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Human faces from Indonesia's killing fields


The Look of Silence (M). Director: Joshua Oppenheimer. 100 minutes

Joshua Oppenheimer's 2013 epic The Act of Killing was a gruelling exercise in art as interrogation. It employed the artifice of filmmaking both to illuminate facts for his audience, and to challenge on every level — intellectual, emotional and moral — its subjects, the perpetrators of genocide in Indonesia in the mid 1960s. With its sprawling running time and surreal flourishes, it is a film that grows more vivid and horrifying on reflection, as Indonesia continues to contend with this dark period of its history (as do the Western countries that turned a blind eye to it) while many of those in power there prefer not to know.

The Look of Silence is a companion film to The Act of Killing, and while it is tighter in both its focus and mode of delivery, it is equally as rivetting, and resonant. In The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer told Consequence of Sound in August, 'every sequence culminates in an abrupt cut to silence. These are moments where the perspective of the film shifts from the perpetrators to the absent dead ... in The Look of Silence I wanted to take the viewer into any one of those haunted silences that punctuate The Act of Killing and make you feel what it's like to live there ... to have to live afraid for half a century.'

He does so by taking us into the home and life of Adi, a middle-aged optometrist who was born after the atrocities but whose older brother Ramli was killed during them, at the Snake River massacre site. The film spends considerable time observing Adi's home life, including his mother's tender care for his frail, blind and deaf father (both are centenarians), and Adi's interactions with his own young children. We also see him watching Oppenheimer's filmed interviews with the perpetrators of Ramli's murder, before accompanying him as he confronts and questions them, on the pretext of performing an eye exam.

These encounters are emblematic of a new generation of Indonesian seeking enlightenment from a former generation who find it less painful, or more beneficial, to forget. The men Adi confronts committed hideous acts, yet have lived half a century without consequences. They are the embodiment of the propaganda wool over a nation's eyes, that many Indonesians wish to cast aside for good. They are the representatives of a deep wound that festers still in the nation's sould and halls of power. Adi, empowered and facilitated by Oppenheimer, is the righteous face of those who wish to confront and clean the wound so that it might finally heal.

But it is also a deeply personal film, that gains much strength from the particular figure of Adi. Coming face to face with those responsible for his brother's murder, he doesn't seek to humiliate or denigrate them, but only to gently illuminate truth. He reveals to his mother that if they should express remorse, then he would offer forgiveness. He is softly spoken and deeply empathetic, and his righteousness is all the more potent for it. Watching footage of old men laughingly detail the brutal murder of his brother, Adi reflects that their laughter is a defense mechanism against guilt that would otherwise disable them.

This insight resonates. Like the subjects of The Act of Killing, the perpetrators' boastful recollections and appeals to a historical narrative that has cast them as national heroes, seem to conceal a deep-seated trauma that they've never confronted and may not recognise if they did, so long have they denied its presence. Coming face to face with Adi, who speaks on behalf of victims, their families, and all Indonesians who want the record set straight, they respond with anger, denial, fumbled threats. But they are shaken. They, too, are human, after all. It's in this shared humanity that Adi and Oppenheimer seek the seeds of reconciliation.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Indonesia, Joshua Oppenheimer, The Act of Killins



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Existing comments

Adi's father, incapacitated, forgetful, is surely an image of Indonesia's incapacity of recalling and coming to terms with the 1965/66 systemic massacre that brought General Suharto and his Western backers to power. While his mother, with her refusal to forgive represents the silenced families of the vicitms.

john prior | 03 December 2015  

Yes it is so confronting when the murderers take pride in what they do. They do it all over the world, they did it in Indonesia, in East Timor, they're still doing it in Irian Jaya, taking pictures of themselves and their victims, grinning insanely. How do we reconcile with them? How if they cannot, will not try to face the inhumanity of their actions; they are just as human as their victims are, as vulnerable ultimately. The acceptance of their crime will be the first step, and then we will have to face the reality that we must forgive them, because in some way, we are not so removed from them. We all need help and forgiveness.

Eveline Goy | 03 December 2015  

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