In 2012, director Joshua Oppenheimer released The Act of Killing, an audacious, somewhat elliptical yet chilling documentary about the mid-1960s Indonesian genocide of “communists,” following a military coup, that led to the often gruesome deaths of one million people. Almost as alarming, the perpetrators of the genocide were never punished, some still holding power in Indonesia. What made Oppenheimer’s movie so hard to shake was his method—he asked those who had orchestrated and participated in the killings to re-enact the murders they committed in whatever movie genre they preferred. The most spectacular, and bizarre, is the Busby Berkeley musical number that includes a giant carp out of which dancers emerge, the killer imagining it arrayed in sparkling drag, a genocidal Divine.
The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer’s follow-up to The Act of Killing, is a more conventional but only slightly less affecting movie. In it, Adi, a 44 year old optometrist whose older brother Ramli was brutally tortured and killed for being a communist two years before Adi was born, confronts some of the men responsible for the genocide. In his role as an optometrist, Adi helps the killers to see more clearly, not only with the aid of the eye testing equipment that provides the movie some of its more striking imagery, but also through Adi’s probing, direct questions. As the men realize what Adi is asking them, we see in their reaction the multiple meanings of the movie’s title.
First, and most literally, we see Adi watching videos of the killers bragging about the cruel methods they used to kill communists, two men reenacting, as they describe in graphic detail, the horrors they inflicted upon Ramli. Adi watches in silence, aghast. But then there are the killers’ responses to Adi’s questions. They begin to squirm before becoming defensive, insisting they had a mandate of the people, dismissing the genocide and their role in it as something that happened in the distant past where it should remain, threatening to terminate their interviews, one even threatening the return of an anti-communist genocide given the increase in the number of people like Adi who don’t know how grateful they should be for these protectors of democracy. It is a frightening moment whose real threat is made all the more clear by the number of crew members who chose to be identified as “anonymous” in the closing credits for fear of retaliation.
It is in the killers’ dodges and self-justifications that we see just what silence can look like when it is maintained to avoid confronting and redressing horrible truths. We have seen this before, of course, such as in Marcel Ophüls’ powerful documentaries about the French collusion with Nazi Germany as those guilty of quiescence, if not full collaboration, in the face of fascism—pretty much all of France, as Ophüls makes clear, in spite of the ever-increasing number of French to claim to have participated in, or had family members who participated in, the French Resistance—insist that it was all a long time ago, only to be belied by those who had actually been in the Resistance, who had been tortured by Nazis, weeping at the recollection. You can see it too in America, as those of European descent try to consign to the ash bin of history the genocide perpetrated against Native Americans or the trauma of slavery inflicted upon Africans, whose descendents still suffer the effects of systemic racism. And when that systemic racism plays out with lethal results on our streets today, we’re told that race did not play a contributing factor.
That, too, is the look of silence.