Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Look of Silence: A Review (Review #765)


It's not often that a documentary gets a sequel (or a follow-up).  The Look of Silence is a continuation of director Joshua Oppenheimer's shocking and bizarre The Act of Killing, which chronicled the testimonies of Indonesian death squad members recounting their 'exploits' in any cinematic genre they wanted.  This led to some pretty weird moments (such as one of the men, in full drag, doing a lavish musical number).  The Look of Silence is a more sober, quiet examination of both the perpetrators and the victims as the latter manages to confront the former, ever so gently, about something that both perpetrators and victims still struggle with accepting or reliving a half-century later.

Adi is the brother of Ramli, one of the millions of victims of the failed Indonesian coup of 1965, where the military hired death squads to purge the nation of "Communists" (a catch-all phrase that involved both real Communists and anyone the junta & death squads deemed worthy of execution).  His parents, well into their 90s if not 100s, have lived pretty quietly about all this: his mother telling Adi that she would have gone insane if not for his birth, his father in total dementia (unaware he has any sons, that he is in his own home, and insisting he is only 16 or 17 years old).  Adi is an optometrist, and he uses his position to not just examine the eyes of those involved in the death squads that got his older brother butchered at the Snake River, but also the hearts of those involved.

It is no surprise that those he examines, even in his rather gentle but prodding manner, believe they've done nothing wrong.  They hold to their story that the purges were the spontaneous reaction of 'the people' and that far from being shameful, it is something glorious.  Adi's son is taught that the government had to take these brutal actions to save Indonesia from total chaos and Communist takeover.  However, Adi insists to his son that all he's been told is lies, and as he exams all those he comes across, he is met with a series of denials and curious evasions.  The closest he gets to any recognition is when he meets with the widow of one of those who not just bragged about his exploits, but wrote a book about it (complete with illustrations).  She does say she apologizes, but that her husband is dead and why persecute the dead.

These medical visits are intercut with Adi watching footage of The Act of Killing and a very curious NBC News report from 1967 (a year before his birth) where we learn, somewhat incredulously, that the 'Communists' went to the village elders and begged to be killed. 

What I found most fascinating about The Look of Silence is that both victims and victimizers used the exact same phrase with regards to what happened in 1965.  "The past is past," Adi is told by Adi's uncle (who was a guard where Ramli was being held and saw his nephew carted off to certain death) as well as by Kemat, a survivor of the Snake River bloodbath who managed to escape that dreadful night and flee into the plantation fields.  For the generation that lived in 1965, both sides have learned to live with their version of what happened (the truth and the mythology) and I sense that neither wants to reopen old wounds.  Kemat tells Adi at one point "the wounds have healed", and the son of one of the victimizers tells Adi sharply, "You're reopening old wounds".

I can't say whether Adi's search for justice is something the general Indonesian population actively wants. Perhaps that generation now simply finds the horrors too hard to speak openly about (and even now, the subject is taboo, hence Adi's very gentle, very discreet inquiries while examining patients).  Perhaps it is a strange combination of fear, of reprisals, and of at least two generations of having been fed 'the official story' that has dulled the Indonesian mind and soul to not want to touch on the events.  Adi himself is not an angry man.  Like all the Indonesians in the film, he is rather passive (no real expression when he sees the footage from The Art of Killing).  Time and again we go back to his impassive face, the horrors recounted (sometimes gleefully) apparently not affecting him.  Even hearing one of the perpetrators, Imhom, a 72-year-old former death squad commander that claimed to have drunk human blood (both salty and sweet, he says) does not cause Adi to change his expression. 

The Look of Silence is a very quiet film: there is no narration or score, just conversations or scenes from Adi's parents which are as brutal and sad as seeing violent perpetrators happily posing at the sights of their violent acts.  Ramli, the son Adi's parents lost in the purge, is now lost even to his senile father, who when asked about Ramli asks "Who is Ramli?" and keeps asking whose son he is.  It might be a bit too quiet for some, though I don't think that could be helped.

Adi is a brave man to be searching for the truth, or at least acknowledgement of what happened a half century ago.  I cannot say whether Indonesia itself really wants to look back, in anger or any other way.  It looks like to the Indonesian way of thinking, when it comes to the failed coup of 1965 and its bloody aftermaths, they are all content to let lying dogs sleep.

"The past is past" is the only point on which all sides agree. 

Whether there will be full acceptance or acknowledgement of what happened I cannot say.  However, Joshua Oppenheimer and quiet individuals like Adi are bit by bit chipping away at the willful blindness of Indonesia.  It might truly take an optometrist to make the nation see and break The Look of Silence.      


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