There is a tradition in documentary filmmaking that, in effect, the filmmaker is "on the side of the good", ie, giving voice to the dispossessed and the oppressed, to those who otherwise would not have a voice to speak of. That was the reason why The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn's disturbing non-fiction look at the Indonesian massacres of 1965-1966, became a cause célèbre after its 2012 release.
Here was a documentary that told its story through the voice of the oppressors who remained in local power since, dealing with the killings through the nightmarishly audacious approach of allowing them to recreate their actions through fictional reenactments in the manner of Hollywood cinema. The victims were not heard throughout. This was partly by default, as the survivors and relatives of the government-sanctioned massacre feared repercussions or retaliations from speaking out against the perpetrators, but also partly by design; Mr. Oppenheimer was striving for a freer, less structured approach, one he prefers to call "non-fiction" rather than "documentary", creating in the process a sort of "negative space" that revealed the presence of the victims through their very absence.
At first sight, The Look of Silence seems to be making up for that, shifting the approach from the criminals bragging about their cruelty to one victim who stands up for all of them. Optometrist Adi Rukun wasn't born yet at the time of the massacres, but even his own birth - two years after Ramli, the brother he never met, was killed - makes him a stand-in both for those who survived and for those who only now begin understanding what this was all about.
Mr. Oppenheimer's camera follows Mr. Rukun from house to house in a quixotic desire to make peace with the perpetrators and hope for some sort of reconciliation that may help salve the wounds left open. The footage was mostly shot after The Act of Killing was edited but before it was released, suggesting a film made in the same limbo that the people it depicts are living through: a work made in hope that the social dynamics in Indonesia would change enough for a true conversation on the subject to rise to the surface, but unsure whether its very existence would be enough to kickstart it.
Mr. Rukun asks much harder, pointed questions than Mr. Oppenheimer did, and in the knee-jerk reactions to his probing the viewer finds both an explanation of why The Act of Killing was the way it was and the next step in the tale's development. The Act of Killing was a film about flaunting your power, about the power of propaganda and fear as seen from the victors' side; The Look of Silence sees that power from the side of the vanquished and talks of stoicity and despair in the face of it. Nearly everyone says to Mr. Rukun throughout that "the past is past", that there's little point in going over it yet again, in sticking your finger in an open wound only to make it worse; better to forget and move on but, of course, the duty of history and memory make sure you can't and shouldn't forget, since it's haunting us here, every day.
For Mr. Oppenheimer, again co-directing with a local who remains anonymous in the credits, as do all of the Indonesian crew, The Look of Silence slowly transcends the idea of mere justification to become a ritual wound-cleansing exercise, a diagnosis to see how deep it goes. It's clear that at the time of the shoot it was still raw and bleeding profusely; the powerful are genuinely taken aback by this mild attack on their power, wishing they could just make it go away; the survivors and victims become mostly terrified that one of them is standing up to ask difficult questions.
Mr. Oppenheimer's camera works both as protection and back-up for Mr. Rukun, who gains something of the heroic stature of so many classic Hollywood films where the lead stands up for what's right against the cruelty and injustice that surround him. It's yet another reference to the powers of narrative fiction that underlined The Act of Killing, and to the power of Hollywood as a whole to shape our relationship with the world. Like its predecessor, but in a more conventional, less challenging way, The Look of Silence shakes that foundation by simply asking us to look at these images and see them for what they are. There are no answers coming out of this movie; just a conversation starting, or rather moving forward and moving on.
THE LOOK OF SILENCE
Denmark, Indonesia, Finland, Norway, United Kingdom, Germany, Netherlands, 2014
Directors Joshua Oppenheimer and Anonymous; cinematographer Lars Skree (colour); editor Niels Pagh Andersen; producer Signe Byrge Sørensen; production companies Final Cut For Real in co-production with Anonymous, Making Movies and Piraya Films, in association with Spring Films, ZDF, ARTE, DRK, NRK, YLE, VPRO and Vision Machine Film Project
screened June 3rd 2015, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon, distributor press screening