‘Once I brought a woman’s head to a Chinese coffee shop.’
‘If we didn’t drink human blood we’d go crazy. Many went crazy, they killed too many people. To stop it you have to drink your victims’ blood.’
‘So we fished him out and killed him by cutting off his penis.’
Time and time again in The Look of Silence we are in the company of old men, normally sat in the most mundane settings, wood-panelled living rooms and cluttered gardens, as they blithely spout the most horrible and twisted things you will ever hear. They are reminiscing about their part in the mass slaughter of loosely defined ‘communists’ in 1965 in Indonesia. And they are generally unconcerned about talking about the catalogue of horrors that they took part in, because the powers that sanctioned the slaughter are still in control.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up/companion piece to his extraordinary documentary The Act of Killing does not disappoint on any level, least of all in its evocation of gobsmacking weirdness and horror existing just below the everyday. It’s a leaner, shorter piece of work than The Act of Killing, and while it lacks the central innovation of that film – the phantasmagorical genre-movie reconstructions that were set up to extract confessions from the killers – it benefits hugely from a tighter focus, this time on Adi, born after the killings to mother Rohani and father Rukun, and considered by Rohani to be a replacement for her son Ramli, who was brutally murdered in 65. Adi is the son she needed to have as a reason to keep on living, and the film follows his journey as he pieces together what happened, confronting those responsible for his brother’s death, occasionally using his position as an optician to get close to them, and asking the questions that his country clearly doesn’t want asked.
The responses to Adi’s questions range from a kind of shrugging ‘well, that’s just how it was’ to excuses that the communists deserved it because they didn’t pray enough, to not-so-veiled threats that stirring all this stuff up will lead to it happening again. There’s an ever present double-think at work here, a sense of something undigested and unhealthy. The killers of 65 flick peace signs and thumbs up as they pose for photographs by the river that was once filled with dismembered corpses (‘after it was over nobody would eat fish or clams’). They’ve made picture books about what they did (‘I illustrated it myself’). They follow the official line that hacking people to death was for the good of the country, but there’s a squirming evasiveness to their responses (‘I don’t like deep questions’) and an anger that Adi is talking about all this old news. Families in 2012 aren’t too receptive to the knowledge that, 40-odd years back, Grandpa used to cut women’s breasts off. There’s a lot of denial and obfuscation, and the kind of sick politics that can lead to someone saying ‘let’s all just get along, like the military dictatorship taught us’.
All the while Oppenheimer quietly observes, juxtaposing the most appalling revelations with tranquil shots of lush, photogenic scenery, emphasising a dreamy disconnection between then and now. Music is kept to a minimum, and barring the opening text on screen, there is no overt editorialising. This approach is mirrored in Adi, who has plenty of reasons to be angry, but never fulminates or rages, and is a model of quiet dignity throughout; he is persistent but never confrontational or accusatory, in a climate where it is doubtless unwise to be so.
As with The Act of Killing, many of the crew are credited as ‘anonymous’, and it becomes obvious that members of Adi’s family were unwilling to appear on screen. The film asks what happens to a country that’s unable to look itself in the mirror, what the scars are from this trauma. We see Adi’s parents, both over 100, Rohani stoic, but still feeling the pain of the loss of Ramli, Rukun lost in dementia, believing he’s 17, and see a parallel. We see people clearly afraid to repeat what they know to be true, and others clinging to lies they want to believe. In this context, the daughter of a killer who makes an attempt, no matter how gauche and inadequate, to reach out to Adi, and pray for his forgiveness, is a glorious exception.
Thoughtful, beautiful, upsetting, magnificent, it’s a film you’ll chew over for days, and weeks, afterwards. A film you’ll leave in silence.
Watch the trailer: