Imagine being given the opportunity to interview the men who ordered the death of not only your own brother, but about a million other people. Would you be able to handle that? Calmly, dispassionately, and without actually leaping across the room and attacking the vicious, unrepentant murderers? Speaking only for myself, I don’t think I could do it. Fortunately for the world in general, there are people out there a lot more mature, compassionate, and forgiving than yours truly, and you’ll meet one of them in Joshua Oppenheimer’s frankly fascinating The Look of Silence. His name is Adi, he’s an Indonesian optometrist, and he has decided to ask some very brutal people some very difficult questions.
The Look of Silence is Mr. Oppenheimer’s follow-up to 2012’s The Act of Killing, a documentary that did a brilliant job of reminding the world of the 1965 Indonesian genocide in which countless “communists” were murdered by military forces. The Look of Silence presents a more personal look at those horrific events as Adi visits with several of the survivors. Some were victims who barely escaped the wrath of the bloodthirsty warlords, and others are actually those warlords themselves. The sequences in which Adi talks with his own parents are tragically poignant, and the scenes in which he interviews the killers (several of whom still retain power in the Indonesian government) are nothing short of horrifying.
It’s hard to say what’s more amazing about The Look of Silence: that men who are responsible for thousands of deaths still live on to openly gloat about their actions, or that one courageous eye doctor has the bravery to sit in a room with these monsters and ask them questions about their unforgivable actions.
Oppenheimer frequently lingers on Adi’s face during these interview segments; it’s an angry, intelligent, cautious, and respectful face — but the title of the film probably refers to the faces of the killers. Note how they always have a quick, pointed, defensive response for Adi’s most difficult questions, but once the words fade away, their faces quickly contort into a combination of misery, guilt, and shame. That’s what “the look of silence” is, and the more frequently we recognize what it looks like, the quicker the world can start to eliminate it.
Another striking moment: Oppenheimer’s cameras follow a pair of the killers as they enthusiastically reenact their heinous crimes on the bank of “Snake River.” It’s a long, ugly, difficult sequence to accept. In the next scene, one of the survivors of the 1965 massacres travels down the same river path, offering only a few quiet thoughts about peace, forgiveness, and respect for the dead. In just two sequences, Oppenheimer illustrates the difference between good and evil in a remarkably clear, honest, and subtle fashion.