Look of Silence, The (2014)

Review #1,161

Director:  Joshua Oppenheimer
Plot:  A family that survives the genocide in Indonesia confronts the men who killed one of their brothers.

Genre:  Documentary
Awards:  Won Grand Special Jury Prize (Venice).  Won Peace Film Award (Berlin).  Nom. for 1 Oscar - Best Documentary Feature
Runtime:  99min
Rating:  NC16 for thematic material involving disturbing graphic descriptions of atrocities and inhumanity.
International Sales:  Cinephil

When I first saw The Act of Killing (2012) at the Southeast Asian Film Festival, I was floored by the audacity of the filmmaking.  It was one of the boldest and most outrageous documentaries that I have ever seen, and I was happy to use it as a critical case study for my film studies class. 

Two years later, director Joshua Oppenheimer gives us a companion piece, albeit a more conventional one, that is no less troubling and disturbing.  Together, both films open the wounds of the 1965-1966 massacre of alleged communists in Indonesia. 

The past is the past according to the many perpetrators and victims' families who must confront and come to terms (some for the first time) the horror of history.  This time in The Look of Silence, the film is told from the perspective of the victim, in this case the personal story of Adi, whose brother Ramli was brutally tortured and murdered by the paramilitary in the massacre that left a million dead. 

Adi, also the village optometrist, goes around to check the eyesight of his neighbours, mostly  murderers still holding positions of power, from whom he tries to find out about his brother's death.  He makes them wear a test spectacle with interchangeable lens to determine their eyesight quality, and while they speak about the atrocities (that they believe were heroic acts of political justice), he grills them further, trying to elicit regret and guilt, but almost always to no avail. 

In a richly symbolic way through the eyesight testing, Oppenheimer draws parallels with the country's amnesia of the massacre with the perpetrators' waning powers of seeing.  Adi asks with a deep sense of irony, "can you see better with this or with that?" 

The Look of Silence continues to explore the relationship between seeing and memory, but unlike The Act of Killing which assumes a meta-filmic position by mode of acting, reenactment and re-experience, the former devotes more time to the personal (victim) rather than the mass (murderers).

In the realm of documentary filmmaking, both films are essential viewing not just for those with an interest in the controversial subject matter, but also for purveyors of the medium seeking a cup of reconciliative tea after the cold, hard slab of meat that was brutally served in the first.

Verdict:  A more conventional companion piece to the bold and outrageous The Act of Killing, but it is no less troubling and disturbing.  


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