It’s easy to think of silence as the auditory equivalent to a blank page, a kind of nothing that fits in between the sounds where we actually expect to find meaning. At times, though, silence conveys more than we can hope to cram into the sounds we call words. Joshua Oppenheimer is one person who clearly understands this. His latest film, The Look of Silence explores this topic in one of its more sinister forms. This film is a companion piece to The Act of Killing. Both movies deal with a genocide carried out in 1965 after the government of Indonesia had been taken over by the nation’s military. In the aftermath of this coup anywhere from half a million to a million people were killed. Victims included communists, ethnic Chinese, and those openly critical of the new government. The Act of Killing explored these events through the narratives of killers themselves and the stories they tell about their own actions. In The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer explores the lives of those who survived the massacre, those who lost loved ones in the killings and have since then had to live their lives among those who carried out the killings.
Whatever else silence conveys in this film, it clearly conveys a strong sense of terror, both because the stories it relates are as terrifying as they are real, and because the film-makers exposed themselves to danger in order to get those very stories.
Time and again, we see the main protagonist of the film, Adi Rukun, staring in silence as he listens to the killers of 1965 describing in great detail the horrors they themselves perpetrated in 1965. Sometimes Adi watches the killers telling their stories in video clips. Sometimes, he interviews them himself. Adi’s older brother was one of those killed in 1965. The story of his brother’s killing is among those he learns about over the course of this film.
If there is a plot to The Look of Silence, it is generated from Adi’s own decision to confront the killers, to speak to them himself, to risk engagement on a subject about which he is expected to remain silent. Adi is an Optometrist, and his subjects are aging. An eye exam thus becomes the pretext for one interview after another, each one an opportunity to breach the subject of past horrors. The resulting story is filled with this tension between silence and speech. The possibility that events discussed in the narratives of the killers could well happen again haunts one throughout the film. More to the point, one cannot escape the sense that Adi’s efforts could well make subject him and his own family to such violence. Those he interviews remind him of this frequently over the course of the film. The hints are subtle, but they are real, and they are horrifying.
It seems trite to suggest this, but the silent moments occurring in each interview are as interesting as the words themselves. We learn so much from the killers in this film. They tell us so many things about their past actions and their motivations, and yet each tries to withhold some part of their own stories from Adi and from us. Oppenheimer lets the camera linger in the awkward moments wherein they reconsider their stories and adjust their narratives to new questions and uncomfortable revelations. Always there is Audi, sitting there quietly, courageously choosing his words and listening to their responses. At times he is inscrutable. At others, one can almost feel the tears rising within him. …or the rage. Most often I cannot help thinking it is shame that I see in his face, a kind of deep-seated embarrassment for the murderers and for their inability to face the truth of their own actions.
If this is a story of silence, it isn’t merely the silence of Indonesians that unfolds in this story. American foreign policy is all over the events described in the movie, its long-term significance pervasive not merely in the lives of Indonesians themselves, but also in the consumer culture of Americans.
…in products we’ve all enjoyed in our own lives.
…without every knowing their cost.