Film Review: "The Look of Silence" Explores the Still Raw Tragedy of Indonesia's Civil War

One of the most potent documentaries of recent years was 2012’s The Act of Killing, which examined the 1965 Indonesian genocide by having its perpetrators re-enact killings in the style of their favourite Hollywood movies: gangster flicks, comedies, Westerns and even musicals. It was a profoundly disturbing film, where the only thing more difficult than watching was attempting to rip your eyes away. 

Two years later, The Look of Silence arrives in cinemas. It is not a sequel per se – even the most cash-grabbing studio exec would struggle to turn this material into a franchise. Instead, it is more of a companion piece. The sole criticism levelled at The Act of Killing was that its focus on death squad leaders left their victims voiceless. With The Look of Silence, director Joshua Oppenheimer redresses that balance, following one mild-mannered optometrist as he confronts the men who brutally killed his brother. 

The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are two sides of the same coin; while the former was arresting and even surreal, the latter is quiet and more reflective. Optometrist Adi maintains a calm composure as he interviews the killers, avoiding Paxman-esque interrogation and instead broaching near-unspeakable horrors through small talk and gentle probing. In doing so, he manages to slowly break down his interviewees’ defences, and exposes the moral conundrums that still have a colossal impact on modern Indonesian life.  

Oppenheimer poses uncomfortable questions about how fixed our ethical codes really areMuch like The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence demonstrates how morality can be both absolute and relative. Everybody in the film recognises, to a varying degree, the inherent immorality of the mass killings. At the same time, though, those involved constantly seek to justify their actions, or at least make them more palatable. Some brag that the genocide was a victory which cleansed Indonesia of communism; others express regret at the violence but maintain that a ‘purge’ was necessary; others deflect blame entirely (indeed, there is a fascinating back-and-forth as state officials claim the genocide was initiated by citizens, while citizens claim it was state-ordered). Oppenheimer poses uncomfortable questions about how fixed our ethical codes really are, and we see how mere circumstance can drive ordinary men and women to atrocities. 

The reason The Look of Silence complements its predecessor so well is its undeniably human approach. The Act of Killing showed the desensitisation experienced by killers as they ploughed through hundreds of executions. Here, by contrast, Oppenheimer reveals the devastating impact of even a single lost life. The idea of a million more mothers experiencing the lifelong, visceral grief expressed by Adi’s mother is almost too difficult to contemplate.

Adi might react to his gruesome discoveries with little more than a blink of the eye and a tightening of the throat, but beneath The Look of Silence’s still surface is a maelstrom of emotion. Remembering is shown to be a traumatic experience, but one that is also necessary. Several perpetrators adamantly insist that ‘the past is past’ and ‘the wounds have healed’. Watching Adi’s journey, though, it becomes clear that Indonesia’s wounds have been patched up at best, and that the scars of the past still run right across the country. 

Oppenheimer provides no easy answers. With the government responsible for the genocide still in power, Adi himself realises that justice and catharsis are unrealistic aims. However, The Look of Silence, like The Act of Killing, does at least allow narratives of a still-raw tragedy to finally be voiced. Their contrasting approaches will resonate differently with different audiences, but when taken as two parts of a whole they form a powerful act of reclamation that, once seen, will never be forgotten. 


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About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

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