VOD film review: The Look of Silence
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Chris Blohm | On 13, Oct 2015
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Watch The Look of Silence online in the UK: Sky Documentaries / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play / Vimeo On Demand
Read our interview with Joshua Oppenheimer here.
Joshua Oppenheimer is one of the finest film-makers in the world today. He doesn’t just make documentaries, he lights beacons, and uses them to illuminate the darkest recesses of human behaviour. If that analogy seems a little lofty, then consider the impact of Oppenheimer’s previous film, the multiple-award-winning The Act of Killing, which asked the perpetrators of murder and torture in Indonesia to revisit and re-enact their atrocities, and through the very nature of performance, challenge an entire nation to recalibrate its moral compass.
The Look of Silence is a companion piece to The Act of Killing, and while it’s never quite as conceptually audacious as Oppenheimer’s previous work, the impact is no less gut-wrenching. It is a haiku of humanity, one that begins by making an effective and eloquent case for its own existence: early in the film, a teacher delivers a one-sided lesson to a roomful of children on the violence inflicted by the rebelling communist resistance against their military oppressors. The point? Propaganda is still rampant, and the full extent of the barbarity endured by the victims of Indonesia’s communist purge is still being suppressed by the ruling regime. In short, efforts to archive the torturers’ confessions have never been more essential.
The focal point is Adi Rukun, whose brother was killed by one of Indonesia’s death squads. In an increasingly emotional series of interviews, Adi confronts the men and women behind the killings, and hears their confessions. Visceral details are abundant. Remorse, however, is in short shrift: the participants consistently retreat to their standard defence of duty to the state, and its campaign to quell the Godless scourge of communism. There are pathetic, incessant pleas to leave the past behind, but for the families of the butchered, and the descendants of the disappeared, it’s never that easy to forgive and forget. Implausibly, the proponents of savagery here portray themselves as naive idealists, blissfully unaware of, or possibly just unconcerned by, the effect of their abhorrent actions on others. Empathy is strangely noticeable by its absence.
The cinematography is unfussy but elegant, occasionally even painterly, and the takes are long and substantial. Many of Oppenheimer’s shots capture Adi’s reactions (or lack thereof), as he listens silently (one of a few reasons for that title) to these terrible revelations, and tries to gently steer the subjects to an affirmation that never comes. This is powerful, potent film-making that steer clears of easy sentiment and salaciousness.
Every now and again, in a masterstroke of intertextuality, Oppenheimer cuts to a shot of the interviewer watching clips from The Act of Killing itself. The audience gets the opportunity to scrutinise these astonishing scenes again, but this time through the eyes of somebody with an actual stake in the conflict. The process of watching is transformed into a political act: either we let these awful events unfold before our eyes, or we engage with the issues, and start challenging the tyrants. The term ‘documentary’, while technically accurate as a description for Oppenheimer’s output, feels too flimsy and fragile a label for such a clarion call for mobilised compassion.
The Look of Silence is available on Sky Documentaries. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand legally on NOW TV, for £8.99 a month, with no contract and a 7-day free trial. (An Entertainment Pass auto-renews at £8.99 a month until 1st September 2020, £9.99 thereafter unless cancelled.)