“You ask deeper questions than Joshua” states one of the killers in Joshua Oppenheimer and his anonymous collaborators’ documentary The Look of Silence (2014). The film is a companion piece to Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2013), which revealed not only the mass murder of over one million suspected communists in a wave of political violence orchestrated by Indonesia’s military dictatorship in 1965-66, but also the feting of the killers as national heroes and the rewriting of history to glorify the genocide as a righteous struggle. Oppenheimer’s first film maintained a passive detachment, allowing the killers to re-enact their own atrocities and metaphorically hang themselves with their own words.
The Look of Silence takes a far harder line, probing the killers more deeply and confronting them in an attempt to shake some sense of remorse out of them. Adi is a family man on a mission. He is one of the many family members who to this day still live in the villages where the killing of their loved ones took place, often ruled over by the men who were in charge of the slaughter. He has witnessed the murderer of his brother talking about the killing in some of Oppenheimer’s footage and has decided to hunt down and confront those responsible. Using his daytime job as an optician and glasses salesman, Adi travels the back roads and gives eye tests to the men while teasing out the boasts and memories of the elderly murderers. The metaphor of an eye exam may seem trite, but the obstinate blindness of his clients leads him to become more bold in his questioning.
The dangers of the investigation is obvious as witness after witness implicitly or explicitly accuse him of sedition and threaten him with violence. This danger is even more tellingly apparent in the end credits of The Look of Silence, made up to a large extent by those who wish to remain ‘anonymous’. Adi’s own wife is none too happy about his enquiry. He has a young girl and a son who he ought to be protecting, she argues, but at the same time in the school his children are taught that the communists committed horrific acts of violence and their extermination was a matter of national pride. Everywhere Adi goes he is told that the past is the past and not to rake up old troubles, but prior to finding out about the interviewee’s own loss the murderers are more than happy to gleefully reminisce, passing on tips about how best to kill in gruesome detail (one old man tells Adi how you had to drink the blood of your victim or you would go crazy).
Yet another individual interviewed has gone as far as to write and publish his own book about the killings which he has illustrated with drawings “to make it more exciting”. A clip from a 1960s NBC report reveals the complicity of the USA, who in the context of defeating the spread of communism is more than willing to swallow the most ludicrous claims – including that communists asked to be killed – rather than investigating events with any degree of rigour. Oppenheimer and his anonymous collaborators are to be roundly applauded for bringing this appalling moment in history to light. Adi is almost Quixotic in his search for some feeble expression of regret which will allow him to forgive. Meanwhile his mother, who still grieves her lost son, tends his old father with a tenderness and love and humanity which is in stark contrast to the brutality that has ruined her life.