The Look of Silence

Laurence Green reviews Joshua Oppenheimer’s intimate, philosophical and utterly riveting documentary about Indonesia’s anti-communist purges of the…

The Look of Silence

The genocide of the past comes back to haunt the present in Joshua Oppenheimer’s superb new documentary The Look of Silence (ICA Curzon, Bloomsbury and selected cinemas nationwide) which serves as a staggering companion piece to his 2012 work The Act of Killing, a radical, disquieting movie that provided a bizarre opportunity for Indonesia’s leaders to recreate their blood-soaked past as fantasy.

His latest film revisits Indonesia mass-murders of the 1960s, but is more intimate and philosophical than its predecessor as it examines the legacy of the killings through the experience of its victims and lets the perpetrators who are mostly still alive – and in power – hang themselves on film.

We are in Medan, north Sumatra, Adi, a travelling ophthalmologist, lives with his two young children and cares for his aged parents. His father is senile and his mother is haunted by the memory of the death of one of her sons, Ramli, killed two years before Adi was born, during Indonesia’s anti communist purge of 1965, when around one million people were slaughtered.

With the help of filmmaker Oppenheimer, Adi goes around the country fitting strangers for spectacles so they can see clearly in the aftermath of the atrocities. He coaxes on-camera confessions often couched in boasts from men whose evil remains undiminished: Inong, a death squad leader directly responsible for Ramli’s murder, a community leader who signed death warrants and became very rich through his connivance, his uncle who was a guard at the prison where Ramli was held, and the family of the second killer involved in the murder of Ramli, Amir Hassan, who has since died.

Between interviews we see Adi watching material that Oppenheimer shot earlier with the killers. They candidly confess their actions to Oppenheimer, though when talking to Adi, deny all knowledge and culpability and even make veiled threats. “It’s covered up, why open it again?” says one murderer, while another describes the taste of blood as “both salty and sweet”.

Certain scenes resonate in the mind, such as when Adi watches an interview with the killers where his brother Ramli is clearly being discussed with an explicit description of his castration and drowning. In another, Adi visits a schoolroom where he eavesdrops on a teacher expounding the meaning of “democracy” as if it is a synonym for anti communist persecution.

This confrontational documentary is all the more chilling for both actually showing the killings in graphic detail, but leaving it to the perpetrators to describe them, and a postscript makes it clear that the crimes are still going on. Again, as in the earlier film, many members of the film crew are anonymous in the credits.

Beautifully shot, the film’s gorgeous colours deliberately jar with the shocking content.

In short then, this powerful, riveting movie is for me the best film so far of 2015.


The Look of Silence

Out now at ICA Curzon, Bloomsbury and selected cinemas nationwide

Last modified: June 23, 2015

Written by 11:49 am Film