The Look of Silence is the scariest movie of the year.
The Look of Silence is the scariest movie of the year. There aren’t any ghosts in it, and there’s no visible bloodshed, but there are monsters. They’re just not the monsters we’re used to seeing. They wear t-shirts and laugh with their wives. They try on glasses and play a Yamaha keyboard. Images of the mundane actions of these men are followed by the revelation that they aided or directly participated in the killing of many innocent people. In The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s exceptional new documentary, he explores the 1965 genocide in Indonesia and its present-day legacy as experienced by perpetrators and survivors alike.
It’s appropriate that The Look of Silence opens with a look of silence. An unidentified man stares at Oppenheimer’s camera with some kind of eyewear contraption affixed to his head. His gaze is muted and piercing. Later, we learn that he was a death squad leader during the genocide, and though he tries on prescription eyewear to improve his sight, his vision of the past remains remarkably obscured. He will admit to the murders but not to guilt. His allegiance to the government’s anti-communist ideology is unyielding. It’s his only defense against the terror of taking responsibility.
In the next scene, a man watches a video of a different killer as he describes the sensation of breaking open a man’s skull. The killer chuckles while he speaks and it is chilling to witness. The man watching the video is Adi, an optometrist whose brother was murdered by anti-communist forces. Serving as a stand-in for Oppenheimer, Adi visits the men who were recruited to carry out the government’s mass killings. Seeking to dispel the shadow that Indonesia’s past cast over his life, Adi steps into the killers’ homes, listens to what they say and tries, amazingly, to understand their unspeakable actions. Oppenheimer’s previous film, The Act of Killing looked at the stories the perpetrators of the same genocide told in order to go on living. The Look of Silence focuses on the survivors. By spending time with Adi, his mother, his father and even his daughter, Oppenheimer provides an affecting portrait of how tragedy is internalized and memorialized across generations.
The Look of Silence is not as unrelentingly dark as one might expect. Oppenheimer often cuts away from the cruelty to show its opposite. In one scene, Adi’s mother washes the emaciated body of Adi’s father. She rubs the sponge over her husband’s body and, in voiceover, addresses her deceased son. Forty years after his death, she stills feels his absence. When Adi’s mother sprinkles baby power on her husband’s face, she says they don’t share a bed because he “smells of pee.” This is to say, The Look of Silence is strangely sweet. Even in a place where genocide has wreaked havoc, tenderness remains.
Oppenheimer’s poetic style of filmmaking weaves together many disparate moments. It’s only upon reflection and deeper analysis that his observations coalesce into a powerful whole. What’s particularly sobering about The Look of Silence is not only the fact that the killers are still in power but that they consider themselves heroes. Most of the crew of Silence is credited as “anonymous” because participating in such a documentary still exposes them to persecution.
The concerns of the documentary seem far away but Oppenheimer has stated that The Look of Silence is also a mirror in which we can see ourselves. Oppenheimer reminds us that the invisible military forces that enacted the murder of hundreds of thousands were made up of “regular” men with hobbies, wives and children. The film is about how people avoid moral responsibility. Academics call it cognitive dissonance, a term which can be used to describe our ability to lie to ourselves. The Look of Silence cautions against this normalization of evil. Instead of offering false reassurance about heroes and bad guys, it urges us to remember that every perpetrator is a human being, just like you and me.