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Joshua Openheimer's "The Look of Silence" explores the nearly forgotten Indonesian genocide.

New York Film Festival: ‘The Look of Silence’

'The Look of Silence' a documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer. Photo from the film.
‘The Look of Silence’ a documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer. Photo from the film.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Look of Silence is about why the Indonesian genocide has remained suppressed, and how the killers have gone unpunished for decades. This documentary about the nature of watchfulness and the inability to speak out against evil is the sequel to The Act of Killing, his first film about the subject.

The Act of Killing is an unvarnished expose told without judgment of the murderers and leaders who engineered the genocide of over 1 million Indonesians because of their “alleged” ties to the Indonesian Communist Party. Unlike his first film which shows the killers glorifying their murderous acts as heroism and bravery, The Look of Silence applies rectitude and a moral filter through the perspectives of the family of Ramili, a victim of the genocide.

The documentary begins with shots of brother, Adi, an eye doctor, fitting glasses on one whom we understand to be the parent of the murdered son, Ramili. The image is an important one for symbolically, the act of looking and perception is a crucial theme of the film. A look may be fraught with danger, especially if the intention behind the look is judgment and the search for culpability and justice. Better, in some instances, not to look or not to see what is happening so that way one pretends an event never happened and can get on with his or her life. Or can they?

The Look of Silence is well structured in its themes of perception (correcting the vision of individuals as they are fitted with glasses), and the hope for future change (seen in the cocoons  of the butterflies yet to hatch that the little daughter plays with). The segments about vision and perspective incorporates all involved, the attitudes/perceptions and remembrances of the killers, the families of other victims and each of Ramili’s family members. Oppenheimer primarily focuses on the suppressed feelings, attitudes and emotions of Ramili’s family, his mother, father and brother Adi, (now 44 years old). The documentary follows the Adi’s search and examination to see why his brother died. But first there is the “how.” During some of the initial segments the brother sees the video of the killers joyously discussing how Ramili was brutally hacked up, disemboweled and finally, to stop his screaming, castrated and his penis cut off. It is unsettling and the brother has many questions including a yearning to confront the killers to make them accountable for their egregious atrocities.

In varied sequences, Oppenheimer contrasts how Ramili’s family lives in the present with the accounts of what happened in the past. With this contrast, he shows how the genocide still impacts the family today. Also, Oppenheimer cleverly juxtaposes footage of the killers explaining the death events and later in the film as we have come to understand what occurred, the mother’s explanation of how she allowed the military to take her son after he was brutalized with a machete and escaped to their home, trailing flesh and blood. With regret she says that they came for him, “swearing” they were taking him to the hospital; she didn’t stop them though she begged to go with him. Instead, they took him to the Snake River, where they finished their murder and threw his body in the river for the fish to eat, an act replicated in the thousands. At another point, the mother recounts after that day her husband’s teeth quickly began to fall out, one by one. The distress and painfulness of their son’s violent brutalization and their inability to do anything about it was so acute, the father’s body spoke out at the injustice, but not with the power of voice.

Oppenheimer is masterful in how he retells the story of the genocide relating the experiences of what the family remembered of those events, what the murderers remembered and did, and how the brother searches out the community and killers asking pointed, incriminating questions which inevitably reveal the foundation of lies constructed to effect the mass murder. In each case the response that is implied or stated is that silence should continue for what good would it be to remember something that is in the past? Many neighbors and families of victims disavow any knowledge of what happened; the recurrent phrase is that “they didn’t know,” (but they don’t eat the fish in the river where the bodies were thrown).

Adi questioning one of the leaders of the Indonesian genocide in 'The Look of Silence,' documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer. Photo from the film.
Adi questioning one of the leaders of the Indonesian genocide in ‘The Look of Silence,’ documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer. Photo from the film.

Justifications for the killings are given. As in all genocides, the behavior and nature of those to be wiped out are smeared; the victims are vilified, corrupted, dehumanized (the Indonesian communists had sex with each other’s wives and were atheists). The genocide is perceived as legal; it is perceived to be steeped in moral issues: Oppenheimer exposes this iconic theme of genocide. This has happened and is man’s legacy from the past and continues to happen in the present; the Indonesian genocide is no different. In the sequence of the interviews, the filmmaker clarifies that the nature of genocide is the political cannibalizing of a people against their own neighbors and countrymen/countrywomen, ultimately for power and wealth. As a survivor suggests of the history that occurred then and the politics that are still occurring now, “That is how it is, life on earth.”

The brother and Oppenheimer visit a few wealthy leaders of the military forces that ordered and enacted the genocide. One leader becomes offended and says to them, “Shame on you,” as the hypocrisy of his religion (Muhammad didn’t advocate murder), is conflated against his actions. The questions bring his brutality and self-delusions into acute focus. Another leader doesn’t want to discuss politics and makes threats when he is questioned about how he achieved his wealth. Indeed, the leader tells Oppenheimer he doesn’t “like him any more” and he should “turn off his camera.”  (a symbolic note that if it is not seen it doesn’t exist). In another instance, the daughter of one of the leaders is kind, though she disavows any knowledge of what her father did. She claims the family did not know, but she apologizes for her father, recalling that he is old. Another woman of a family member who was a leader in the genocide also apologizes and claims that all of this is making her very uncomfortable. These apologies are not closure for Adi, but it is a step in the right direction, though a very dangerous one which is being taken a great risk to Adi’s and his family’s lives. An important segment Oppenheimer includes is his documenting the visit of a young man (now he is old), who was with Ramili and managed to escape with him. This man survived, though Ramili did not. As the mother weeps and the man shoulders her tears with comfort, he says, “Leave it to God.”

The family members, community and the killers have struck a quiet devil’s bargain not to discuss what occurred or search for justice because there will be none. It is an unwritten, unspoken understanding that if anyone speaks out, the same will befall them; they will be hacked to death and thrown into the Snake River like the “communist” victims of their relatives, friends and neighbors. That is why the killers and the leaders of the genocide walk with their heads high. They are heroes and no one will countermand this perception. If family and the community want to live, they need to forget and keep what is in the past, in the past by “looking the other way.” The conundrum is that though they try to bury the past, the horror of how their relatives died haunts them. In a twisted sickness their emotions have to be cut off; this means they will never heal. Like Ramili’s mother, the families of the victims live in the nether world of pain, questioning the gods of justice and morality as they cry out for justice to their ancestors, to God, to anyone who might hear them; but theirs are silent cries of the heart.

It is a testament to Oppenheimer’s bravery and his brilliant ethnographic interviewing skills that he is able to get the killers to speak about their acts and to get some of the leaders to revel in the greatness of their deeds (one states that they should be lauded and honored by the US government). For did they not rid the country of the horror of communism? And isn’t the country still free of the noxious communist insects?

In the bloodthirstiness of political ideologies is the rationale for murder and looting legitimized. Through fear and the threat of retribution, are insignificant, untalented men converted into intimidating killer machines. Through acts of annihilation are countries and politicians made, especially when the rule of law is turned upside down and humanity and empathy are vacated by the greed for power and wealth. These are key themes of this mighty film. Kudos goes to the courageous filmmaker and Adi for this incredible examination and its final hope that one day, humanity will finally hatch out of the cocoon and become a butterfly.

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About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, novelist and poet. She authors three blogs: The Fat and the Skinny, All Along the NYC Skyline, A Christian Apologists' Sonnets. She contributed articles for Technorati on various trending topics. She guest writes for other blogs. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely.