It was two years ago that I chanced to see The Act of Killing at TIFF. It was a powerful experience, made more so when a producer informed us after the screening that director Joshua Oppenheimer was in the midst of completing its sequel, which would focus on the survivors of the massacres. I then waited with baited breath for a release date, and when I saw that The Look of Silence would be shown at TIFF it immediately went to the top of my Must See list. Co-produced by Werner Herzog, The Look of Silence returns to the strained normalcy found in Indonesian villages decades after terrible violence.
Beginning in 2002-3, director Oppenheimer began filming what was to become his diptych on the massacres of “Communists” in Indonesia in 1965-6. He began by speaking with surviving families, and was shocked to hear that even to this day the killers of their loved ones shared in their community, and remained boastful of their terrible actions. And the survivors urged him to speak to those killers, knowing how prideful they can be, as a way of showing the world the fear in which they were forced to live. It was a terrifying exercise, as while these former executioners may be toothless lions now, they are still backed by the government and the danger remains. Oppenheimer managed, despite his own expectations, to befriend some of the men. Their explorations of the murders became the acclaimed The Act of Killing. But the story of the survivors still needed to be told.
Enter a man named Adi. Born two years after the conflict, he grew up in a society of fear, surrounded by a traumatized community. He was raised in the shadow of his brother Ramli, whose murder was one of the most horrific to take place in that village. His parents, both into their 100s, still bear the deep emotional scars of having lost their boy in such a manner. Adi, a father himself now, is well aware of the past and after witnessing footage shot by Oppenheimer of Ramli’s killers bragging about (and even re-enacting!) the killing, he was willing to confront them directly.
Adi happens to be an optometrist, and so the meetings all began under the pretense of an examination for glasses. All very aged now, the men were receptive of the meetings at first, as they thought of Oppenheimer as a friend. At first they were happy to discuss their involvement in the killings with Adi, but as the questions became more pointed their attitudes quickly became defensive, adversarial, and finally threatening. Through it all Adi is polite, calm, and demonstrates more fortitude than I could have thought possible in another human being. The look of silence referred to by the title is the feeling of oppressed shell-shock that Oppenheimer witnessed in Adi’s community decades after the violence. It is also the face of Adi as he watched the footage of his brother’s killers, and even as he asked them to justify their terrible actions.
Cinematically, The Look of Silence is not particularly engaging – it is primarily composed of long talking-head shots, while The Act of Killing involved more spectacle. That did not however take much away from the experience. The Indonesian crew used still faces fear of reprisals to this day (most are credited as Anonymous), and so it cannot have been an easy process to get the footage, despite the fact that Oppenheimer was filming for nearly 10 years. We learned in the Q&A that Adi’s life was very much in danger during every one of these meetings, that he could easily have been disappeared. They took extraordinary precautions and have since filming even moved his family across the country.
I spent the entire film desperately wanting to know what had become of Adi and his family, and to our collective astonishment he was brought up on stage after the screening. He was asked what he hoped to accomplish with his participation, and he answered via translator that he wants the world to know what has occurred, to share knowledge. After that however he was clearly overcome and left the stage. He received a standing ovation and I have to admit I was quite shaken by seeing his pain so evident after his quiet facade during the film. The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are a very powerful experience, and I wish Oppenheimer safety and luck in his future projects.
See our Q&A Gallery from The Look of Silence