NYFF 2014: Joshua Oppenheimer’s ‘The Look of Silence’ is a quietly devastating achievement

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The Look of Silence
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
Denmark/Finland/Indonesia/Norway/UK, 2014

For those who already have a low opinion of humanity, The Look of Silence will do little to alleviate your misanthropy. It’s a gorgeously-crafted documentary, and it will likely resonate with people of at least decent moral standing, but it depicts humanity at its worst and offers no hope at the end. A unnervingly tranquil depiction of men as monsters, Joshua Oppenheimer’s film attempts to confront the leaders of the 1960s Indonesian Genocide, a one-sided civil war that resulted in the deaths of over one million people. The killers admit to nothing, of course, and the elected officials (“elected”)write off the genocide as “politics.” Children are programmed to think that those who were murdered deserved it: they were communists, Godless heathens, sinners. Victims’ families don’t dare address the decades-long suppression of truth because subversives are still killed in Indonesia today. It’s 2014, and the populace has been lulled into a startling state of delusion. The film, beauteous and depressing in equal measure, feels like a slowly swelling minor chord sustained for 99 minutes, with no crescendo needed.

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The film is a spiritual successor to Oppenheimer’s last film, the profoundly upsetting The Act of Killing, which offered an unprecedented look into the unfathomable minds of mass murderers. A sort of cinematic portmanteau, Act commingles documentary-style footage with recreations of murders. Adorned with Hawaiian shirts and big beaming smiles, the men responsible for the murder of a million innocent people gleefully show Oppenheimer and viewers how they went about their bloody business. As Thomas Pynchon puts it, “It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.”

The Look of Silence is of a similar artless vein, harkening back to Act‘s effortless collation of incisive, unflinching interviews and placated introspection. But it’s more subdued, a companion piece that eschews the flamboyance and histrionics intrinsic of Act‘s subjects. Instead of recreating tragedy, it lingers in its wake.

It’s a simple setup: a man named Adi visits those responsible for the genocide. He doesn’t try to goat them or bait them–he simply asks them if they regret what they did. Adi’s brother, Ramil, was killed in the Genocide; his father is withered and senile, blind and handicapped, and under the impression that he’s a 16-year-old boy. He remembers nothing of his son. Adi’s mother, still pained by the death of her son, is left alone to take care of the fleshy shell of her husband. Oppenheimer shows their daily lives intimately, capturing the feigned banality of a world veiled by lies. Like the sinuous river calmly slipping through the jungle, life in Indonesia goes on unperturbed, its steady course undeterred by the horrors that happened, and are still happening.

Using his optometrist profession as a guise, Adi sits with the various old men, fitting them with eye-glasses while he asks them about their crimes. Of course the idea of rendering lucid the vision of these insidious old men is a wonderful metaphor for Oppenheimer and Adi’s’ attempts at de-hazing the past, but Adi doesn’t pretend to peddle in subtlety. He doesn’t take circuitous routes to the answers he seeks. He flat out asks people if they feel any regret or guilt. They never do, but he keeps trying.

The killers offer disquietingly complaisant explanations for their actions–communists have no God, so it’s okay to kill them; communists had licentious affairs, so it’s okay to cut off their genitals; you have to break a few eggs. The more Adi probes, the clearer it becomes that not much has changed since the 1960s revolution. He eddies around the torrid jungle, having his questions rebuffed and rebutted by non-reformed killers who hide in mansions in broad daylight. His face hangs perpetually low, a plaintive, sorrow look tugging down on him like gravity. He shows no anger, no hatred, no lust for revenge. He looks increasingly devoid of hope, yet he soldiers on. If there’s a more heartbreaking face on movie screens this year, I’ll eat my shoe. I’ll eat everyone’s shoes.

Though Oppenheimer’s compositions remain keen and tight, his editing seamless, and the pacing as fluid as a string quartet, The Look of Silence is a more somber affair than The Act of Killing. (It’s obviously not a coincidence that the films are respectively called Act and Look.) Akin to Orson Welles’ F for Fake, a lacerating look at liars and experts, Act is more concerned with ideas than facts or narrative. Its more experimental aspects feel rooted in creative-nonfiction rather than standard documentary objectivity; Look, more straightforward, wears its emotions on its proverbial sleeve. Here, Oppenheimer and Anonymous take a more voyeuristic approach: we see Anonymous sitting alone in front of an old TV watching the footage of his brothers’ killers reenacting the castration and disemboweling of Ramil, his eyes deep and dark, like clouded windows hiding what’s inside; we see his subjects’ flinty, beady eyes dart back and forth from Adi to the camera to the shroud of foliage enveloping them. The horrors discussed are juxtaposed with the arboreal serenity of the Indonesian jungle, forever stained with the residual blood of forgotten murders.

“Is this any clearer?” Adi asks one of the killers as the old man squints from behind the thick glass spheres.

“No, it looks the same,” the man says, professing in unintentional doublespeak.

There is no character development. Adi accomplishes nothing, engenders no change, and draws no confessions from his brothers’ killers, which makes the film all the more upsetting. These are remorseless men, and his is a fruitless, futile effort, a silent shout in the dark.

– Greg Cwik

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