TIFF14: The Look of Silence

In a way The Look of Silence and its companion film The Act of Killing are too important to be considered only movies. They are radical spotlights on a national genocide that has yet to be recognized as such by the nation that committed it. As director Joshua Oppenheimer said in his post-film Q&A, when he first went to Indonesia and met the genocidal men who would happily boast of the murders they committed, he felt like he had walked into a Germany 40 years after the Holocaust where the Nazis were still in power.

After a million people were killed in communist purges of the mid-1960s, Indonesia is still under the control of the military dictatorship that supported those killings. This film forces those killers to confront the evil they committed, and attempt some kind of reconciliation with the families of the victims. Such a reconciliation may not be possible, but it’s brave work, and essential to the survival of the human spirit in this Southeast Asian country.

At the centre of The Look of Silence is Adi Rukun, an eyeglasses manufacturer whose elder brother was killed in the purges two years before Adi was born. The film opens with Adi watching footage of two death squad leaders boasting to Oppenheimer about killing his brother. They describe how they packed the “communists” into trucks, led them down to the Snake River and hacked them to bits with machetes. If the machete strikes on their backs weren’t enough to kill them, they’d resort to strangulation or cutting off their genitals to finish the job.

Throughout the film Oppenheimer often cuts back to these shots of Adi watching the footage, his eyes barely holding back tears at the men’s gleeful mention of killing his brother. It is in these moments, in the way Oppenheimer captures the emotions of these Indonesian individuals, the way his camera sees their faces say something that they could never vocalize through their fear and pain, that The Look of Silence gains its power.

The majority of The Look of Silence follows Adi as he sits down with the killers of his brother and confronts them with their crime. Each killer looks accusatory and appalled, baffled that anyone would dare say to them what Adi does and balking at the suggestion that what they did was a crime, much less evil. But Adi persists, and not out of vengeance, as one of the killer’s sons suggests. Adi confronts these men because he wants to see the human in them. He wants to forgive them.

There is no precedent in documentary cinema for films like The Look of Silence and The Act of Killing—at least not that I can think of. They are confrontational in a way that not even the boldest investigative journalism is. After the film Oppenheimer said that he couldn’t think of another film that had a victim of genocide sit down with the perpetrators of genocide and confront them with their evil. I tend to agree. The Look of Silence and The Act of Killing are living, breathing documents of history and the evil humanity commits against itself. Even more remarkable, The Look of Silence is the first effort towards a truth and reconciliation process for a genocide that the majority of Indonesians would never even admit was genocide. Has film ever been so bold a tool for truth? And so essential?

9 out of 10

The Look of Silence (2014, Denmark/Indonesia/Norway/Finland/United Kingdom)

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer; featuring Adi Rukun.

The Look of Silence plays at the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the TIFF Docs programme.