The companion piece to Joshua Oppenheimer's Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing about the Indonesian communist purge of the 1960s. An optician by trade, Adi visits the homes of death squad leaders who were involved in the brutal mass-killings of a million Indonesians. He's searching for information about the murder of his elder brother and to understand the lack of responsibility the killers feel for the role they played.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: The man is very old. His sight is not good. When he speaks we hear the strain of age and the effort of memory. His wrinkled skin looks like it has been beaten with something solid for a long time, and it is surprisingly tight on his skull. He is being interviewed in what is probably his garden. It’s a wholesome setting, yet he speaks of horrors. He is answering questions he does not want to hear about things he has done he would rather not talk about. He gets a bit feisty at times. Listening to him I had the image of Death’s head erupt into my consciousness.
The man, Inong, is a mass murderer. He is one of a legion of men who served as executioners when former president Suharto took control of Indonesia 50 years ago. Inong was a village death squad leader. Their mission was to wipe out the country’s communist party. Their victims included farmers, intellectuals and anyone declared undesirable by the regime. Over a million died. The old man explains that he and his cohorts drank the blood of the victims: “It tasted salty and sweet at the same time,” he says like he’s explaining the character of some favoured dish. They did this, he says, because under an ancient and widely held superstition it would stop them from going mad. There’s no irony intended.
The Look of Silence abounds with this kind of weird upset. It is the sequel of sorts to The Act of Killing (2013), which director Joshua Oppenheimer called ‘a documentary of the imagination’. In it we met Suharto’s murderers on their own terms. Oppenheimer convinced some of them to recreate their killings. It is a brilliant and disturbing film precisely because it describes without any moralising. Still, there were those who saw Killing as murder-porn and convicted it of insensitivity since Oppenheimer elected not to deal with the tragic legacy of shattered families, survivors and victims of ‘65-66. At the time I wrote that Oppenheimer squirmed his way into the shadowed crevices where killers reside and finds a darkness that is no longer impenetrable. In Silence he returns to probe that darkness further with an investigation into the way the purge has been transformed into a national foundation myth and its killers into heroes.
Adi, a 44-year-old optician takes on the role of detective here. He lives in a world where people learn the power of forgetting and the security that silence can bring. “I don’t want to remember,” is a refrain heard from victims and perpetrators alike. But Adi has a deep need to understand how the massacres were able to draw otherwise sane folk into a sinkhole of death and how they now live with the lies, evasions and forced amnesia. Adi has a personal stake. His elder brother Ramli was tortured and murdered in ’66. His dear elderly mother has no problem with remembering her son’s death. When she talks through each fine detail of that awful history we feel her agony in every laboured breath she takes.
Throughout, Oppenheimer returns to scenes of her caring for Adi’s blind, crippled and deaf dad – a 103-year-old man with advanced dementia. We understand the cruel hardship in their lives. This is a stark contrast to the relative domestic comfort – even wealth and power - Adi finds as he meets the killers and those who have profited from looking the other way.
The film’s form and style is deceptively simple. Cinematographer Lars Skree provides a rock steady image with long, carefully composed takes where we feel the still and quiet of a room or the dying light of late afternoon where the colours pop like fireworks. Still, Oppenheimer is one of those filmmakers who seeks imagery that allows irony to flourish and with it a tide of cool anger and a devastating emotional clarity. (No wonder Errol Morris and Werner Herzog are fans and serve again, as with the last film, as executive producers.)
The camera observes, in often tightly framed vignettes and close-ups, Adi visiting Oppenheimer’s contacts (some of whom we met in Killing). The optician gives some of them a consultation for eyewear using a goggle-like device. While Adi works on their prescriptions to provide them with clear vision he probes their memories. Adi, with his open face and soft voice comes off as gentle and easy; there’s no hint of his agenda or judgement. The answers Adi finds are a predictable mesh of propaganda and folklore. Was it a soldier’s duty, fear, bloodlust, the promise of a better life that motivated so many to enact this cruelty? How can so many suppress so much dark feeling? Of course there is no satisfying explanation. Adi’s search climaxes with a meeting with the family of the man – now deceased – who took his brother Ramli away to kill him. “Why can’t we all get along like the military dictatorship tells us to do?” cries the son who claims he never knew of his father’s role in the purge and now that he does, he doesn’t want to know.
The lies of the past are alive in the present and Adi’s young kids aren’t immune to this toxic swell. Oppenheimer shoots a junior school history lesson on the purge where the communists are demons and the murderers are monuments to reason. Later, Adi sweetly divests his son of these comforting untruths.
This is not as fiercely original a film as Killing but it is powerful and strong, and utterly compelling. I won’t soon forget the stricken aspect on Adi’s face as he watches footage on his television at home of murderers revisiting the killing ground and reminiscing, laughing like tourists kicking over old times. Adi’s look is not silent but speaks of anguish, incomprehension and a need for some kind of peace.