A documentary examining Indonesia’s anti-communist purges in the mid-'60s highlights the repression of the nation’s history and its lasting effects. By Christos Tsiolkas.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s ‘The Look of Silence’

In 'The Look of Silence' the optometrist watches footage of interviews with perpetrators of the 1965-66 Indonesian anti-communist killings.
In 'The Look of Silence' the optometrist watches footage of interviews with perpetrators of the 1965-66 Indonesian anti-communist killings.

In this story

The Look of Silence, the new documentary by Danish filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, is a companion piece to his 2012 film, The Act of Killing. Both films stand alone as compelling and devastating examinations of one of the most horrific political tragedies of the 20th century, the slaughter of a million communists and suspected communists in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966. But it is only when viewed alongside each other that the project assumes its reflective and moral authority. To relegate the new film to the status of sequel would be to short-change it. It is a second volume, if you like, of an exploration of how to honour memory of a historical outrage that has itself never been acknowledged by the state where it occurred.

The Act of Killing interviewed the perpetrators of brutal violence in Medan, North Sumatra. Now old men, they willingly and proudly detailed how, with the overthrow of Sukarno, as small-time criminals and gangsters, they were part of paramilitary death squads that tortured, raped and killed suspected communists and subversives. Part of that film’s fascination lay in the old men’s love of Hollywood cinema, and Oppenheimer filmed them re-enacting their crimes using the genre conventions of film noir and gangster films. The film’s shocking power drew from its overturning of one of the key ethical underpinnings of contemporary political documentary: that the point of view of both filmmakers and audience should honour the subjectivity of the survivors over that of their tormentors. Though that ethical commitment makes coherent and necessary sense, for many of us The Act of Killing suggested that insights and understanding could be drawn from realigning the focus of our attention on the abusers themselves. The film’s most politically astute feature was the way it provided insight into how the Indonesian military and government leeched off urban disenfranchisement, village caste hierarchies and class tensions to enable it to sanction and perpetrate the scale of the violence. Oppenheimer certainly gave the old men enough rope to hang themselves; but it is clear in both films that his fiercest condemnation is for the army and the political elite.

The Act of Killing was no mere wallowing in sadism, and I think attacks on its integrity are ill founded. But it is undeniable that it was a film impossible to watch without a certain queasiness. The deliberately self-conscious formalism in the filmmaking, and in the murderers’ swaggering retelling and restyling of history, left us questioning the validity and authenticity of both the past and the avowal of their present remorse. I do think that my discomfort lay in the absence of any voices of the victims themselves. I couldn’t abandon an unsettling doubt: Would they too have utilised Hollywood genre to speak their truth?

The Look of Silence answers that question in the negative, affirming for the documentarian the primacy of truth-seeking and investigation over the aesthetic potency and pleasure of genre tropes. The film is less formally dynamic than The Act of Killing, the silence the title alludes to being both historic and personal. As in the first film, many of the Indonesian participants and crew are listed as anonymous, that choice underlying how the events of 50 years ago are still censored and denied by the state.

The film chooses to tell the story of the victims by focusing on one family. An optometrist is the younger brother of a man who was tortured and murdered in the 1966 killings. His father is now senile, and his mother still scarred by the cruelty and inhumanity visited on her son. The optometrist visits the aged in his parents’ village, assessing their eyesight and cautiously asking them questions about the murder of his brother. It is through the reaction to that questioning that the film draws its cumulative strength. There is denial and dissembling. There is also, I think, genuine contrition. But what emerges most powerfully is how repressed their history has been for Indonesians. Even within families, the truth has been evaded and silenced for generations. It is in this sense that The Look of Silence acts as the necessary corrective to the first film, in that it suggests that the manic energy of the protagonists in The Act of Killing was fuelled as much by social and cultural ghosts as it was by their fear of the spirits of those they individually violated.

I resisted the film at the beginning, suspicious of its carefully composed and artful tableaus of village life. The overt symbolism of the optometrist checking the sight of the elderly also felt forced. Oppenheimer doesn’t bring trenchant insights to his work as a documentarian. The complexity of Indonesian history and politics is only sketchily drawn; and though the complicity of US military policies in the anti-communist massacres is made explicit, it too is conveyed only with the crudest of exposition. There is a telling moment in The Look of Silence when the optometrist is carefully grilling a leader of the death squads who appeared in the earlier film, and the old man becomes agitated at the questioning. He turns to the camera and insists that it was only through hospitality to Oppenheimer that he allowed the camera crew into his home, that he is offended by the man asking such provocative questions. “Joshua never asked political questions.”

That The Look of Silence is a film made largely by Europeans is not unimportant but I do think my initial reservations – that Oppenheimer was exoticising his subjects – proved to be unfounded. I suspect the trust his subjects have granted Oppenheimer is one that remains near impossible for an Indonesian filmmaker to assume. The silences are still too potent and the risks still too great.

Oppenheimer keeps cutting back to the optometrist sitting in a near-empty room, a small television playing footage culled from The Act of Killing. Two old men discuss the murder of his brother. The optometrist, who was born in 1968, watches silently as the men relate the most brutal and vicious of assaults, the most dehumanising of tortures. They explain that they drank the blood of the victims in order not to be driven mad. For those of us who are children of people who lived through civil war, the man’s silent witnessing acts as a strange affirmation. I know that what occurred in the mid-’60s in Indonesia is not officially a civil war, but its violence, its horror and its poisoning of communities and families has many of the same characteristics of such wars.

It may be asked how hearing of the atrocities visited on his brother does not cause the man to want to seek vengeance, to pay back his brother’s tormentors in kind. I think an answer is provided in the film’s most arresting scene, when a child of one of those perpetrators asks to be forgiven. The embrace between the children of this second generation, those who have been raised in the shadows of those whose blood was taken and of those who took it, is the moment that breaks the silence.

There is rage in Oppenheimer’s films: it is there in the subterranean but nevertheless visceral moral disgust at how those most responsible for the atrocities are still in positions of power and authority. The Look of Silence forces us to look upon the consequences of the monstrous. But what proves most special about his two works is his empathy. The risks of exploitation in his project, both to his subjects and to history, must have seemed enormous. The two films act as a call and response, the audaciousness of the first tempered by the dignity of the second. In watching them, we feel saddened, we experience grief. But there is something more: these responses are earned honestly; we don’t feel manipulated at all.


1 . Arts Diary

VISUAL ART Tom Roberts

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until March 28

DANCE New Breed

Carriageworks, Sydney, December 8-13

PHOTOGRAPHY The Biography of Things

Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, December 11-February 21

VISUAL ART Jess Johnson Warm Haus

NGV International, Melbourne, until January 31

MULTIMEDIA Grayson Perry: My Pretty Little Art Career

Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, December 10-May 1

VISUAL ART Howard Arkley (and friends...)

Tarrawarra Museum of Art, Healesville, until February 28

THEATRE Noel Coward's Semi-Monde

Trades Hall, Carlton, December 10-15

Last chance

VISUAL ART 13.7...the birth

Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, until December 6

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 5, 2015 as "Truth telling".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Christos Tsiolkas is the author of The Slap, Barracuda and Damascus. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on July 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.