Director Josh Oppenheimer burst on the scene with The Act of Killing (2012) a devastating and creative documentary that challenged a lot of notions about objectivity in the doco space. Now he returns with The Look of Silence (2014) continuing his cinematic exploration of the horrific and under-told story of the Indonesian genocide.
The Look of Silence, at least on a surface level, takes a more conventional approach to exposing these dark chapters of Indonesia’s past. Oppenheimer focuses on Adi, an optometrist whose brother was murdered during the genocide. Oppenheimer and Adi meet the men who killed his brother and follow the leads up the chain of command. Adi is an incredible character, retaining a quiet resoluteness in the face of revelations that would break pretty much all of us. Adi’s silent stoicism, oozing grace and strength, contrasts starkly with the murderers he confronts. They bluster, trying to intimidate him with swagger and bravado, but in doing so they merely reveal the depths of their cowardice. When he refuses to run away scared, they basically shit themselves, unable to own the sins they committed.
It is interesting to consider the film in relation to how it interacts with the first one. It is focussed on the same genocide and in similarly graphic detail on specific murders. It also retains the horrifying absurdity of the earlier film. Though this time that absurdity comes not from the challengingly playful style of The Act of Killing, but simply thorough the horrific callousness and overwhelming meaninglessness of the crimes. There is something almost muscular about this film and perhaps the most powerful moment of all comes in the closing credits. Just like in The Act of Killing, they are peppered with numerous appearances of ‘Anonymous’ throughout the crew. It speaks to how suppressed and systematically frowned upon any truthful discussion of the genocide remains in Indonesia remains some 60 years after the events took place.
Another exhibition of the pervasiveness of the official narrative comes when Adi lays down a ‘people’s history’ for his son. He subverts the official narrative and you can almost pinpoint the exact moment the little kid’s mind is blown. It feels almost like the moment you found out Santa Claus is not real (spoiler alert), but just on a much more important and weighty matter. This is one of many moments that make The Look of Silence a much more personal film than its predecessor. Much of this is down to the fact that the film focuses so heavily on Adi and the murder of his brother. It is a much more comfortable in for the audience. It is easier to identify with a man who has lost his brother compared to a mass murderer (though I acknowledge we are in no way meant to sympathise with Anwar and co in the first film).
What sets Oppenheimer apart from mere mortal documentarians is his power as a storyteller. He is able to see the facts, see the injustices. But he does not simply put them on screen, he creatively interrogates them and brings out specific points for the audience to be shocked and challenged by. In this film, the themes of violence, the dangers of the concentration of power are greatly enhanced by his phenomenal storytelling nous. It is that skill which allows him to make universal points out of very specific incidents. Not sure that anyone has ever captured pure evil onscreen quite like him, at least not in a very long time.
Verdict: The Look of Silence is the best film I saw at SFF and it is not even a close race. It is a great film, probably the best I have seen yet this year. An incredible companion piece to The Act of Killing, different and yet equally as good. Perhaps even better. This is a film that will affect you in a borderline physical manner. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter