Film Review – The Look of Silence

The Look of Silence

The Look of Silence

Director Joshua Oppenheimer said he set out to fail* in making The Look of Silence – but in failing, to discover something important about how that failure happened.

Really, how could he not disappoint? Silence is the follow-up to his nigh-universally acclaimed, surreal, unnerving The Act of Killing (2013), a personal frontrunner if I had to choose a best film of the last decade. In that documentary, Oppenheimer filmed original perpetrators reenacting Indonesia’s 1965 anti-Communist purges – which left over one million dead – in the form of Hollywood genre cinema. Ensconced as heroes in Indonesia’s national narrative and leaders in its government, the killers re-interpreted the celebrated, horrific actions that brought them to power. The movie not only interrogated a specific, nationwide narrative of violent heroism (helping further a conversation within Indonesia), but opened a space to explore the complex relationship between the dual meanings of its title, act as both action and performance, in personal and cultural contexts. How could people do such things, let alone discuss them ? Act shows how much dissonance and pain is involved – and how it’s’ not so different conceptually from when we tell a story at the pub (or watch one at the movies, or support violent aspects of our own nations’ policies).

So while he also expressed hope that Silence would be part of a “diptych” – two films to be viewed side by side with one another – he would have to have been uncharacteristically unperceptive not to feel the weight of expectations for the chronologically-latter release.  In a more direct sense, he was referring to the methodological difficulties that awaited him when his friend and initial fieldwork contact Adi Rukun suggested directly questioning his own brother’s killers. Oppenheimer had worked for around a decade collecting footage, which Rukun had eagerly watched; the intimacy with which his collaborators revealed themselves was in part enabled by avoiding direct confrontation. Silence would have to be a different film, about directly confronting that gap in conversation.

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And so, between finishing shooting Act in 2012 and its premiere in 2013 – after which Oppenheimer feared he wouldn’t be able to return to Indonesia – Rukun and the director embarked on a Hail Mary mission. Oppenheimer returned to killers he’d begun interviewing in 2003. He told them he had a friend who wished to talk, who had a “personal connection” to the discussion, and who would offer them a free professional eye exam in exchange (and glasses if necessary). The optometry equipment would serve as practical and metaphorical functions: a pretext, a gesture of reciprocity, a metaphor for differential visions, and a practical means to “disarm” the killers – to create a small barrier to prevent them from lashing out violently if things turned ugly.

*This and other quotes and paraphrases are taken from a live Q&A session with Oppenheimer and Rukun, hosted by Louis Theroux, that was streamed to 91 theaters in the UK and Ireland as part of a June 12 screening of the film. I regret sincerely that I wasn’t fast enough with my pen to make the paraphrase I’ve framed this piece with a direct quote.

None of what I’ve written up until now is directly in The Look of Silence as text. It is all extra-textual – but so is all film criticism, and the experience of watching the movie certainly invites the question of how it happened, and learning how does not detract from the experience of watching. Both of Oppenheimer’s films are parts of an ongoing discussion – he said Silence has been screened 3,500 times in Indonesia while it has been intermittently playing internationally. These films do not end when their running time is up. At a meta-level, they demand we question the implications of the stories we tell others and ourselves.

And Silence itself is an intimate, immediate document – as Oppenheimer had hoped – transfixingly autopsies a failure of communication. It is rhythmic, punctuated by literal silences (there is no musical score), cyclically moving between a culturally-validated narrative of heroic violence and the personal stories of victimization barely below its surface. In one thread, Rukun silently watches footage of his brother’s killers dramatically recounting their stories. When he speaks to them directly, they deny culpability: through justifications, deflections, threats and silence. Rukun’s own uncle describes guarding the prisoners before their expection, but denies responsibility: he did not directly kill, and he was defending the state. The movie’s other primary through-line follows his family’s day-to-day life – him playing with his children, and his mother caring for their ailing, aged father. All the while, the multi-stage murder of Ramli – the brother Adi never met – is recounted like a litany, in increasingly explicit detail.

