From the Archives: The Look of Silence

Originally published 2014 | Written by Cathal Kavanagh

50 years ago, helped along by Cold War paranoia about apparent communist threats, the Indonesian army staged a coup on the road to eventually seizing control of the country in 1968. As part of the ‘spontaneous’ uprisings on behalf of the citizenry, up to a million ‘communists’, largely landless farmers and ordinary people without links to leftist politics, were butchered. Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Look of Silence picks up  decades later, visiting the groups who oversaw the genocide and remain in command of Indonesia. The country’s official discourse seems to remain unwilling to consider the killings in anything other than a righteously glorious light. 

 Stick around for the credits; they say a lot about the nature of this ongoing project, which first saw the light of day with 2012’s brilliant The Act of Killing. Fading to black after 103 minutes of searing, beautiful, confrontational investigation, names of crew members file up the screen, up to half of them marked merely as ‘Anonymous’. Look no further for a potent illustration of the startling immediacy of this film. No showy talking heads-fest or stern-faced critique from afar, this documentary, in how it was made and in what it says, strikes frightfully close to home for millions of people, not least those who feature in and helped bring it to fruition. The fear of retribution, arrest, or worse, still hangs over the people telling this story, half a century after the events they are trying to come to terms with what took place.

The Act of Killing saw Oppenheimer track down members of the original death squads, remarkably giving them funds to allow them recreate their murders on screen. This companion piece comes at it from the other side. ‘Adi’, a spectacle salesman in his early 40s, was born a couple of years after his brother, Ramli, was murdered in the genocide. After being taken from a local prison, he escaped the killers’ clutches, was tracked down, and eviscerated in any number of horrendous ways by the banks of a local river. Adi lives near his parents, still distraught decades later, unable to fully comprehend or come to terms with what happened, not least because the killers remain free to roam about the local villages unmolested and treated as heroes. After watching Oppenheimer’s archival footage (largely about a decade old) of various killers and affiliated accessories recalling their glorious heyday, Adi goes to interview the men depicted to hear their take on the events first hand. 

Rarely has evil seemed more banal. Two aged members of a death squad pose for a smiling picture directly after describing cutting off a man’s penis, and discussing the merits of hacking someone to death from behind rather than the front. All this is carried out with the hearty, doe-eyed nostalgia of relating a cup final or a harmless youthful escapade from “back in the day”. Archival footage shows another sporting the picture book he produced to relate the actions of the period. The leader of one squad encourages Adi to depart once things get heavy, as he wants to hurry along to the mosque. 

There is of course plenty in the way of forgetfulness, intentional or otherwise, and plenty avoiding ultimate responsibility when confronted with the horror of their actions. All involved give a masterclass in communal buck-passing. Orders were being obeyed. Someone else, somewhere, was responsible. More than once, Adi is warned about the perils of opening old wounds, of acting subversively, warned that it may happen again if people like him continue to pry. Running counter to Adi’s endeavours, the militaristic slant of the country’s education system is laid bare, as what actually went on in 1965 is roundly denied and ignored by civil society.

Just as it grapples with the nature of truth, the film is a thing of beauty. Lush cinematography merely reinforces the sense that terrible things happen in the most normal of places. If criticisms can be applied, they are fleeting. Certain scenes between Adi and his parents seem a trifle too polished to properly pass for reality. Oppenheimer never closes the door entirely on accusations of voyeurism, as uncomfortable scenes with Adi’s ailing father in particular will attest. These probably miss the point however. The Look of Silence aims in another direction altogether, and deals with questions and problems that largely transcend any questions of style.

This is essential cinema.


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