The Look of Silence is an unflinching study of cognitive dissonance, guild and distancing. A stripped-back and less ambitious companion piece, this is a work that thrives in its minimalism. The film begins with a statement that frames the tone of the film as sombre and reflective, with the opening statement – “why am I singing? to relieve my broken heart” – carrying a tone of exhaustion, tinged with an overwhelming sadness. The Look of Silence opens with the brother of a survivor, Adi, watching an interview with a killer. This becomes a recurring motif throughout the Look of Silence as scenes are broken up by Oppenheimer with Adi staring at various footage of those responsible for perpetrating the mass killings. In the Act of Killing, the perpetrators are the focus. Over the course of Oppenheimer’s previous film, the audience is continually repositioned, closer and closer, to feel sympathy for characters like Anwar. In the Look of Silence, the director moves his focus towards the victims, and the abject fear, despair and repression they’ve lived in since the killings occurred 50 years ago. As a companion piece, Oppenheimer’s film is a masterpiece – not simply in the way it relates to the content of the Act of Killing, but also in the way it forces the audience to question and reevaluate the assumptions and sympathies they developed throughout.
Adi is an optometrist by trade and this gives Oppenheimer an unlikely metaphor, evinced through one of the most unflinching figures. The Look of Silence frequently focuses on notions of memory, it’s fallibility, and the way in which it can be distorted – and this is always about the manipulation of perception. Adi is in a position in the film where he is both helping the perpetrators with their vision on the most practical level of being their optometrist, however, in these sessions he confronts them about their past and continually challenges the suppression that infringes on the way they view their past. The eye device pacifies the killers, as they lose their fearsome elements. Adi is thrown into the documentary as a the interviewer, rather than Oppenheimer, and is far more confronting as a result. Most of the scenes find their most affecting composition in their silence – as Adi stares down his subjects, never allowing his composure to show the slightest crack. His pain is palpable and close to the surface, – and we see that in other scenes – however, in his discussions with the perpetrators, Adi’s desire for truth is even stronger. The Look of Silence is given its most human element in Adi’s communications with his parents, both of whom are “around 100” – even though his father professes to be 17. Constantly singing, Adi’s father is resilient in old age, wheelchair bound –and in the starkest scene of the film he’s seen crawling across the floor wailing. His mother shares this perseverance, and the constant cutting between Adi’s conversations with the perpetrators and his parents, who have survived it all, give The Look of Silence it’s emotional core as a film.
Constantly steeped in visual metaphors, the film introduces Inong – a leader of the village death square – with his pet monkey on a leash; an action that instantly harkens back to the scenes of hangings in the Act of Killing as one of the most common ways in which the killers would execute their victims. Inong’s honestly is confronting at times as he tells Adi that if “we didn’t drink human blood, we’d go crazy” before professing that “if you drink blood you can do anything.” He doesn’t censor himself, however, Adi’s responses are constantly rebuttals that probe deeper and deeper into a consciousness constructed entirely on a foundation of unimaginable guilt. “I don’t like deep questions” Inong soon follows, before giving the statement that defines Adi’s role in the Look of Silence: “you ask much depeer questions than Joshua ever has”. While the Act of Killing revealed a society where the killers were still in power and proud of their actions. On the other hand, this companion piece tries to challenge this perception, and in the process, to show how cemented so many ideas have become. When Adi tells Inong, “i’m not here to harm you”, the irony lingers in the air for the rest of the film. The killer agrees but tells Adi he’s “talking politics too much” before the two say nothing to each other. Inong winces as the camera lingers on his face evinces a deep, impenetrable internal conflict. Oppenheimer makes it clear there isn’t going to be a catharsis or a moment in the film where all the killers accept responsibility for their actions. This is, instead, a snapshot of reluctance.
The film isn’t a companion piece that focuses on the survivors in isolation, although several scenes certainly do this to an extent. Instead, it examines the way in which they live side by side with their killers, who openly celebrate their actions. In one of the most harrowing scenes, Adi watches a piece Oppenheimer filmed of how Ramli – his brother – was killed, as reenacted by his killers. After showing how they killed him they admit to the camera “Ramli was probably a good person. But what would do? It was a revolution.” “A million people were killed.” “That’s politics” Towards the end, Adi discovers that his uncle helped the killers – meaning he helped kill his own nephew. In the scene where Adi confronts the man responsible for his brothers death, “Every killer I meet – none of them feel responsible.” “You’re trying to wash your hands of it.” Through and through, Adi emerges as a figure concerned, above all else, with navigating a collage of pain and fear that has framed his entire existence; alongside his parents; alongside every survivor in Indonesia.
Oppenheimer’s framing of his shots remain beautiful, however, there’s a greater sense of minimalism; both in scope and symbolism. Where the Act of Killing opens up with the absurd and disorienting scene of a giant fish structure surrounded by dancers, the Look of Silence simply shows a pair of eyes being examined for lenses. Oppenheimer doesn’t seek to make a film that moves in the same way as his previous work, and the Look of Silence is a far more affecting piece as a result. There’s no absurdism, there’s no fever dream sequences, there’s no appeal to the endearing quirks that a few of the killers have. The Look of Silence is a sobering up after the chaotic trip that the Act of Killing takes its audience through. It’s a slow and intimate piece that shows the abject devastation left in the wake of unfathomable horror. It’s a film that shows how weak and fragile memory is, and how the mind is powerful enough to suppress the greatest horror. It shows the raw capabilities of human beings – both to perpetrate horrors, and to endure them – and paints a portrait of the mark that conflict, hatred, and fear leaves on the soul. As a standalone companion piece, The Look of Silence is one of the strongest documentaries of the last decade. Together, the two works sit amongst the most important and enduring pieces in the history of documentary cinema.