Monday, April 20, 2015

'The Look of Silence' review (2015 River Run Film Festival)

Sometimes silence speaks louder than words. This idea is at the center of Joshua Oppenheimer's harrowing and intense documentary The Look of Silence, his second look at the 1965 genocide in Indonesia and the way that it has shaped and impacted the country in the decades since. In 2012's The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer examined the way that the men who participated in the genocide viewed their crimes by having them reenact them with a cinematic flair. The results were impressive and Oppenheimer picked up an Oscar nomination for the film. The Look of Silence focuses more on the pain of the family and how an entire country has attempted to repress this critical moment in their history. While Oppenheimer risks repetition at times, The Look of Silence emerges as a powerful documentary and an essential film.

In 1965, a mass Indonesian genocide occurred that took the lives of one million people. The violence happened to purge communists from the country, and while many maintain that the murders were the acts of the people, in reality, the army had a large hand in the action. Many of these men still hold positions of power in Indonesia today, and people who had family members killed in the genocide are living next to the murderers. In The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer and an Indonesian man who's brother was killed conduct a series of interviews with both the killers and the families to conduct a comprehensive and intricate look at the way that this genocide has affected the nation.

The most fascinating thing about this whole situation is the way that the killers glorify their murders. They discuss graphic details and then laugh afterwards. In one horrific scene from an old interview that Oppenheimer filmed, two killers discuss the way that they would sever the penis of their victims before dumping them into a river. They then proceed to act it out and have a good laugh afterwards. Is it a form of repressive psychology that causes them to treat such viciously disgusting acts with humor or are these just some really sick individuals? Oppenheimer's film seems to lean towards the former, but I don't know. Some of these guys seem truly messed up in the head and not from doing what they did.

And the funny thing is, it isn't just one or two of the murderers who openly discuss gruesome details of their murders. Every one of them does. One guy talks about how he would sever the breasts of women and he graphically describes their insides. Others mention drinking blood from the sliced necks of their victims to avoid going insane. And each one seems open to reenacting their crimes completely and accurately, bringing knives to interviews to show precisely how they severed heads with machetes.

But when Adi, the man who interviews all of the murderers, really presses these guys, there starts to be a large emotional reaction. The killers are defensive, and they deflect guilt onto other individuals. They act all big and tough, but when Oppenheimer and Adi get under their skin, there starts to be a profound response and I think that the regret did start to come out in some of these guys. They deflect Adi's questions as politics or a blatant attempt to stir things up, but you see something in their eyes and in the stunned silence during their conversations.

The other reaction that pervades throughout the film is one from individuals who don't want this story to resurface again. In their mind, the genocide is over and the truth never needs to come out. For all they care, living next to the killers is okay and nobody should really care about what happened in the past. As one person says (and I'm paraphrasing here) "If you keep digging up history, the past is bound to repeat itself." Another man says "the wound has healed," and Adi only looks along in disgust.

The Look of Silence alternates between three different styles: Adi's interviews, footage of Adi watching the killers on tape, and scenes of Adi with his family. The common thread through all of that is Adi- his pain, his happiness, his dumbfounded sadness. It unites this film and it brings an emotional bond for the audience. When the credits roll, you see that many of the people who helped to make this film are credited as anonymous, which highlights the insane bravery of Adi and everyone involved.

For most of The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer crafts a beautiful and stunning documentary that features some truly extraordinary interviews. This film stirs up a reaction in you and I can't see anyone walking away unaffected. It might not move you to impact the situation in Indonesia, but it raises awareness and that is just as important. That being said, Oppenheimer's film gets a little repetitive towards the end and it runs out of steam.

Ultimately, Oppenheimer's documentary is a powerful film and one that I think will be around for a long time. It doesn't show you the atrocities, but it discusses them and it proves that words can be just as disturbing as images. Adi and Oppenheimer are brave men and hopefully they can continue their work in the country. Even if nothing changes in Indonesia, the awareness level is now much higher than before and that's what matters to me.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                             (8.4/10)

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