The Look Of Silence


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Look Of Silence won the Grand Jury Prize
"Oppenheimer boils down the atrocity to the experience of a single family, leaving us to extrapolate back up."

I've just spent 15 minutes in silence staring at a keyboard and contemplating where to start writing about Joshua Oppenheimer's follow up to his almost-as-harrowing film The Act Of Killing. Silent contemplation is, I suspect, the response that he is aiming for and one that most most people will feel when faced yet again with the enormity of the injustices and trauma faced by victims of the 1965-66 massacres in Indonesia and their families - injustices which continue today. A million people were accused of being 'communist' and killed in barbaric ways, graphically illustrated in The Act Of Killing - to put that into context, that's more or less the equivalent of wiping out the population of Birmingham in the UK. Now elderly, the killers continue to live alongside their victims and many of them still hold privileged posts either locally or in the country's legislature itself.

Oppenheimer boils down the atrocity to the experience of a single family, leaving us to extrapolate back up. The film rests on Adi Rukun, who was born two years after a massacre that saw his older brother Ramli slaughtered and tossed into the local Snake River. Now 44, Adi is an optician and well aware of the lasting impact his brother's death has had on his family. His mum has vivid memories of the event made all the more traumatic by the fact that her eldest son managed to escape back home after initially being injured, only for the death squad to come and cart him off, while claiming they were "taking him to hospital". His dad, meanwhile, is in such poor health that he can no longer recall the events - but the perpetrators have no such excuse.

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Churchill said "history is written by the victors" and it is certainly written by the oppressors in Indonesia, where Adi's young children are fed a story about "evil communists gouging out the eyes of brave generals". Of course, outside the classroom everyone is only too aware of who did what to whom, but the silence on the subject is deafening as multiple people suggest "the past is the past" or ask "why should I remember?".

Adi sets out to confront those who killed his brother, often giving them an eye check-up in the process. The idea of him trying to 'help them see' things differently is, inevitably, a metaphor but Adi's calm, searching and unstintingly polite questions go far deeper than a mere gimmick. That he manages to soak up grim details, such as the news that many of the killers drank their victims' blood, without losing it is nothing short of amazing. But he simply continues to probe, adding, "I don't want to offend you".

Many of the encounters are chilling, such as the legislature chief who, when Adi says to him: "A million people died", responds with a shrug in his voice: "That's politics". Or the denial of a family that amounts to petulance in the face of horror.

Other interactions are simply heartbreaking, particularly those between the victims themselves. It's a shame Oppenheimer pushes things too far with Adi's father, showing the virtually immobile man in a state of literal blind panic as he thinks he is lost in the wrong house. There is no need for such metaphorical gesturing in a film that works best in the patient camerawork that lingers on the faces of Adi, his family and the murderers as repressed emotions flicker beneath. Oppenheimer's films are certainly a catalyst - his work on palm oil worker exploitation led to The Act Of Killing, footage from which inspired Adi to take up the cause (both documentaries were shot more or less simultaneously). This film, in turn, has sparked protests in the country, the legacy of which only time will reveal.

Reviewed on: 05 Jun 2015
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Consideration of Indonesian genocide.
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Read more The Look Of Silence reviews:

Owen Van Spall ****

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

Year: 2014

Runtime: 99 minutes

Country: Denmark, Finland, Norway, Indonesia, UK

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If you like this, try:

The Act Of Killing