Looking Both Ways

Tony Pipolo on Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence

Joshua Oppenheimer, The Look of Silence, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 103 minutes. Adi and Rohani.

EASILY ONE OF the most courageous and profound documentaries in ages, The Look of Silence is director Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow up to The Act of Killing (2012), his shocking exposé about the Indonesian “gangsters” who tortured and murdered over one million communists and suspected communists in 1965, following the military overthrow of the Sukarno regime. Neither movie aims to analyze the political, economic, and historical reasons behind the fall of the government and its aftermath, although there are allusions to the “containment” policy that fueled American involvement in Vietnam and made it easier for other nations in the region to eradicate communists with impunity. In each movie, Oppenheimer’s approach is unique—pushing the limits of such familiar documentary strategies as interviews with talking heads toward uncommon, disquieting pathways of illumination.

For The Act of Killing he asked the murderers—safely ensconced in a society yet to confront its hideous past—to create scenes that would help him understand what took place. Unfazed by the Geneva Convention’s judgment that they had committed war crimes, the men threw themselves exuberantly into the task, devising a grotesque theater of cruelty in which methods of torture, dismemberment, and killing were elaborately reenacted, often in the spirit of their favorite Hollywood movies. The process elicited opposing feelings in the two principal figures: Anwar Congo had bad dreams and questioned his past behavior, while Adi Zulkadry felt that since paramilitary groups helped them and everyone approved of their actions, the only dilemma was “to find the right excuse so as not to feel guilty.” Though near the end of the movie we see Congo retching as if from some involuntary revulsion, we are left wondering if the reenactments and self-probing induced by Oppenheimer’s project did, in fact, lead to genuine compunction.

If the ruling tone of The Act of Killing is barely contained repugnance, The Look of Silence is a model of mournful, if troubling, reflection—a companion piece from the perspective of the survivors. We follow another Adi, whose silent gaze of almost preternatural attention is the central image of the movie. His brother Ramli was not only among the victims in 1965 but, according to Oppenheimer, one whose murder was witnessed. Prompted by this fact, Adi dares to confront the individuals responsible. We see him watching a video of the former leaders of the death squads as they indifferently recount the atrocities. As an optician, Adi gains entry to the company of two other men, only to catch them off guard when he asks about their role in the mass murders. In one scene, as they talk by the banks of the very river into which bodies were dumped, Adi suddenly realizes, almost by chance, that he stands before his brother’s murderers. The risks he took in these confrontations were shared by Oppenheimer and his crew because no one at the time (the filming occurred between 2003 and 2005) could speak openly of such things without fear of reprisals from those still in power. It was this prevailing atmosphere of forced silence and fear that Oppenheimer intended to mirror (and which is why many members of the crew are listed as “anonymous” in the final credits).

The concentrated, unflinching aim of Adi’s gaze, intensified by that of Oppenheimer’s camera, makes The Look of Silence a movie about other kinds of looks and silences, and the actual experience of watching it aesthetically and psychologically complex. His achievement is not limited to having pulled off an act of confrontational journalism in the face of retaliatory dangers—amazing as this was. More than its predecessor, this work is also a testament to the cinema as a unique instrument of investigation. Every frame of the movie is imbued with its director’s ethical sensibility borne through a formally restrained aesthetic. Indeed, the gaze of the camera, held with steadfast equanimity and unwavering trust in its revelatory potential, seems touched by the spirits of Rossellini and Tarkovsky, for whom the camera’s protracted look on the world could ultimately disclose nothing less than existential truths. As in their work, Oppenheimer’s interest in big questions is inseparable from the intrinsic properties of the art form enlisted to address them.

Whereas most documentary filmmakers are driven primarily by their material, and only secondarily, if at all, by the spatiotemporal parameters of the medium, the framing and duration of shots in Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence trouble the line between what we see and what lies hidden, between what is said and what is thought—often seizing simultaneously the contradictory phenomena of both. What is at stake is not merely this or that fact, this or that speaker, or this or that investigative method, but that ultimate, inaccessible realm, inadequately labeled truth itself. The long takes and silences of this approach constitute a style that literally reflects reflection, soliciting the viewer to weigh patiently rather than respond superficially to everything seen and heard. One recalls Claude Lanzmann’s approach in Shoah (1985), which eschewed archival footage of concentration camp horrors, allowing long shots of the grounds bearing little trace of their existence to resonate within both participants and viewers. Just as Lanzmann used that erasure to imply the unrepresentability of the crimes of the Holocaust, the silent looks and absences of Oppenheimer’s movie conjure disturbing images of what we don’t see and invite anxious meditations on the ugliest aspects of human nature.

If the impersonal, sadistic reenactments in The Act of Killing distance the viewer from acknowledging affinity with the murderers, The Look of Silence, through the deceptive grace of its stillness, seduces us into recognizing the all-too-human character traits of ignorance, hate, and self-deception. Long held looks between the searcher and those he confronts are so charged with tension, with the overcoming of fear, and the effort to penetrate the wall of denial, that the viewer cannot look away. We are pulled in and forced to ponder the reverberations of each moment. If one has seen the earlier film, one is unsurprised by the zestfully described atrocities and the resistance of family members to hearing Adi speak of their dead father’s crimes. What we are less prepared for are anguished moments like the one when Adi discovers his uncle’s role in Ramli’s death, and when he relates this to his mother. His uncle detained Ramli until the murderers took him to the river where he was killed. Adi’s mother says she never knew this. Yet her manner is so unruffled as to suggest the possibility that she did know, or at least suspect as much.

This may be something neither Adi nor Oppenheimer would concede. Yet I don’t think it at all unlikely, given what we’ve learned about the prevailing climate of fear and secrecy, that, like everyone else, this woman had to live not only with the memory of what happened to her son but with the ugly truth that her brother was complicit in his fate. If we dismiss the idea and tell ourselves that, while everyone else can pretend ignorance, a mother is above that, we fail to appreciate the reach and thrust of a filmmaking style designed, through the painstaking scrutiny of the camera’s eye, to extract precisely such discomfiting thoughts.

Both The Look of Silence and The Act of Killing have now been screened in parts of Indonesia, making it possible that eventually the “true history” that the murderers were so bent on protecting for half a century will finally be exposed for the heinous lie that it was.

The Look of Silence opens at Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York on Friday, July 17.