Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Look of Silence (2014) New York Film Festival 2014

Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing was one of my favorite movies from last year, a work of documentary audacity. Through the point of view of killers involved in the Indonesian genocide, Oppenheimer was able to find a sort of ecstatic truth (a term coined by executive producer Werner Herzog) about our inherent inhumanity. When I interviewed Oppenheimer last year for Flixist at SXSW, he concluded the interview by noting that The Act of Killing "is not a story about a strange place where killers have won. Killers usually win, and they usually build their normality on the basis of terror and lies."

Looking back at the interview, Oppenheimer also described one of the chilling scenes that would appear in his follow-up film, The Look of Silence. While hearing him describe this moment shocked me, actually seeing it has a different effect: it deflates the heart and dims one's view of humanity.

The Look of Silence is at least as good as The Act of Killing, if not better. Rather than treading the same ground, The Look of Silence deepens the exploration of the Indonesian genocide from an emotional and generational standpoint, and does it with such haunting attention to what is said by the film's subjects and what is left unsaid. It's another stunning achievement by Oppenheimer, who was recently (and justly) awarded a MacArthur genius grant. Just two films in--and in back to back years, no less (though the wider release of The Look of Silence won't be until next summer)--Oppenheimer is a filmmaker whose assuredness in cinematic craft is matched by the importance of his subject matter and his passion for it.

The primary subject of The Look of Silence is Adi, an optometrist whose older brother was brutally murdered by the government during the genocide. We get to hear all of the details of the man's mutilation, and so does Adi, repeatedly. He watches two killers describe how the murder was carried out. It's older footage that Oppenheimer shot a decade ago that feels like a kind of precursor to The Act of Killing. Adi hears how his brother saw his mother one last time. Adi repeats the story to people complicit in the murder. And then, daringly, Adi questions killers why they did what they did.

The Look of Silence focuses more on the victims of the genocide rather than the perpetrators of it, and yet the perpetrators are still given a voice in the film. This is unavoidable. The parents of victims live alongside the men who murdered their children. The ruling party, which is sympathetic to the murderers since they were hired by the government, indoctrinates the children of today. In school, kids learn that the communists were incestuous atheist bastards who had to be weeded out. As a counterpoint to the propaganda, we learn more about the nauseating practices that the killers adopted as mass murder was normalized. Anwar's tales of rape and torture in The Act of Killing were painful already, but the confessions of the killers in The Look of Silence are more shocking and more deranged, and they're delivered in the casual way one would describe a day at work.

With Adi asking questions in The Look of Silence rather than Oppenheimer, the responses and the conversations differ compared to those in The Act of Killing. Adi's questions are more pointed and pained given his personal ties to the killings, whereas Oppenheimer's outsider status allowed him to be more detached. Tensions run higher in The Look of Silence since Adi's questions put the killers on edge--it's as if the act of asking questions is Adi's own form of seeking understanding as well as seeking a kind of revenge. Oppenheimer's line of questioning was "What happened?”, Adi's is more like "Why did you do this?" and "How could you do this?" (Maybe there's also an unspoken "How dare you?" and "How could you let this happen?") The tension in these confrontations also reveals the power dynamics within Indonesian society that still exist today. Oppenheimer had a sort of luxury to ask what's since he was never in danger of repercussions. Simply by asking why's and how's, though, Adi is putting himself and his family at risk again.

There's an almost novelistic quality to The Look of Silence given the details and images that Oppenheimer continually returns to. While questioning killers, Adi usually conducts manual optometry tests with multiple lenses, at once gauging that person's visual acuity as well as that person's perception of the genocide. There's the multi-generational aspect to consider as well, with Adi's elderly parents (his father is over a century old, blind, and with spotty memory) concerned for his safety and, in turn, a concern by Adi and his wife for the safety and future of their children. Cobwebs, jumping beans, the approach of trucks in the distance, a river passing beneath a bridge--all of these visuals, carefully arranged, create a chain of rich metaphors for the culture's collective memory about its own history. Even the change in landscape from one testimony to another has the power to suggest some sense of new perspective, some sort of understanding. There are moments of levity in The Look of Silence, some hope in the face of this oppressive despair. Václav Havel wrote that hope, while not the same as optimism, is the certainty that something will eventually make sense, regardless of how it turns out. With time and understanding, change through perspective, slowly, may be possible.

Or maybe not. There are two famous quotations about history that go unspoken in Oppenheimer's films: George Santayana's "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," and James Joyce's "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." There's another quotation throughout The Look of Silence, however, that the killers and those sympathetic to the killers keep repeating: "The past is past." It's as if the fact of mass murder is a given, that the propaganda of the killers is history, and that truth (ecstatic or otherwise) is whatever those in power tell people to believe.

In addition to the refrain that the past is past, The Look of Silence offers a chilling rejoinder to the Santayana and Joyce quotations. When Adi meets with an Indonesian politician, the man becomes defensive and then sinister. He tells Adi that he needs to stop asking questions and then makes a not-so-veiled threat about what could happen if people continue to ask questions. To Santayana, those in power might reply, "If you keep bringing up the past, we will make sure that history repeats itself." And to Joyce, "Be quiet, and go back to sleep."

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