The Look of Silence

Released:  2014

Oscar Nominations:  Best Documentary Feature

SUMMARY:  This movie is a documentary made by Joshua Oppenheimer as a companion piece to his 2012 documentary (also on this list) The Act of Killing.  In order to protect those involved, nobody’s full name is given in the film.  In 1965, the Indonesia’s military rose up and overthrew the government, then introduced a new system that is still in use today.  Immediately after the uprising a purge was conducted, where hundreds of thousands of communists were killed by commando units.  Most of these killings were incredibly brutal, often ending in decapitation by machete.  The focus of this film is a man referred to as Adi, whose older brother Ramli was killed in the purge in 1965.  Adi was born a few years after the event, so he has no memory of the events or his brother.  His parents are both elderly:  his father is nearly deaf and blind, and nearly immobile.  Adi’s mother takes care of her husband, but seems as though she has never really recovered from Ramli’s death.  Adi works as a traveling eyeglass fitter/salesman.  He uses a pair of glasses with removable lenses to determine the needed prescription, then orders/makes the glasses for the client.  Using this as a cover, he begins to visit the local men who were in charge of the commando unit that killed his brother.  As the group that took power in 1965 is still in power, these men were never charged with any crime, and are often hailed as heroes.  However, as Adi visits and questions them, they often seem hesitant to talk about what they did.  Some of them recount their deeds with pride, only to rapidly backtrack when Adi reveals that his brother was a victim.  At this point, some of the perpetrators react with anger, while others seem ashamed.  Often, they make the excuse that the deed was in the past, and should not be dwelt on any longer.  Even Adi’s own uncle was involved:  he was one of the guards that watched the prisoners until they were taken away to be killed.  Adi’s last two interviews are with children of the perpetrators.  One of them, whose father is alive and seated beside her, knew that her father was part of the commando unit but did not know that he had often drunk the blood of his victims (they thought it would keep them from going crazy).  The others, whose father has died, claim they did not know what he had done, and grow angry when Adi and Joshua (the director) refuse to drop the issue.  Throughout the film, Adi is shown watching footage of his brother’s killers talking about how they conducted the murders.

MY TAKE:  So The Act of Killing is horrible because you see how little the men seemed to be bothered by what they did 50 years ago, with a couple of exceptions.  It’s also hard to see that these men are free as birds, and even regarded as heroes in their country.  It’s a little like former Nazis, except that in this case, the supporting government is still in power.  A lot of the men openly boast about what they did, and demonstrate how they killed people.  Unfortunately, though it’s sort of a shady issue, the U.S. supported the overthrow of the government in 1965, since it put a “democracy” in place; thus, there’s a fairly good chance that somebody over here knew what was going on with the massacres.  However, the U.S. government has never really disclosed what it knew, so that’s only speculation.  The horrible thing about this movie is that you see how the families of the victims have to live next to and deal with the perpetrators and their families on a daily basis.  Frankly, I’m not sure how you could ever get closure in a situation like that.  I also thought it was really sad that a lot of the men would brag about what they did until they learned that Adi’s brother was a victim.  At that point, they either started making excuses for their actions or they got angry.  To me, this rapid shift in attitude suggests that they know, somewhere inside, that what they did was wrong.  Even Adi’s uncle was a part of it, and he gets really indignant when Adi keeps pressing the issue.  A government official vaguely threatens Adi about continuing to dig up the past.  I thought the two most affecting interviews were the last two, done with the children of two of the killers.  The first is a woman, who knew her father killed communists in the uprising.  At the beginning of the interview she says that she is proud of her father and his actions, but as he talks about cutting off a woman’s head and using it to scare some Chinese, and drinking the blood of the victims, you can literally see her thoughts changing.  She ends by asking Adi to forgive her father and saying that they are family now, but then almost tries to defend him by saying that he’s old and senile, and doesn’t recognize his own family.  I will admit that I have never had a revelation like this about my own father, so I don’t know what my reaction would be, but I found it a little incredible that she was still trying to make excuses for him.  On a slight side tangent, I found it almost funny that the killers thought that drinking the blood of their victims would keep them from going crazy.  Apparently some people did, assumedly because they couldn’t handle the stress of what they were doing.  I was amazed that people actually thought that would work, because I think that anybody who drinks human blood is already crazy.  And probably a vampire.  The other really interesting interview for me was the very last one.  The man in question, who is shown on the tapes talking about killing Ramli specifically, has died, but Adi talks to his widow and two sons.  All of them claim not to have known that their father was involved in such horrible things — even though he was one of the leaders of the commando unit and wrote a book about the events (perhaps more damning, on the tapes his wife is shown standing right next to him as he talks about the book, but she claims she doesn’t remember anything about it).  One of the sons gets really angry, especially after he sees footage of his father talking about the killings.  I thought the other one was feeling ashamed because he was so quiet, but he also turned angry at the end.  It was the widow who seemed to feel the sorriest — she tried to apologize to Ramli.  It’s sad and incredibly frustrating at the same time, because you can see what these people are trying to do.  It’s an episode in their past that they have glorified in their schools and in their retellings, but when confronted with a relative of a victim they abruptly change their tune.  Whether it turns defensive or amnesic, it reveals that they really don’t want to delve into the actions they claim to be so proud of.

RATING:  Watch it with The Act of Killing for greater impact.

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