“If you cut off a woman’s breast, it looks like a coconut milk filter—full of holes,” a patient says while Adi, an optometrist, checks his vision in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence.
Adi is a 44-year-old Indonesian, and he has chosen to treat the men responsible for the country’s mass murders of 1965-1966, when the older brother Adi never knew was killed. Adi interrogates them, searching their faces and words for some hint of remorse or acceptance of responsibility. Occasionally, Adi admits to them that his brother was among the murdered, essentially waving a flag that IDs him as one the “communists” the government was trying to purge.
The Look of Silence is a companion piece to Oppenheimer’s 2014 Best Documentary Feature nominee The Act of Killing. Whereas Killing was bizarrely cheerful and lively while re-creating that era’s horrific incidents, Silence is reserved. Adi and his interview subjects sometimes get a bit heated (“I don’t like talking about politics,” one former official says), but mostly, viewers have to stare at Adi while he stares at videos or the men before him. You know there’s sorrow and rage beneath that slightly furrowed brow, but if you’re not tapped into it, you may tune out. You’re horrified, then you’re bored.
Adi also interviews his elderly parents, sometimes pointlessly. (In one scene, he repeatedly yells at his deaf father to ask how old he is.) His mother’s memories of the paramilitary taking away her eldest son are clear, however, and her words are devastating, if not her tone; it’s been too long and too hard a life, perhaps, for tears to flow now. She sharpens when hearing shocking news about her brother, but her true feelings about the revelation go unspoken, at least on camera.
In general, The Look of Silence feels like outtakes from its predecessor. Those responsible for the genocide whose angle is reversed in Indonesian schoolbooks (“Let’s thank the heroes who struggled to make our country a democracy,” students are taught), are eager to demonstrate how they murdered people, even Adi’s brother.
One laughs about choking a man; another pair goes into grisly, workaday detail about the better way to hack off a head or sever a penis. They repeatedly re-create these murders by the river in which they tossed the bodies, one gleefully playing a victim.
The next minute, they’re admiring the foliage. “It smells lovely,” the man who played the killer observes.
This regime is still in command, which is what makes Adi’s quest especially charged; the families of the victims are neighbors with the killers and must feign respect and obedience. Viewers may see parallels to today’s discussions of the fraught, violence-ridden relationship between black Americans and U.S. law enforcement officers.
What The Look of Silence amounts to, then, is more of the gloating and queasy re-enactments that we saw in The Act of Killing, with breaks for rumination. After the inventiveness of Killing, it seems unnecessary to revisit these monsters. As one of them says after detailing a kill, “You asked.” You wish Oppenheimer hadn’t.