Silence is a universal language. It’s the one mode of communication all humans understand. Sometimes words aren’t needed to convey our deepest emotions, and more can be said through a dead, contemplative gaze than boisterous shouting. Silence means that a person has been struck speechless; caught in their own mind, spinning their wheels to craft a response that’s less implicating than the obvious conclusion on hand. When people are confronted by truth, and cornered by tough questions, silence represents not only a refusal to speak, but an admittance of guilt that can’t be formed into words. It’s those deadly silent moments that documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer fearlessly builds his companion piece to The Act Of Killing on, titled – you guessed it – The Look Of Silence.
Where Oppenheimer let his subjects come to their own revelations in The Act Of Killing, The Look Of Silence follows one man’s journey (a traveling optometrist), Adi, as he confronts the men who viciously murdered his brother in the name of preventing “Communism.” For those who are up to snuff on their Indonesian history, you know that around 1965, the military overtook control of the country and still remains in power today over most lands. Military officials ordered many massacres, and within only a short amount of time, an estimated 1 million “Communists” had been exterminated.
Adi’s brother, Ranli, was part of a brutal extermination that took place at Snake River – a fate I cannot even describe because of its sickening humility. But it’s been years since Ranli passed, and Adi now has a chance to speak openly with the death squad leaders who killed freely in the name of country. One man has the courage to confront those who put propaganda above fact, in an attempt to gain some admittance that “Communism” was nothing but a blanket term that allowed violence to rule with a bloody, iron fist.
The Act Of Killing already took care of the Indonesian history lesson, though, and The Look Of Silence doesn’t hide behind Oppehnheimer’s restrained form of questioning. Adi has a direct connection to the atrocities brought on by a military regime drunk on power, and his brave confrontations never back down in the face of lies, ignorance, and threats against his own life. This is years after the truth has been exposed, yet Adi still finds himself powerless against ruthless murderers who rely on menacing fear tactics. The restraint that our heroic interviewer shows tells a story all in itself, about a peaceful man seeking closure – and the villains he’s forced to stare in the eye each and every day.
Once again, Joshua Oppenheimer is able to create more horrifying material than the goriest, slashiest horror movies I’ll watch all year – but it’s not a repeat effort. While some of his subjects in the first documentary came to their own conclusions about the horrible, inhumane acts they’d committed, The Look Of Silence is more about the retreat, the back-pedalling, and the willingness to lie when faced with truth. When it was just Oppenheimer asking questions, the killers felt free, like they could say anything because Oppenheimer was not an Indonesian sufferer, just an outside onlooker. But when the questions are coming from Adi, a victim’s brother who knows about the bullshit excuse of “Communism,” the subjects have much more emotional responses. There’s more confrontation, more anger, and more repetition from high-ranking Indonesian officials who warn Adi to let the past be the past.
It’s the same fear-mongering told through a fresh pair of eyes (or, more appropriately, glasses). Over a million Indonesian lives were lost during the country’s darkest period, and we see how that same military regime still controls the daily lives of current Indonesian citizens. Schoolchildren are taught about the way “Communists” were slaughtered for their beliefs, as to brainwash the children into remaining loyal to the powers that be. But that’s just child’s play when compared to Ted Yates’ NBC report from years back, where he’s told that Communists “wanted” to be killed and would bring themselves to the village leaders for their “wrong” thinking.
No one takes responsibility, not even on national television, and Adi’s prodding only reveals an even bigger problem: no killer wants to address their decisions or accept fault. Indonesia just wants their hands washed of events like Snake River, left in the past and never mentioned again. “Focus on the past and it will happen again” – a weak excuse from an even weaker man.
The Look Of Silence is built on just that: silence. So many scenes are separated by scenic shots and chirping crickets, which highlights the unfortunate isolation of Indonesia. The look itself isn’t threatening, but it’s the questions that bring upon such a glazed, confused expression that speaks louder than the interviewee’s own words ever could. Each murder doesn’t have to admit his own guilt, because each stare does all the talking. Plus, when these lunatics DO open their mouths, we learn wild facts like how certain believers drank their victim’s blood to prevent a creeping insanity from overtaking their mind. Yup – Indonesian death squad leaders would drink innocent blood to PREVENT themselves from experiencing a crippling insanity. If that’s not the most horrifying image ever seared into your brain, then yours is a mind I’d never like to enter.
When I saw The Act Of Killing at its Montclair Film Festival screening, I had no reaction. I walked back to my friend’s apartment and we barely spoke a single word. The Look Of Silence, while serving as a well-fitted companion piece, doesn’t hit upon that same emotional suckerpunch. Most of the details are like flashbacks to The Act Of Killing, where Joshua Oppenheimer originally exposed Indonesia’s blood-soaked history. The first time we learned these haunting facts just can’t compete with their regurgitation, but because The Look Of Silence approaches the same information from a different angle, Oppenheimer captures documentary lighting in a bottle for a second time.
It’s just that the lightning is a little duller.
The Look Of Silence is another endurance test of wits for those who are ready for more Indonesian horror stories, but there's no denying that the silence Joshua Oppenheimer captures is deafening.