- Seeing clearer? A survivor of the 1960s Indonesian genocide
In The Act of Killing (2012), Joshua Oppenheimer asked the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide of the 1960s to don costumes and makeup and to re-enact the things they had done so many years ago following a military coup — and, almost incidentally, to reflect upon it all. The result was a quirky documentary disturbing in its mannered nonchalance.
Now, Oppenheimer takes us back to Indonesia for the more straightforward The Look of Silence, wherein survivors share memories of the genocide and confront the people who perpetrated it. Early on, we see one elderly witness examined for eyeglasses to restore her vision, and then a little girl fools with a pair and giggles. “Playing with glasses?” her father tells her. “You’ll regret it.” We see a blind old man sing a silly song about a sexy girl. These are foundational metaphors as thick as the doctor’s test lenses.
The doctor is Adi Rukun, the film’s serene protagonist of sorts, born in 1968, three years after the rise of the junta that killed his brother. His mother recalls those days as she cares for her husband, age 103, who’s literally just skin and bone. As children learn lies about the past in their classroom, Rukun tries to teach one child the truth.
In a brief moment of historic footage, we hear about Indonesia’s financial promise — dashed by the military overthrow of the country’s Communist government. But otherwise, the leisurely Look of Silence is exquisitely filmed in the present day of a tropical paradise lost, its tranquility an ironic counterbalance to the turmoil it recalls. The bulk of the film revolves around Rukun questioning his brother’s killers, soliciting only excuses, denials and veiled threats. “You ask deep questions,” one says to him, catching on to his interrogation. Referring to his participation in the earlier film, he adds, “Joshua never asked such deep questions.”
One aging assassin tells the story of ripping someone’s guts out and cracking his skull like he’s reminiscing about an exhilarating barroom brawl of his young manhood. “Maybe he reacts this way,” someone observes, “because he regrets what he did.” Or maybe he has no conscience, for what else could account for millennia of human cruelty? In the end, Oppenheimer teaches us nothing about why people do such things. And that’s the point: The reasons are as immutable as all of the lives that every genocide takes.