A companion piece to The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence revisits the mass murders carried out in Indonesia from 1965 to 1966, this time from the perspective of an ophthalmologist investigating the fate of his brother, one of the victims. If The Act of Killing was operatic, what with its elaborate dramatizations and re-enactments, this is bluntly intimate.
Adi Rukun, the doctor, was not yet born when his brother was murdered. Now the father of two young children – whose occasional giggling stands in stark, welcome contrast to the subject matter – Adi travels the region testing the vision of older villagers and fitting them with eyeglasses. Because the murders took place under the guise of ridding Indonesia of communism, the killers not only remain unpunished, but are often celebrated. Indeed, some of them are even Adi’s patients.
The Act of Killing exposed this injustice by heightening it: director Joshua Oppenheimer encouraged his interview subjects, who are publicly proud of their crimes, to stage theatrical recreations of their reign of terror. The Look of Silence does something similar, as when the men who killed Adi’s brother, Ramli, give Oppenheimer a graphic tour of the riverside where they committed that and countless other murders. But most of the material here consists of one-on-one interviews, in which Adi serves as Oppenheimer’s stand-in, asking the perpetrators to recall their past actions while listening with a clear eye and conscience.
It’s no wonder Oppenheimer handed Adi this responsibility: his implacable exterior, even when hearing awful details about his brother, makes him a calm interviewer. And his role as a doctor puts him in a position of trust with his subjects. The eye-testing equipment he uses, meanwhile, is a potent visual metaphor. Adi is bringing both a literal and moral clarity to these men while asking them to account for their crimes.
Adi is bringing both a literal and moral clarity to these men while asking them to account for their crimes.
As you might expect, the former is more welcome than the latter. “Your questions are too deep,” one former death squad leader says from behind Adi’s eye-testing contraption. Another man who managed to escape the purges and now lives in fearful silence tells Adi, “The wound has healed.” Yet The Look of Silence argues that before healing arrives, there must be a measure of justice. And the documentary tries, in some small way, to enact it.
Setting aside the righteousness of that goal – which to me is undoubtable – I have to say that the aesthetic approach Oppenheimer takes here is less compelling than that of The Act of Killing. For all Adi’s temperance, the interview segments still have an accusatory, “gotcha” quality that plays less on the perpetrators’ megalomaniacal hubris than on Adi’s (and Oppenheimer’s) unique access. A sequence with the wife and sons of one of the executioners, who has since died, especially feels like something Michael Moore might have arranged. One of the sons complains that he had invited Oppenheimer into the home as a friend and now feels tricked. When Oppenheimer is asked to turn off the camera, he lets it roll.
Still, there is no doubt that Adi’s intentions are nothing less than noble. “If I wanted revenge I wouldn’t have come like this,” he tells those sons. And later, when his mother is distraught over how to continue living amidst her son’s murderers, he offers, “We could forgive them.” With The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer has turned his camera toward victims like Adi, whose response is nothing short of remarkable. In fact, given the cycle of violence that has plagued Indonesia and festers throughout much of the globe, it’s downright miraculous.