It was two years ago almost to the day that Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing and unshakable The Act of Killing, a brave and vital piece of revelatory political cinema, screened at the Sydney Film Festival. In the film Oppenheimer interviews gangsters responsible for killing thousands of communists in the mid 1960’s and challenges them to discuss and artistically recreate the killings, which forces them to come to accept the severity of what they did. The focus of the study is a man named Anwar Congo who gloats about the methods he use to kill these people without remorse, and he and many others still hold down positions of power and influence in their villages decades later. They live amongst younger generations of descendants of people they killed. What is perhaps most fascinating is how these men were influenced by gangsters in the cinema – how they dressed, and how their self-esteem was raised by powerful responsibility – and how cinema ultimately serves as a medium to recreate and convey their personal liberation.
The Look of Silence is a companion piece (but no less vital) to The Act of Killing, continuing to focus on the Communist genocide of 1965-66, but from a far more personal angle. Oppenheimer acknowledges the survivors of the Military Coup, and reveals even more of the very worst offenders who have now reached old age and remain unpunished. While not as artistically brash and original or grand in scale, it is no less devastating. In fact, there are moments in this film that pack more of emotional punch than anything in the preceding film. The Look of Silence won the Grand Jury and the FIPRESCI Prize at the 71st Venice International Film Festival and comes to the Sydney prior to any international theatrical release.
As a result of Oppenheimer’s filmed interviews with the perpetrators, a family who survived the genocide learn of the identities of the killers of their relative. These men live nearby and are treated as national heroes, while many survivors, like themselves, have been terrorized into political silence. The youngest son, Adi, born a few years after the genocide and distressed about the reality of raising his own children in such horrific circumstances, decides to confront the killers one by one and ask them about how they can live with what they did and how they feel about their victims knowing who they are.
Adi is an optometrist and he arranges visits with these men under the guise of testing the men’s eyes so that they can be fit with spectacles. Oppenheimer, who in many cases, had interviewed these men before, accompanies with his camera. Adi’s questions begin to delve deeper into the genocide, challenging these men to respond on the spot. They do so with often fiery retaliation and threats, failing to mask their fear and anger. Adi risks his life to be on camera. He is accused of Communist activity, and as a result of the interviews he has had to move his family to another part of Indonesia. In fact, much of the crew remain Anonymous in the credits for their protection.
These confrontations are the real deal, the true emotions of both sides. We see unresolved grief, and a rare glimpse into the soul of a man who is sitting in the same room as a representation of pure evil – a frail old man still full of violent inclination, trying to keep their damaged psyche undisturbed. Adi doesn’t necessarily exorcise the denial that these men have deeply internalized, but he does make them see more clearly the way that their actions continue to affect Indonesia today. Just how much do these men still remember? As their memory begins to rot – Adi’s father is in a bad way, and as some of these killers age more they may deteriorate similarly – have they transcended the sound body and mind capable of feeling guilt?
Adi’s journey takes him to the proud leader of the death squad who admits to drinking the blood of communists to avoid going crazy. Another has become an unbeatable politician. I was biting my nails towards the end as the shocking truths of one killer’s career are questioned and confirmed, while his adult daughter sits next to him. While she knew he worked for the military, the extent of his job was formerly unknown to her. She was too young at the time to understand. In an extremely powerful moment she hugs Adi (and they are both in tears) as he leaves. In the next interview, Adi visits the relatives of the man directly responsible for the death of his brother. He has recently passed away. His sons have no knowledge of their father’s past, and become hostile, asking him to let the past be the past and let their father rest. Even Oppenheimer, present for the interview, is threatened here.
The film delves into what defines a communist, what made these people an enemy of the military dictatorship. These men believed that what they were doing was the right thing, but history has condemned them. As has Oppenheimer’s camera. In an interview from Venice, Oppenheimer talks about how he is no longer allowed to visit Indonesia and won’t be making any more films on the subject. The fact that these films even exist is to be appreciated. What they reveal is truly horrifying.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Runtime: 103 minutes
Remaining SFF Screening Dates: Sunday 14 June 12.45pm (Event Cinemas George Street)