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While most of its themes are more thoroughly explored in The Act of Killing, Silence’s importance lies in framing those stories in the context of the victims’ perspective, situating the actions in the ongoing acts of oppression and repression that have dominated their lives for half a century.  Its form cannot match Killings’ extravagant killer-perspective recreations for interest-perking audacity – though the formal choices of Silence are from and appropriate to Rukun, and in that sense a genuinely affecting counter-balance. Rukun’s unassuming presence is enough to mute their craft and extravagance. What Silence does specifically (to an extent that Killing doesn’t) is make explicit how close dissonance is to the surface, how fast the perpetrators switch from pub tale to blank faces. Without the distance afforded by Kiling’s abstractions, the killers are without words.

In this sense, Silence seems much directly in line with several well-known precedents, especially Shoah (1985)’s pursuit of Holocaust survivors and perpetrators. Oppenheimer’s corpus of interview-reenactments (only a fraction of which are incorporated into either of his films) may also someday be revisited in different forms, just as Shoah’s director Claude Lanzmann made new films from previously-unused footage several times over the years, most recently in The Last of the Unjust (2014). The cycle of accusation and deflection also recalls the substance of Anne Aghion’s work about Rwanda’s post-genocide Gacaca community courts, In Rawanda We Say…(2004) and My Neighbor, My Killer (2009).

Both Aghion’s and Oppenheimer’s work concern the struggle for public narrative about massacres in which every citizen knew or was perpetrators or victims.Yet a major difference between the two situations explored is that the Gacaca courts tried to establish a new national narrative, working within an institutional structure. Oppenheimer is still working against the Indonesian government’s primary version of events – something driven home by the pro-massacre narrative Rukun’s son receives as classroom instruction. While Aghion’s films construct stories about several narratives openly in conflict, Oppenheimer situates the minority version of events within the official line, letting literal and figurative silences speak to oppressive gaps in narrative and understanding. Lanzmann’s work is driven by an imperative to witness. Oppenheimer – who described his subject matter as perched between “memory and oblivion” – is more interested in exploring what that un-heard story means for lived experience, with the imperative for remembrance be an implied next step.

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That narrative, of course, has theoretical and practical implications beyond Indonesia. The killings were supported by a variety of governments – including America – as part of the Cold War. In Silence the term “Communist” is evoked as a boogeyman rather than an ideology, as it often is in contemporary American right-wing rhetoric. The film shows a period NBC news report in which a killer states that some of his victims asked to be killed, and shows footage of “Communists,” who had worked pre-revolution at a Goodyear rubber plant, literally re-conscripted as slave labor, in the service of American capitalism. “It’s very hard to remember killing when it’s reported as good news,” Oppenheimer said, also noting that the killers and their U.S. supporters could be both sincerely anti-Communist and still see their own material gain in effecting plunder. Such is, arguably, the case with any myth in which anti-social behavior is constructed as pro-social by the story that’s built up around it (see also, our current myriad wars for freedom). Similar to some of my own American conversational experiences, when their entrenched narrative is challenged, the word political gets thrown around. More than one killer describes Rukun as acting political by refusing to submit to the status quo line that his relatives deserved death. One official – echoing Carl von Clausewitz’ “war is diplomacy by other means” – argues that “politics is achieving your goals in various ways,” and says (amid various implied threats to Rukun) that “if the victims’ children don’t like me, I wouldn’t get the most votes.”

While the interviewees’ comments occasionally cross over into near-satire – one killer’s son tries to silence Rukun by saying, without apparent conscious irony, “let’s all get along like the military dictatorship taught us” – more often than not they provokes empathy. One killer’s daughter asks that they regard each other as family, that he think of him as his own father. If the gesture may be difficult to consider sincere from my writing, note that the man’s mind – by this point – has clearly in some capacity been taken by age. While he has led a more comfortable life than Rukun’s father, he recalls the other man in vulnerability, his heroic, constructed narrative the dark mirror of Rukun’s father, naked, being bathed, singing love songs and claiming to be 17 years old. Rukun leaves this man’s home; the film ends with his own father wailing in his own lost mind, feeling lost, unable to understand that he is home.

That is the empathy that resonates in Oppenheimer’s diptych of documentaries: to recognize the humanity and pain in both the killers and their victims, without equivocating.




Matt watches films to avoid working on his PhD in digital culture-type stuff in Nottingham, UK.

You can reach Matt via email.

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