One Million to One
Once again, Joshua Oppenheimer has me in a bind. His documentary The Act of Killing was one of my top films in 2013, and he’s followed it up with a spiritual sequel that’s even more compelling and unsettling--partially due to subject matter, partially due to shaky narrative ground. One doesn’t recommend The Look of Silence lightly, or to more than a handful of adventurous filmgoers who embrace emotional and psychological trauma in their escapism. Oppenheimer’s film is a warning, and so is this review.
The Act of Killing followed a gang of elderly Indonesian death squad leaders as they reenacted grisly scenes of torture from the 1965 communist purge. Whether strolling amongst the terrified villagers over which their party still has sway, or being affixed with facial-laceration appliances in a makeup chair, the men gleefully bragged about disemboweling citizens with the same dissociative enthusiasm that a hardcore gamer might describe massacring Martians. Only by watching fictive versions of their real-life atrocities could Oppenheimer’s subjects begin to cut through decades of brainwashing and deluded self-affirmation to realize what they’d done.
The Look of Silence shifts focus entirely, zooming from the macro to the micro and dispensing with the former film’s ghoulish theatrics. We meet Adi, a forty-four-year-old optometrist who lives with his elderly parents, wife, and two children in the same village as the members of Komando Aksi, the paramilitary gang that killed his older brother, Ramli, nearly fifty years before. Adi arranges interviews with executioners, coordinators, politicians, and one prison guard with a very troubling connection to Ramli’s death.
Not one of Adi’s subjects denies what they did, but each grows dangerously defensive as the conversations detour into issues of morality and dehumanization. “Your questions are too deep,” one says. “We did this because America taught us to hate communists,” says another. The prison guard even trots out the classic “just following orders” excuse with the conviction of someone who was never taught about its tragicomic triteness. Most disturbing of all is a strange through-line involving the death squad leaders’ insistence that regularly drinking their victims’ blood was the only thing that kept them from going crazy.
What elevates The Look of Silence over its predecessor is the filmmakers’ focus on hope, even in the face of unimaginable state and psychic oppression. In one scene, we see Adi’s son being indoctrinated at school, his teacher pantomiming a vicious, hypothetical communist attack and glorifying Indonesian’s wise, brave leaders. Outside the classroom, the boy accompanies his father to meet with Ramli’s best friend, who miraculously survived a mass killing at Snake River.* In another scene that achieves heights as grand as the lows are bleak, Adi’s attempt to read his daughter a storybook devolves into prolonged giggle fits as they pretend to fart on one another. That may seem out of place in a movie like this, but I imagine unadulterated silliness is a valuable commodity in a world dominated by the stoic denial of brutality.
A dark streak of hope courses through The Look of Silence, too. Adi’s parents never recovered from their eldest son’s murder. His father is a blind, toothless, half-senile invalid; his mother broods when not focusing on her husband’s care. When pressed about her rage at having to see Ramli’s killers every day, she resolutely declares that they’ll get what’s coming to them in the afterlife: “There’s no use raising it now.” Regardless of your opinion on the existence of God, karma, or anything outside the physical realm, Oppenheimer weaves a powerful undercurrent of cosmic repercussions in his film; it's easy for us to envision and root for these free-wheeling instruments of destruction being tortured for eternity by the spirits (or at least the memories) they’ve long since snuffed out.
Which brings me to my one big problem with this film—and with The Act of Killing, too. Oppenheimer is a propagandist of the highest order; a noble propagandist, to be sure, but a message-peddler just the same. There’s no denying that both documentaries build irrefutable cases against the Indonesian and U.S. governments.** But the films lack context, and context is key to making “Never Again” a reality instead of a bumper sticker.
Particularly with this film, I was extremely aware of Adi’s performance (if that’s the right word). Oppenheimer constantly shows him in quiet close-up, whether taking in archival footage of boastful confessions or suppressing the rage of a million butchered innocents during a face-to-face interview. I understand this decision, but it’s a bit too art-house, too on-the-nose: GET IT? HE’S AN OPTOMETRIST WHO’S TYRING TO HELP PEOPLE SEE WHAT THEY’VE DONE, AND WE’RE LOOKING AT HIM WATCHING THEM…IN SILENCE.
Sorry. I’ll get to my point. Despite the dramatic momentum of Adi’s heartbreaking yet inspiring spirit, the fact remains Oppenheimer’s films provide a single perspective on historical events. They don’t offer the viewer any idea of how or why those events occurred, what national or international sentiments gave rise to them, or how, even, to move forward. Given America’s recent rocky political climate, in which a startling number of citizens believe the President is a secret Muslim communist socialist, one might come away from The Look of Silence wondering if there are any parallels with pre-massacre Indonesia. One might also wonder what leaders and activists from other countries thought of the communist purge, if they were even aware of it—and how the flow and control of information impacted Oppenheimer’s subjects, on both macro and micro levels.
For the record, I’m not arguing that any degree of context can excuse genocide. I’m arguing that Oppenheimer’s films don’t go far enough in bridging the psychic gap that lets viewers off the hook. As gripping and enraging as The Look of Silence is, there’s still a “somewhere over there” detachment that renders the film interesting rather than transcendent. Like a bone-chilling horror film, I’m left with a feeling of having been profoundly grossed out, oddly entertained, and eager to see what the filmmaker does next. There’s no guidance here, no road map to activism beyond telling friends to see the film—or, more accurately, daring them to see it.
*Oppenheimer contrasts modern footage of the lush, tranquil setting with nightmarish tales of assembly-line executions by which thousands of people were beheaded on the banks and then kicked into the water. One death squad leader even joked to his friends that villagers were fools to buy fish during that time because all the fish ate were people.
**The Look of Silence features an NBC News profile of the region from the mid-60s, in which the interviewer celebrates Indonesia’s efforts to thwart communism on a grand scale, and also touts Goodrich Tires’ newly established presence in the region as being a boon to industry.