The Look of Silence – Probes into the Consciences of Ruthless Murderers


‘Shocking’ & ‘bloodcurdling’ are the words that immediately pop up when one wants to describe his experience of watching Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” (2013). That Oscar-nominated documentary provided an account of state-sanctioned genocide in Indonesia, in the mid 1960’s (at the height of cold war). Critics called it a ‘surrealistic expose’ because it wasn’t like Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary “Shoah”, where holocaust was remembered through ‘tough-to-watch’ interviews with witnesses. In “Act of Killing”, the murderers themselves, who slaughtered thousands of people (in the name of communists), gave away vivid details on how they committed those unspeakable atrocities. There was an obvious reason for that: the killers are worshiped as heroes and still enjoy top governmental positions in Indonesia’s so-called democracy.

Film-maker Oppenheimer stated in an interview about the other, hidden reason behind the old mass murderers boastful descriptions: “Those are the memories that they have to talk about because they’re haunted by them. They need to find a way to describe them without being emotionally present in the description and certainly without admitting any culpability.” Oppenheimer’s companion piece “The Look of Silence” (2014) is all about capturing that guilt and haunted memories from the eyes of the killers. This documentary feature shot before, alongside and after “The Act of Killing” brings into focus, the nightmare experienced by the victims of 1960’s killings, whose families still live in terror, alongside their killers. “The Look of Silence” (2014) is in a way the bravest of the two documentaries, since here a Indonesian named Adi Rukun, who lost his elder brother in the state-sanctioned killings, fearlessly confronts the genocide abettors, who now rejoice in power & wealth.


Adi and his mother Rohani

The bravery and solidarity of many other Indonesians comes to light, especially when the end credits roll. Here you could see an array of Indonesians, who worked behind the camera, was addressed as ‘Anonymous’. The word itself is some sort of shield that shows the arising courage of Indonesia’s silent majority. Oppenheimer, a Texas native, went back to his country after receiving many death threats, while Adi’s family have moved thousands of kilometers away from the perpetrators (after the screenings, at least 5 people are said to be working full-time to monitor and protect Adi’s family). If “The Act of Killing” made an reflective comment on the mythologized glorification of murderers, both in our society & celluloid (as in Hollywood or Bollywood-coated violent fantasies), “The Look of Silence” is all about probing deeper into the cut-open past through the traditional documentary approach of interviews.


Despite a seemingly traditional approach “Silence” expands in many ways the boundaries of documentary framework. Once again there are no voice-overs or any other explanations for Indonesian political turbulence of the 1960’s (a little note at the start states why innocent people were murdered in the 1960’s Indonesia). Oppenheimer’s isn’t also interested in establishing Adi’s quest in the very first scene through a tear-jerking interview. We see a simple, but wonderful shot of an old man peering silently through the device we see in an optometrist’s office. But, we soon gather that the 44 year old optometrist is Adi Rukun and some of the old woman & men he meets (with the camera crew) are indirectly or directly involved in his brother’s killing (and in the massacre in Snake River). Adi uses the pretext of eye exams for some local village people involved in the murders, while he directly interviews the bigwigs who have climbed the power ladder only through mass murders.


Adi Rukun was born two years after the death of his brother Ramli. Adi’s mother Rohani tells that he was born only because of Ramli death as she says conceiving a second child was her way of keeping from going insane. Rohani recounts how other young people from their villages were massacred by local militia. On video tapes, Adi watches the killer’s confessions (from how they dragged men & women from trucks to how they used their machetes on them) on video-tapes, which Joshua Oppenheimer has filmed years before meeting Adi’s family. Adi’s father is a 103 year old toothless man, although he is taken care of like a toddler. Adi’s lives with his wife and two adorable children. Despite being well settled and having a good family life, the wound experienced by Adi and his mother is still open as those responsible for killing thousands of innocents still flaunt their power.

In an earlier scene in the school, we Adi’s children learning from their teacher the heroic tale of how & why ‘communists’ were slaughtered. That hints at the warped way of how the nation has psychologically strengthened itself to find contextual meaning in the gruesome slaughter of fellow humans. “The Look of Silence” then gradually zeroes-in on intimate truths eventhough both the perpetrators and survivors use the same phrase: “past is past” (the former out of anger, while the later out of fear). We could relate to Adi’s desire for some sort of justice as he had forever grown with traumatized parents. As he probes into the memory of local death squad leaders, many offer self-justifying logic, while few others are irked saying they don’t know anything about politics. Some interviews capture shocking threats (“if you make an issue of the past, it will happen again” says an elected legislative member) and shameful denials; some others offer touching and truthful moments.


In one interview, a senile old man boasts how he slashed the throats of his victim as his daughter is sitting next to him. Her elusive face reaction and her gesture towards Adi’s suffering might be the doumentary’s most emotionally profound moment. In another interview, a perpetrator’s family is caught in on a lie. And their threatening reaction reminded me of William Faulkner’s famous quote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”. Like “Act of Killing”, “Silence” too isn’t weaved like a simple expose of unpardonable crimes. Oppenheimer (DP Lars Skree’s discreet camera) adorably captures the idiosyncratic, humorous and hopeful moments, encountered by Adi and his family. Joshua focuses on the silence & eyes of interviewees so as to catch their guilt or a moment of truth. The little gesture of the killers, on-camera tells us a lot about their haunted mind-set than those detailed boasts.

Joshua Oppenheimer actually spent 12 years of his life in Indonesia (from 2002 to 2013) gradually gaining the trust of the killers and profiling their crimes. So that says a lot about why many of the bigwig killers don’t feel threatened by Joshua and his crew. In fact in the last interview with Amir Hasan’s family (Amir has written a memoir on how he massacred people on the Snake River), when it reaches a heated point the widow of Amir Hasan states “I welcomed you here Joshua, but I don’t like you anymore” (Joshua has spent at least a year with Amir in 2004 and in videotapes he has admitted about knowing the death of Ramil – Adi’s brother). That sequence along with other earlier interview with Adi’s uncle (who worked as guard while Ramli his nephew was imprisoned & tortured) clearly depicts how these people are consumed by the abyss of shame and guilt, although they repeatedly say “past is past”.

“The Look of Silence” (99 minutes) is a courageous and powerful documentary of political rebellion that is as bone-chilling as its predecessor “The Act of Killing”.


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