For the species on this Earth that claims to be the superior one and most evolved we human beings really are a cruel one. One that has for millennium attempted and to and oftentimes been successful at eliminating different races or cultures. Looking throughout human history genocides are not that rare. Just look back at what happened in Europe with the Jews during World War II or what the Ottoman’s attempted on the Armenians or more recently what happened in Rwanda when the Tutsi tried to wipe out all Hutus. Heinous. Sadly there are so many that we don’t always realize what is going on or remember what has happened. That is where a documentary like The Look of Silence by Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing) comes in as a reminder and maybe even impetus for us to speak up and step in when it inevitably happens again.
The Look of Silence, which has celebrated documentary film director Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, Into the Abyss) on as an executive producer, is the second film in which Joshua Oppenheimer has examined the 1965 Indonesian genocide. The first time was the Oscar Award nominee, The Act of Killing. That first documentary examined the lies the perpetrators of the genocide told themselves so they could carry on living. The other side of that coin is how the survivors carried on living in silence and fear for fifty years.
Told from the perspective of 40-something Adi, an optometrist who was born shortly after the genocide, but has had to deal his entire life with the fact that his older brother was killed, the film shows the effect the killings had on the survivors and how it is still something they are dealing with today. That is because the ones behind the genocide are either living right next door to the survivors or are in power still. Fear is still an element in the survivors’ lives.
As a result the fact that Adi begins asking questions of those who carried out the killings is a truly brave thing. There is still a worry that he could disappear or be killed if he pushes too hard. This does not stop him though his elderly mother worries about Adi doing this. Adi does not only question them about the how and why of the killings, but wants the perpetrators to take responsibility for them. This is especially poignant when he confronts his own uncle, who was a guard at the prison his brother was held at before he was killed.
The Indonesian genocide of 1965-66 was seen as an anti-communist purge that happened after a failed coup attempt. It is an accepted estimate that around 500,000 were killed during this period. The killings began in the capitol city of Jakarta, moved to Central and East Java and then finally even on to Bali. While some of the victims were shot many were killed by beheading by machete and then their bodies were dumped into the river. Whole villages were massacred and rivers began to be clogged because of all the bodies. Killings were carried out in mass murder fashion and all in all it is considered one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century.
We learn that Adi’s older brother Ramli’s death really marked the people of the area. He was killed less than two miles from his parents’ home. It became a symbolic death for all survivors, but especially for his family. His mother wanted to die herself and it was only the birth of Adi a couple of years later that compelled her to carry on. That fear of those who committed the atrocities still hangs in the air five decades later, so much so that Adi and his family can only visit Ramli’s grave in secret. Those in power had such complete control over those that survived that they were able to keep the many deaths they had committed protected in the resulting enforced silence.
Usually a film about the survivors of any tragedy is filled with stereotypes and clichés. Such is not the case with The Look of Silence. It treads on original ground with every moment of the film feeling honest and authentic. Oppenheimer rarely interjects or adds his two cents. More often than not he is silent and allows Adi to make the film. This honesty allows the viewer to really understand and see what the effects of the atrocity are. We see how hard it is on the survivors once they begin, some for the first time, to examine how they feel about what happened in 1965 and how it has affected their lives over the decades since. The film almost serves as a tribunal and reconciliation process in an area where there has been neither. Through this film you can see how the healing process might be prodded on to beginning and an understanding of what happened occur. A sense of compassion for the survivors is easy, but through Adi you can see that compassion or forgiveness for the survivors is also a possibility as long as things are brought out into the open, discussed and the fear goes away.