Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Look of Silence Movie Review

The Look of Silence is Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up or companion piece to his 2012 documentary The Act of Killing. Where that film was shocking in its reveal of Indonesian perpetrators of genocide being so cavalier in their admission of what they did, this film is arresting in the way it personalizes the horror. Adi Rukun, the protagonist, is a younger brother of a young man murdered as a Communist in 1965. He confronts several of the commanders of death squads that operated in his province. Their boastfulness and rationalization of horrific crimes against humanity can only be explained as masking of tremendous guilt. There are powerful statements being made here about the need for national reconciliation and the ways in which families fail to fully heal or function without that acknowledgment.

Oppenheimer’s previous film focused on the members and leaders of death squads. He gave them small budgets to recreate their crimes as short movies. They proudly talked about specifics of how they murdered people and gladly reenacted the crimes in excruciating detail. That is the privilege of power: to brazenly brag about what otherwise moral people would recognize instantly as genocide, crimes against humanity, or just plain wrong, knowing that no one can touch you for it. But Oppenheimer achieved a small victory when one of his subjects began violently retching in the middle of an act, the emotional guilt and disgust at his past actions apparently overwhelming his physical being.

In The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer takes his project a step further and in so doing steps even closer to the danger zone of having himself killed or imprisoned or of endangering Adi, who interviews these men about their actions and tries to probe at their current feelings about their past crimes. He does his best to conceal his own emotions, making his questions and comments as objective and level as possible. But you can often see the register of pain, disappointment, and even downright disgust in his eyes or through the occasional twitch or quiver of his lip.

Adi is an optometrist. And while visiting and talking with these men, he’s usually testing their vision. In this, Oppenheimer happened upon something kind of accidentally genius. Sometimes life just hands you the perfect metaphor. If this had been a work of fiction, the metaphor might seem heavy-handed, but oh how it fits. In only one interview does Adi bring about anything close to a catharsis with the perpetrators. He speaks with an elderly man, now suffering dementia, and his daughter. The daughter has no idea about her father’s history and is shocked to learn these things and to hear him talk openly about killing. The reconciliation that occurs between these three people in this moment is the crux of what Adi wants for his country.

There can be no healing without at least the recognition that the genocide was wrong. He sees continuing pain in the nation and within his own family, in which his mother and father, now both in their 90s or 100s (no one seems to know his father’s precise age, but it could be as high as 108), continue to suffer in silence at the loss of their son almost fifty years earlier. It is a pain they can’t really talk about because those who are responsible for his death are still the ones in power. Imagine living in a world where half (or more) of the population lost a friend or family member to murderous thugs who now wield power over the entire nation. It’s unfathomable.

Comparisons to Nazi Germany are somewhat inevitable. Consider that in the aftermath of WWII the entire nation of Germany came to collective grips with what happened. Over the ensuing decades every individual had to make a moral reckoning for himself over the part that every single person played in allowing the Holocaust. Without that decades-long process, Germany might never have been permitted to heal. Grief can not be truly expressed and worked through so long as the people who caused your pain have not been brought to task. That’s part of why it was important for the government of Israel to continue tracking down and bringing to justice Nazi war criminals thirty and forty years later.

Oppenheimer’s greatest gift is knowing when not to cut the camera or to cut away from a face. For it’s in those moments of four or five seconds after a man finishes speaking when he begins to contemplate and reflect on what he’s just said. And in those moments you can see in his eyes how he truly feels. They often begin lashing out with their tongues at Adi (and sometimes at Oppenheimer behind camera), the result, I would say, of the discomfort they’re being made to feel and the threat to their personal feelings of being at peace in the world. Oppenheimer’s films likely won’t cause a sea change in the government of Indonesia, but it’s a step toward bringing more attention to the issue and, more importantly, toward a sense of national reconciliation that is long overdue.

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