Like its predecessor, 2013’s The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence ends in as disturbing a credits sequence as one could imagine. Name after name has been redacted to a simple “Anonymous” at every level of the production. And it’s no wonder. Also much like its predecessor, The Look of Silence is a breathtaking, haunting piece of documentary cinema, one whose existence is truly baffling and whose images will linger for untold years to come. It is a film that clearly exists because of a great deal of risk accepted by its crew. With that previous film, Joshua Oppenheimer made one of the preeminent works of documentary cinema of its era. Now, he’s managed to do it again, from the exact opposite perspective.
Where The Act of Killing investigated the ways in which mass murderers rationalize those experiences to themselves and to others, The Look of Silence considers those left behind in the wake of violence, the ones who survive to remember those close to them who were killed and who have to learn how to go on with their lives in a world that not only fails to punish the people who murdered their loved ones, but actively praises them. For the people who lived through the Indonesian mass murders of 1965 and 1966, the rest of their lives have necessitated that they simply move on. Many, from the leaders of death squads to the elder men and women in the villages, repeat the same invocation throughout The Look of Silence: “The past is past.” It is to be forgotten, to be allowed to recede into the ether of lost time. That so many of the men who perpetrated these murders still hold power, wealth, or both makes this less a cultural wish than a barely veiled requirement, a threat that hangs alike over those old enough to remember and those encouraged to never learn about it at all.
The Look of Silence investigates the post-war condition from a number of different angles: survivor’s guilt, propaganda, the repression of memory. Oppenheimer largely accomplishes this by following Adi, whose brother Ramli was among the many casualties of the killings, as he goes around his village and others, talking to elders who either served in the Komando Aksi people’s army at the time or were at least around to recall it distinctly. Under the auspices of fitting them for new glasses, and with Oppenheimer and his camera crew in tow, Adi begins to dig deeper, deeper than the cultural norms of the region typically allow and deeper even than Oppenheimer was previously able to go.
What Adi finds is a mixture of resistance, scorn, and painful resignation. In school, Adi’s son is taught that “communists don’t believe in God” as a reinforcement of the post-killing doctrines passed down from military leaders to the general population in the decades since. Former death squad leaders speak of how it was essential to silence the screams of the abducted, as “they could frighten [the] men,” as they walk around pointing out where the people were most commonly murdered and where their bodies were taken. One leader, who the film names as Inong, describes how many of the soldiers would drink the blood of their victims as a ritual means of avoiding the madness that so often followed with the blood on their hands. He describes human blood as salty and sweet, as Adi fits him for a pair of reading glasses.
Where in the previous film Oppenheimer allowed each of his subjects to become the auteurs of their own heroic journeys, here he steps back to document Adi’s. After all, what Adi is doing isn’t exactly safe, even with the camera crew in the room. When pressed on his identity, he refuses. His wife chides him for putting both himself and his family in danger by attempting to open wounds that, by their own admissions, so many of his neighbors would rather leave closed. And since Oppenheimer and his compatriots are now known to the locals, a kind of suspicion follows him, and by proxy Adi, through the whole of The Look of Silence. Perhaps the most potent illustration of this comes via one of the film’s most recurrent motifs: Adi sitting in a room watching footage from The Act of Killing, including footage relevant to his brother’s death, nearly motionless. As so many others get to move on with their lives and declare that “the past is past,” there sits Adi, forced to watch his neighbors gloat about their exploits. Somehow, despite all of it, Adi’s the one who has to worry about his family’s future.
The film is tersely conversational, moving from one interaction between Adi and some aging onetime former authority figure to the next as it addresses both the struggles of trying to reconcile a nation’s past with the potential for its present and future and the disturbances attempting to dredge up the past can cause. Adi ultimately isn’t asking for much in the grander scheme. There’s nothing to be done, really; Ramli has been gone for years, like so many others, and as The Look of Silence frequently illustrates, those in a position to at least account for it all are somewhere between senility and a calcified kind of denial at this point. There is simply the pursuit of truth, as the one remaining means of making some kind of amends for the more sordid facets of national history. And the frightening resistance to that idea that keeps people convinced that the past is past.