‘The Look Of Silence’: A Genocide Forces America to Examine Its Damaged Soul

In the wake of yet another mass killing in the U.S., there are many lessons to be learned by watching Joshua Oppenheimer’s brilliant documentary ‘The Look of Silence.’

Draft House

If you ask filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer about the origins of his documentary The Look Of Silence—perhaps the best film of the year so far—he answers not with himself, but with his subject and collaborator, the film’s central character: the optometrist Adi Rukun.

“Adi said to me, ‘I’ve spent seven years watching your footage with the perpetrators. It has changed me and I need to meet them, and specifically I need to meet the men who killed my brother.’ And I said, ‘No, absolutely not. It’s too dangerous. There has never been a film where survivors confront perpetrators who are still in power. It would be the first time, and there’s a reason it’s never been done before: it’s too dangerous.’ And I'm certain if Adi had gone alone he would have been badly hurt or killed. Those confrontations were initiated for the film and could only happen within the overall state of making this film.”

There are many silences that pervade The Look Of Silence, the sister film to The Act Of Killing, the Oscar-nominated documentary which pushed the Indonesian government to acknowledge the genocide of 1965-1967 for the first time in the country’s history. The Act Of Killing is one of them, and while you don’t need to see The Act Of Killing to understand The Look Of Silence, if you have seen it, the unholy violence of The Act Of Killing—the film in which Oppenheimer asked mass murderers to dramatize their killings as Hollywood movies—sucks the air out of the landscape, holding its counterpart film on the verge of becoming one more death by strangulation. In even the most material way, The Look Of Silence could not exist without that first film, as Oppenheimer explains, “Adi’s knowledge of who killed his brother, how his brother was killed, and what the men who killed his brother had done, this only happened through The Act Of Killing.”

But it’s not only The Act Of Killing that hangs over The Look Of Silence. There’s the silence of Adi, who we follow as he uses Oppenheimer’s cameras and the guise of an eye test as a means to confront the perpetrators of a genocide that claimed the life of his brother fifty years ago. There’s the silence of Adi’s home in the provinces of Indonesia, where murder and victimhood are an intimacy shared by neighbors amid the tamarind trees. There’s the silence of Adi’s father, who at 103 can remember little beyond song and the fear caused by events he can no longer recall. More terribly, there’s the silence of the men Adi meets, some of whom are lost beyond the veil of memory like his father, and some for whom silence is a choice, an active and ritual extinguishing of the soul, a weapon to be used against any survivor able to claim a voice.

But there is no silence that haunts this film more than the silence of Adi’s brother Ramli, whose name and whose murder is remembered and repeated and invoked at every available opportunity by his mother, Rohani.

If The Look Of Silence wouldn’t have been possible without The Act Of Killing, then it seems possible that The Act Of Killing wouldn’t be possible without Rohani, who held onto the pain of her son’s death for more than half a century until someone came along who could bring him recognition. In that way, these films are a closed loop, feeding each other, haunted by the same losses, engaged in a shared act of remembrance. These are films to raise the dead.

On this subject, Joshua Oppenheimer’s words are as precise as his films. “I was trying to make visible the hauntedness of the landscape, of Adi’s father, of Adi’s mother, and in that sense, the camera functions as a kind of a lens for the conjuring and rendering visible of ghosts.”

It’s maybe this element of the films that makes them so essential. It’s not just that these are exceptional works of journalistic clarity, but that the films reach beyond mere documentation. Oppenheimer describes his documentaries as “interventionist,” a term he no doubt could see the irony in, given the history of America’s intervention in Indonesia. But intervention is the correct word for what Oppenheimer’s camera creates. These films don’t document an existing reality; they create a new one.

Instead of using the traditional technique of documentary filmmakers of pretending to be a fly on the wall, documenting reality as if there was no camera around, Oppenheimer treats his subjects as collaborators. Both Adi in The Look Of Silence, and Anwar Congo, the murderer whose nightmares are realized in The Act Of Killing, are aware of the camera.

“This self-consciousness that anybody has, the way anybody who’s being filmed starts to stage themselves, is something that very often nonfiction cinema people will try to get past as quickly as possible. They’ll try to get people to at least act as though they’ve forgotten the camera. And I think that’s a pity in a way, because this self-consciousness is a resource. It allows the viewer to see how people want to be seen, how they want to see themselves, and consequently the fictions through which we know ourselves.”

Oppenheimer’s camera creates an unnatural state of consciousness. We watch these men watch themselves, and what they see in the reflection of the camera is a revelation both for them and for us.

There’s a scene in The Act Of Killing where we follow Herman Koto, a former military death squad leader who has since fallen from grace with the murderous Indonesian government. Herman shakes down local businessmen to get money to pay for his election campaign. It’s an election he’ll lose—he doesn’t have the money to pay for votes the way his competitors do. But before he loses, he offers what is maybe the most cutting comment in the entirety of the series.

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“Nowadays nobody believes in what they’re campaigning for. Nobody believes it anymore. We’ve all become like soap opera actors.”

Without pause, he clarifies.

“Our souls have become like soap opera actors.”

It’s not hard to find people for whom the soul is a romantic notion. That it has become vaguely embarrassing to discuss the concept of the soul is maybe a sign that we have gotten too far from our souls themselves. Watching these survivors of an American-funded genocide contemplate the emptiness of their souls is an invitation to examine our own—an intention Oppenheimer, his crew, and Adi himself were adherent to.

“If I’d in any way adopted the view of a hypothetical foreign viewer grappling to understand this remote situation, this far-off political situation, it would not have that immediacy, it would not have that universality, and it would function more as a window into a far-off phenomenon than as a mirror in which we’re forced to answer hard questions about ourselves, and then I think the impact would consequently be radically diminished.”

Of course, we don’t commit genocides against our own citizens in the United States—the tribes who were wiped out of existence to make room for the founding of this nation were called savages, not citizens—but both The Act Of Killing and The Look Of Silence make it clear that the atrocities in Indonesia were encouraged by American consumerism and the American capitalist government. That our government has yet to acknowledge their involvement in the Indonesian genocide—in the massacres we funded in Guatemala, in Thailand, even now in Israel—is our own silence, our own untended wound.Is this all that’s left of the heart of our nation? A year and a half out from our own election—with Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Sandra Bland still a gaping wound on our collective psyche, amid the farces of Hilary’s emails, Jeb’s family, and Trump’s everything—can we honestly say we have faith in our political system?In The Act Of Killing, Anwar Congo lives trapped in the horror of destroying your soul before you ever realized you had one. The violence of the acts described and sometimes dramatized in Oppenheimer’s films is horrific, but watching them I wondered if it was their very violence that preserved the possibility of healing. You can never repair your psyche if you don’t know it has been damaged. Would Anwar have nightmares if he had only shot 1,000 people, and not stolen the life from their bodies with his bare hands? Since the Cold War, the United States has been committing atrocities by proxy—through guns, through drones, through nations. Have we lost our souls? How can we ever return to ourselves?

These are the kinds of questions Oppenheimer confronts his audience with, but there’s more to his films than accusation. These films contemplate terrible violence and they were made with an understanding that their release could inspire more violence, but to undertake these films at all is an act of almost unfathomable faith. For Adi to walk into the homes of the men who murdered his brother took physical bravery, but it is also an expression of confidence in the resilience of the human soul, and it’s maybe this that inspires most. Oppenheimer has received death threats for his involvement in making these films, but Adi is a national hero because when Adi leaves his home in the morning to look into the eyes of murderers, he is hoping that by recognizing his humanity, they might find their own.