*My salute to all the risk takes who made the movie: Look of Silence .
Joshua Oppenheimer has done a remarkable job. Not often does one watch a movie and think that the people behind it deserve a bravery award as well as recognition from the film community. Not often can a director manage to evoke feelings of compassion for a war criminal and a mass murderer. Never has any film, none that I have seen atleast, been able to portray a victim of said war crimes in direct confrontation with his perpetrators.
This of course is a true story – a story about the deliberate murder of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian schoolteachers, communists, workers, ethnic Chinese that took place after the Army came into power in 1965/66.
With this as the background and through a series of interviews with the protagonist perpetrator, ‘The Act of Killing’ records a chillingly candid version of the pogrom through the eyes and words of the perpetrators themselves. These guys willingly participate in the documentary but unwittingly become part of a larger narrative that the director is weaving. Often these detailed first hand portrayal and dramatization of killings are accompanied with laughter and conveyed in such matter of fact tones that it is jarring. And then when you realize that a lot of these perpetrators are still in power and/or have powerful friends in the ruling local governments, it starts to make some sense. But the movie is not just a series of shocking first hand depictions of barbarity. Throughout the documentary, the perpetrator protagonist is shown watching tape of himself narrate and roleplay the killings. In one powerful scene, he re-visits the site of his crimes and starts enacting his strangling routine. As the reality of what he’s done starts catching up with him and as the pressure cooker of emotions and rationalizations he’s managed to keep a lid on till now starts heating up, he starts retching uncontrollably. In many such subtle and not so subtle ways, Joshua manages to bridge the moral chasm between the viewer and the perpetrator and forces you to see him for who he really is – a person.
‘Look of Silence’ is a sequel to the first film. Adi, the protagonist in this documentary is the brother of one of the victims of the massacres. Together, Adi and Joshua take the viewer from one perpetrator to another’s house in search of answers from the perpetrators or from their family. All we see are gory details and lengthy re-enactments of how Adi’s brother was dismembered and thrown into a pond. And Adi’s almost tranquil like piercing gaze as he uncovers more details. And yet, as the film progresses and takes you inside Adi’s home and his relationship with his Mother and rest of his family, you begin to realize that Adi is not looking for complicated answers from the people he’s interviewing – not an admission of remorse or guilt or forgiveness but just an acceptance that what happened to his brother was wrong. What Adi does via his confrontational interviews, when taken out of context is not especially of a confrontational nature but the fact that he lives in a society that not only hasn’t recognized the killings but suppresses it in history books makes you appreciate him and fear for his safety. In that sense, his looks of silence themselves act as substitutes for moral questions that otherwise would have been deemed to have crossed the line.
Through both his protagonists, Joshua manages to evoke a wide range of emotions that seems impossible considering that the film does not give any perspective/background about the killings, does not have any voiceover commentary and minimal dramatization. It’s just pure cinematography and raw bravery.
*This post has been modified after the initial post. My husband owes me an annual blog post and agreed to write a review for this movie. I find his words beautiful and been trying to get him to write for years. When he volunteered to write a review, I erased my original post.