“But if you can drink blood, you can do anything! Both salty and sweet, human blood”
The man who spoke these words is not doing so from a jail cell or a mental hospital. That might be expected of someone who so matter-of-factly admits to killing countless people and drinking their blood in an attempt to “stay sane.” But such is the world of Indonesia, where mass killings of Communists in the 1960’s forever scarred entire communities. The government that perpetrated these atrocities remains in power, a constant reminder of what they did to the families who still live there. Documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer explored this phenomenon in his acclaimed and horrifying 2013 documentary The Act of Killing, but one film clearly was not enough to fully understand the depths of what has happened to that country and its people.
Two years later, Oppenheimer has returned with The Look of Silence, designed to be a companion piece to The Act of Killing. Whereas that film took the perpetrators as its predominant subject, The Look of Silence turns to the victims. Specifically, the subject of this film is Adi, a 44 year old optometrist whose brother was murdered alongside so many others. He had not been born yet, but his mother and father remain utterly shattered by the events to this day, and he decides to confront those in power about what they have done to his family through the guise of fitting them for glasses. What follows is a series of tense, fascinating and frightening confrontations between the aggressor and the aggrieved, and it becomes clear quickly that no satisfactory resolution is coming.
The film seems to get its title from Oppenheimer’s use of an interstitial device to reset the table between the confrontations (one of which with his own uncle) wherein Adi stares unmoving at a television playing what seems to be extra footage from The Act of Killing as Oppenheimer interviews the killers about their tactics in carrying out the culling and they are all too eager to share in great detail. The hallmark of both of these films is the shocking lack of remorse or guilt from these people who slaughtered countless humans like they were sickened cattle. To say they lack remorse would of course imply that they have a sense of remorse, which would not be accurate. They are convinced that what they have done was right and justified, but conviction alone does not entirely explain the glee with which they discuss their actions in gruesome detail.
Of course, The Act of Killing already established this particular brand of mania within its subjects, but in adding a focus on the victims, The Look of Silence manages to distinguish itself. It is more akin to a traditional documentary in that vein, and it helps in its own way to put a face to the pathos. The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are very much two sides of the same coin, and while the former remains daring in its structure and subject matter, the latter gives the audience a more rounded look at just what it is like to live under the shadow of these events that have come to define them. Whether it is a moment of indoctrination filmed in a school, or Adi’s mother’s outrage at having to see these monsters walking around their village like nothing happened, Oppenheimer paints a picture of sorrow and melancholy and bottled up anger where nothing can be done for fear of reprisal.
Adi never shows anger when confronting his tormentors, relying on a stoic resolve while desperately searching for any sort of recognition of what happened and what it has done to him and his family and countless others. The Grand Guignol aspects of The Act of Killing have been stripped away, forcing the grotesqueness of its perpetrators into the harsh light of day. And while so many of these men refuse to give in or happily revel in victim blaming, it’s the reaction of one of the men’s daughters, clearly disturbed by Adi’s tale of what her father and his peers did to the people of Indonesia. She is equally as powerless as Adi to bring back his brother or to right the decades of wrongs festering in her community. But now she knows. At least that has to count for something.
“Ramli was probably a good person. But what could we do? It was a revolution.”