SXSW 2015: ‘The Look of Silence’ proves Joshua Oppenheimer is one of the best documentarians working today

The Look of Silence - plakat

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

In The Act of Killing, his previous documentary, director Joshua Oppenheimer employed an innovative technique to explore the atrocities committed under Indonesia’s military dictatorship. The film followed several death squad leaders who were responsible for exterminating thousands of accused communists. Oppenheimer provided these men with financing and production crews, allowing them to recreate their appalling actions on film. It was his hope that by confronting their past in this manner, the men would experience some level of remorse or moral responsibility for their actions. The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer’s companion piece to The Act of Killing, is not nearly as experimental or original as its predecessor. This is not to say that the film is without power. On the contrary, in some ways Silence cuts even deeper than its companion.

Whereas Killing followed the perpetrators of the mass murders, Silence focuses on the victims. Adi is a door-to-door optometrist whose brother was brutally murdered by a death squad. While most of the older people in Adi’s community choose to ignore the events of the past, his mother still mourns for the loss of her son. Inspired by her grief and working with Oppenheimer on his previous film, Adi begins to seek out and interview the men responsible for killing his brother. His goal is similar to what Oppenheimer’s was in Killing: make these men understand the gravity and inhumanity of their past actions. Adi’s approach, though, is far more direct than Oppenheimer’s, and it is also far more dangerous – many of these former squad leaders still hold some level of influence over their communities. By openly confronting these men, Adi places himself and his family at risk. However, he never strays from his mission. Coming to terms with the cruelties of the past is more important than his personal safety.

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There are many confrontations throughout Silence, and each one of them provides an emotionally ravaging experience. The blood boils as these squad leaders fondly reminisce about decapitating supposed communists and cutting off the breasts of women. Tension builds when Adi calls the men’s morality into question, and they react with threats or raised voices. Finally, disappointment arises when it becomes clear that these killers will never take responsibility for their transgressions. It is here that the irony of Adi’s profession comes into play: this man makes a living helping people see the world more clearly, but he cannot compel these men to look to the past with open eyes.

As with his previous work, Oppenheimer distinguishes himself as one of the best documentarians working today. Though both of his films are rooted in the past, they are inextricably tied to the present. He does not rely on stock footage or talking head interviews. He is, above all else, a humane director, more concerned with documenting the tragic legacy of the Indonesian massacre than with detailing various facts or figures.

Right from the beginning, it is clear that Adi will not reach his intended goal. Making these men fully understand the gravity of their actions is a near impossibility. However, this does not make Adi’s journey any less harrowing or significant. Through his interviews and insights into his personal life, viewers are exposed to the insurmountable grief and sorrow experienced by victims’ families. At various moments throughout the film, the camera lingers on Adi’s face, and it becomes clear what constitutes a “look of silence.” As the death squad leaders gleefully recount their most appalling exploits, Adi’s countenance conveys a range of emotions: rage, anguish, disappointment. It also seems to disclose the very questions that will be on many viewers’ minds after seeing the film: How do the perpetrators of so many human atrocities simply ignore their past sins? What does it say about humanity when morality and remorse are so effortlessly dismissed?

— Jacob Carter




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