Image by Christine Renney
THE LOOK OF SILENCE (2014) – Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
Whilst I had been vaguely aware of the military coup which took place in Indonesia in 1965, I never had any real knowledge or understanding of what exactly occurred. You know, another coup another country – we shrug and we move on but this film, which follows on from the astounding ‘The Act of Killing’ by the same director and which deals with the same issues but from a different perspective, demonstrates the importance of showing the world what does take place in such times. The gifted directors and writers do so in multiple ways, harnessing both fiction and documentary styles to deliver their message to their audience. Some films are made for very specific groups but ‘The Look of Silence’ is made for us all.
We follow Adi, a 44 year old Indonesian optometrist, whose brother Ramli was butchered in this turbulent period when anyone suspected of following the communist creed was seen as the enemy of those who continued to follow their religious beliefs. Ramli died two years before Adi was born but this dreadful experience and loss has informed Adi all his life, hence his decision to make what is clearly a dangerous journey for himself and his family as he questions those who are responsible for both Ramli’s death and the million others who perished alongside him. The perpetrators are, as Oppenheimer tells us in the interview with Werner Herzog and audience at the Berlinale 2015, initially boastful when describing their ’techniques’. This is demonstrated very effectively in the earlier film when the murderers are easily encouraged to re-enact the atrocities they committed in a bizarre musical setting which ends with the main protaganist on a hillside singing ‘Born Free’ surrounded by beautiful young women. The ease with which Oppenheimer accessed this strange situation shows just how desensitised the men are.
It is this desire to be seen as celebrities and gangsters from Hollywood movies such as The Godfather rather than Little Caesar who pays the price for his evil ways, that is so frightening. It is the same banality created by the Nazis who looked to the Heimatfilme genre to tell their story. However, unlike Hitler et al, the killers of Indonesia remain in power, certainly up to the time the films were made and released and this placed the whole crew and Adi and his family in danger to such a degree that Oppenheimer cannot return and a safe home elsewhere in Indonesia was secured prior to the release of both films.
It is interesting that whilst some remain boastful of their actions others wish to bury it and the idea of Truth and Reconciliation remains remote at this time. However, there is one moment in the film when Adi visits a man who now has a dementia and whose daughter is caring for him 24 hours a day. During this interview (and this act had been mentioned before) he reveals how he, and others, had drunk the blood of their victims in order not to ‘go crazy’. His daughter, who has always been proud of her father’s standing in the community suddenly realises that she does not know him at all and she asks Adi to forgive her and her father for this sin, which Adi does. But she is the only person we see who really listens and reacts appropriately.
As Herzog says at the end of his interview – see these films and tell your friends to see them too. To end on a heartening note both works have been screened, and continue to be so, in Indonesia and perhaps the coming generations will not let it be hidden away as the bodies are of so many of its people.