Cert 15 | ★★★★★
In Joshua Oppenheimer’s acclaimed 2012 documentary The Act of Killing, genocidal amateur dramatics played out against paradisal Indonesian landscape in a spectacle so bizarre and disturbing it felt instantly classic. In that film, ageing, unrepentant perpetrators of the 1965 Indonesian genocide re-enacted their murders in the style of their favourite Hollywood gangster flicks.
The Look of Silence – more companion piece than sequel to The Act of Killing – is more conventional but no less devastating. This time Oppenheimer turns his attention to the victims of the killing as they attempt to find solace in a society where the orchestrators of their suffering are still in power. Half a century later, there has been no truth. No hint of reconciliation for the families of the estimated 500,000 “communists” who were killed, a fact we’re reminded of when the credits roll and most of the names are listed as“anonymous”.
Over the years, memory of the killings has fomented into something fevered and hallucinatory. Decades of propaganda have encouraged the view that it was a heroic episode in Indonesian history, a necessary expurgation of undesirable elements. To challenge this orthodoxy is to risk alienation and persecution.
That the majority of people who made the film couldn’t put their name to it underlines the courage of the protagonist, Adi, a middle-aged man from Northern Sumatra whose older brother was murdered in the purges. Adi is an opthalmologist (a job so perfectly resonant in the circumstances you wonder if Oppenheimer travelled the whole of Indonesia to find him) and Oppenheimer films him visiting decrepit old members of the death squads, testing their eyes, asking them if they can see. They can’t. He asks them about their role in the massacres, gently at first, before homing in on particular details: how did you kill them? Where did you cut their neck? It brings the reality into uncomfortably sharp focus for the aged killers, and when he reveals to them his brother was killed, they either absolve themselves, claiming they were following orders, or make menacing threats: “keep asking questions and it could happen again,” says a local politician.
Adi’s face, paralysed in an expression of ineffable pain, is the emotional fulcrum of the film. Perhaps it’s all you can do when an entire nation is invested in the denial of your justice: look and hurt.
The Act of Killing ended with a moment of literal catharsis. The Look of Silence doesn’t have the same pay-off. Instead, we’re given a taste of what it must be like to live in a state of permanent, unresolved pain. It is a stunning follow up, and while it lacks the surreal streak that made the first film so distinctive, in challenging the silence it’s arguably a more valuable contribution. Astonishing.