confront the men who brutally murdered his brother then, along with a million other supposed communists. In 2012, Oppenheimer made the Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing, in which the leaders of the genocide, who are still in power today, restaged their killings as if they were Hollywood movie scenes. Created as a companion piece to that documentary, The Look of Silence follows forty-four-year-old optometrist Adi as he learns the details of what happened to his brother, Ramli, who was butchered two years before Adi was born. Adi has decided to do what no one else in his country will: break his culture’s silence and denial and face the perpetrators to make them take responsibility for what they did. If they are willing to show remorse, he is willing to forgive. But he has set out on what appears to be an impossible mission; the men he meets with still run Indonesia, and they are more than comfortable threatening the well-being of Adi and his family. Meanwhile, Adi’s parents and patients don’t want to talk about what occurred back in 1965–66, or what is still going on today, as they live in fear of these same men. “No, nothing happened,” one woman says when asked about the killings in her town of Aceh. “You ask too many questions,” she adds. Kemat, a survivor of the Snake River massacres, says, “The past is the past. I’ve accepted it. I don’t want to remember. It’s just asking for trouble.” Adi learns horrifying details as he meets with village death squad leader Inong (the old man shown at the beginning of the film), Snake River death squad commander Amir Siahaan, and regional legislature speaker M. Y. Basrun, all of whom defend their actions, and their power and wealth, while more than hinting that Adi should end his quest. But Adi isn’t about to back down.
Adi is often shown in front of a television, mystified as Oppenheimer shows him footage taken for The Act of Killing; Adi stares ahead in disbelief and silence, much like we did when watching the final film, amazed at what we were seeing. It is a fascinating coincidence that Adi is an optometrist, going around his community fitting people for glasses, helping them see better, even if they don’t always want to look at certain things. He is appalled that his children’s school still teaches that the evil communists deserved to die; it’s particularly telling when his young daughter playfully puts on two pairs of glasses, as if perhaps the next generation will not look away — and to emphasize that, Oppenheimer cuts directly to Adi’s aging, decrepit father, Rukun (whom his wife, Adi’s mother, Rohani, claims is 140), his eyes closed, as he can barely see or hear anymore and needs to be taken care of like a baby. Adi has become a folk hero in Indonesia, where some regions have banned the film and screenings had to be canceled because of threats of violence from the police and military. But the film itself depicts Adi as an everyman; he could be any one of us, saying the things that need to be said. “Making any film about survivors of genocide is to walk into a minefield of clichés, most of which serve to create a heroic (if saintly) protagonist with whom we can identify, thereby offering the false reassurance that, in the moral catastrophe of atrocity, we are nothing like the perpetrators,” Oppenheimer (The Globalisation Tapes) writes in his extensive, must-read notes on the film’s official website. “But presenting survivors as saintly in order to reassure ourselves that we are good is to use survivors to deceive ourselves. It is an insult to survivors’ experience, and does nothing to help us understand what it means to survive atrocity, what it means to live a life shattered by mass violence, and to be silenced by terror. To navigate this minefield of clichés, we have had to explore silence itself.” In that way, to use a cliché, The Look of Silence speaks volumes. And although it’s specifically about the Indonesian genocide, it could just as easily be made about many other mass murders that have occurred, and are still going on, around the world.
Adi might be receiving long standing ovations at screenings where he appears, but it’s telling that the film’s closing credits include more than two dozen people listed as “Anonymous,” from the codirector and a coproducer to a camera operator and production managers. Clearly, fear still rules in Indonesia. An unforgettable film that needs to be widely seen, The Look of Silence, which was executive produced by Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and André Singer, is screening June 13 at 9:15 at the IFC Center as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and will be followed by a discussion with journalist Antonius Made Tony Supriatma and Human Rights Watch Asia division deputy director Phelim Kine. (The film will open theatrically in New York City on July 17 at the Landmark Sunshine.) The HRW festival runs through June 21 at IFC, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and the Times Center, featuring such other socially, culturally, and politically sensitive and important works as Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Joey Boink’s Burden of Peace, François Verster’s The Dream of Shahrazad, and Tamara Erde’s This Is My Land.