After the astonishing unreality of The Act of Killing, in which perpetrators of Indonesia’s 1965-1966 genocide reenacted their crimes for the camera in the style of their favorite gangster films, Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to that masterwork, The Look of Silence, takes a more straightforward approach to such wrenching material. Its effect, however, is equally devastating.
The director’s latest, another must-see, returns to Indonesia. His focus is on Adi, whose brother was one of the many victims of death squads that, under the guise of combating communism, targeted anyone they thought of as opposing the military regime that had come to power via coup. Forced to live in a country where the killers still rule, Adi visits and confronts the fiends who hacked and disemboweled his brother – and finally finished him off with castration, an execution that the assassins, in footage that Adi watches in silence, relive with prideful glee at the very river-bank scene of the crime. What ensues is horror of a quiet, harrowing sort. Fixating on these faces and, more piercingly, on silence, Oppenheimer throws into sharp relief the contrast between Adi and the murderers’ perspectives, and thus the terrifying tension that engulfs the country as a whole.
During his interviews (which also include a meeting with his prison-guard uncle), Adi, an ophthalmologist by trade, places on his subjects a device for testing bifocal lenses. It’s a kind act which gives these encounters a disquieting tenderness at odds with Adi’s rage and sorrow over what these men did to his family (and country). Further enhancing these meetings’ harrowing strangeness is that ocular gadget itself, which features multiple big, bulky adjustable gear-like rings – something like a cross between round reading glasses and science-fiction X-ray vision goggles. The recurring image of these aged murderers donning such bizarre spectacles speaks to Adi’s desire to have the still-unrepentant killers see the error of their ways, as well as to those killers’ willful blindness toward their responsibility for their sadistic actions (which included drinking victims’ blood to – irony alert! – stave off madness) – – all while visually casting them as something akin to monstrous aliens.
When not questioning these psychopaths, Adi converses with his 100-year-old mother, who still grieves over her slaughtered first son, and his infirm father (blind, mostly deaf, and crippled), who can barely communicate. In these visits, The Look of Silence emphasizes the scars left by the genocide on its survivors, underscoring the way that memory serves as a source of both misery and enlightenment — and as a necessary (if unpleasant) counterbalance to so many citizens’ attempts to hide their atrocities in history.
Consequently, Oppenheimer’s film is ultimately defined by the juxtaposition of two different women responding to bombshells about their relatives’ vileness with “I didn’t know,” and multiple cretins making wannabe-exculpatory claims that “The past is the past” – conjoined declarations that convey the soul-crushing pain, and corrosive denial, that’s wrought from the truth’s disclosure.