“If I came to you like this during the military dictatorship – what would you have done to me?”
“You can’t imagine what would have happened.”
I’ll start by pointing out something fortuitous: the focus of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence is an optometrist. Of all the people to befriend, and of all the friends to have such a grim family history, and of all the people to decide – braver, this, than most can comprehend – to confront the murderous powers-that-be of his country… an optometrist. Oppenheimer went to Indonesia to create what would become the brilliant, bracing, much garlanded all-time classic The Act of Killing (2012); what he found when he met Adi Rukun proved, somehow, even better.
Adi’s profession is fortuitous because it serves as such a potent metaphor for his journey, and an anchor for the motifs running throughout Oppenheimer’s work. When the mild-mannered, clean-cut Adi sits his enemies down for a series of quietly loaded confrontations, he is merely applying his professional skills: politely conversing with even the most brutal of death squad leaders, he attempts to discover how they see the world, evaluate why they see it in such skewed terms, and so tentatively correct their vision. Even further than this, the entire film is composed of looks and glances – usually silent – that each convey so, so much; partly because they are, of course, the real expressions of real, embattled people but partly because Oppenheimer, in all his artistic wisdom, chooses them to.
You see, the first and most obvious thing to make The Look of Silence one of 2015’s greatest films is its masterful construction, its complexities and formal innovations within the world of documentary filmmaking. If The Act of Killing was a Brechtian fever dream of artificialities and self-conscious cleverness, a headline-maker for its premise alone, then the far subtler The Look of Silence is built with the dense symbolism of some classic European arthouse film. Oppenheimer has made the jump from gifted documentarian to a truly dignified giant of the moving image; I try not to hyperbolise here.
Scenes are allowed to play quietly, with information slowly rolling out. Often, it’s not even concrete information so much as an oblique emotional insight into its subjects and, by extension, the overriding topic of Indonesia itself. Adi’s parents receive much screentime, but only some of this is devoted explicitly to the facts of their elder son’s death 40 years hence. Mostly, we just see them potter about and ruminate on their long, otherwise uneventful, lives. Adi’s crooked father, with his blindness and functional deafness, stands as a particularly moving symbol of a wider ailment afflicting the community, who on the whole would rather Adi not bring up the past, no matter what happened to his poor brother.
The central theme, though, is the tension between oppressor and oppressed, or the writing of history. By opening up the project to focus on both the death squad bigwigs and the varied victims 40 years on, Oppenheimer creates a troubling, at times distressing, gulf between history as written by the victors (taken to absurdist extremes in Act) and the truth we must learn so as not to repeat it. This here is given a disquieting spin by a government propagandist who warns Adi: “If you keep making an issue of the past… It will definitely happen again.” It is a perverse warning, particularly as Adi’s mission here is not vengeance; he merely wants the truth to be admitted, unfettered by the rhetoric that has told Indonesian schoolchildren for decades that the purge victims were ungodly, adulterous, violent and worse.
The crux of The Look of Silence, its emotional core, rests on this denial of the truth. Adi, born after the killings, gradually pieces together enough specific facts about his brother’s final hours that a definitive timeline is actually established, and even used for later interviews. Yet a void remains, an uncertainty; without having been there, some key element seems to elude our hero. There is an ache written across his face for a man he never knew, killed for reasons unclear, in an event 40 years hence that now exists only in whispered allusions and hysterical propaganda. And without the admission of officials, Ramli Rukun’s short life remains only there, in a Plutonian realm of rumour and myth; and even if confession were extracted, what could it matter? The question driving Oppenheimer’s searching diptych is not the typical notions of “Why?” or “How?” – these are answered on a need-to-know basis, and are implicitly understood by subjects and viewer – but instead “What will it take to make the perpetrators confess, or repent?” Either way, these things have happened and will always have happened. The sheer existential madness of this basic fact has never weighed so heavily on a man’s face as it does Adi Rukun’s.
This is a film so powerful it persuades you against itself. Its subject, and its every frame, heaves with the burden of both a single horror in time and the decades of fermenting regret and pain thereafter. It is not merely about a genocide; it is about what it means, and how it feels, to carry the intangible mass of a whole country’s sorrow wherever you go and whichever “side” you are on. Indonesia, however, is represented as an otherwise perfectly recognisable and normal country – as the film’s remarkably succinct running-time wears on, this lens of regret is turned back on us: are we, like the cowed and intimidated citizens of Indonesia, staying too quiet about this? Are we, too, complicit in the regime’s grip of terror? How is it that we can merely look on in silence?
But it would be insulting to end any evaluation of this work with conclusions so trite: some token question about evil, a smug reference to the title. This is not what we are meant to take away. Think instead about what Adi is doing, and also what Oppenheimer is doing. Together, they respond to The Act of Killing with all its sudden shock value. The Look of Silence is not quite a sequel, nor even a Godfather II-style extension; it is a companion piece, the second frame in a diptych, a direct response to and reflection of the horrors of its predecessor. Adi’s conversations with his brother’s killers, usually undertaken after viewing Oppenheimer’s latest dailies, show that frankly, looking on in horror is simply not enough. His brief interviews with hideous men are the real point of the film; he makes little obvious headway, but these conversations are enough. They are a start.
This may be the rockiest and most overwhelming emotional rollercoaster of the film year (including Inside Out), but through the truly, truly heroic efforts of Adi Rukun we are left at the end not with despair but a kind of desperate, invested, galvanising hope. Adi is the film hero of the year; Oppenheimer is the filmmaker of the year; The Look of Silence is a film for all time.