REVIEW: “The Look of Silence”

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In 2012 Joshua Oppenheimer made a stunning and often grotesquely surreal documentary focused on the perpetrators behind the Indonesian mass killings of 1965-1966. The slaughter spawned from a military overthrow of the government. Death squads made up of community leaders but protected by the military killed nearly one million supposed ‘communists’ – men and women. In “The Act of Killing” Oppenheimer allowed the killers to stage their recollections of the state-sanctioned atrocities without an ounce of remorse.

Now Oppenheimer gives us “The Look of Silence”, a companion piece for his previous picture which offers a subtler but equally terrifying perspective. Where the first film put a spotlight on (and strategically set up) the killers, this one lends its voice to a 44 year-old man whose brother was brutally murdered in 1965 during the ‘communist’ purge. For his and his family’s protection, his identity is hidden even in the end credits since many of the killers are neighbors, local community leaders, and considered heroes by the government.

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We only know him as Adi, man deeply moved by Oppenheimer’s previous exposé. Born two years after his brother’s barbaric murder, Adi feels the pains through his elderly parents. His father is blind, feeble, and unable to remember his son’s death. But the 50 year-old wounds are still fresh for his mother who laments her dead son through her vivid memories. The moments between Adi as his family serve to show the genocide’s deeper lasting personal effects.

Perhaps the film’s most harrowing scenes are interviews Adi has with the perpetrators themselves while under the guise of a traveling optometrist. He strikes up conversations getting these men to speak openly of their atrocities all while fitting them for new glasses. These visceral exchanges burn with Oppenheimer’s piercing metaphor of blindness verses sight. These men are perversely blind to their crimes, their guilt, and their responsibility. Adi wants them to see.

“The Look of Silence” is rich with shocking, uncomfortable moments and memorable scenes that will stick with you. As when Adi asks his mother “How do you feel surrounded by your son’s killers? You see them every day…”. Or a school teacher indoctrinating a class of small children on the heroism of the death squads. Or scenes of Adi watching footage from “The Act of Killing” that deal specifically with how his brother was butchered. Oppenheimer moves through all of this  emotionally heavy material with the sophistication of a master storyteller but also as someone deeply connected to his subject matter.

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Oppenheimer has developed another important piece of cinema that is as illuminating as it is shocking. I can’t tell you how many times I sat, mouth open and covered by my hand, in utter silence overwhelmed by what I was seeing. This film is far more focused and personal than “Killing” but no less potent or disturbing. It’s told with such strength and clarity whether through sympathy for powerless and helpless victims hoping for justice be dealt in the afterlife or appalling disgust at the unrepentant attitudes of the killers.

The ominous cloud of danger loomed over this entire picture. Adi, Oppenheimer, and his small film crew operated under a perpetual threat which often times showed itself in the interviews. They were constantly told that “the past is the past” and people were content to leave it there. But they would also be warned that what happened in 1965 and 1966 could easily happen again. That chilling reality kept coming to mind as I made my way through the film and it has lingered with me well after. That’s a testament to the power of the storytelling and the bravery of those willing to tell it.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Act of Killing”

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A film like “The Act of Killing” is almost indescribable. It is strikingly unique and it certainly can’t be labeled or put in a box. Director Joshua Oppenheimer calls his film a “documentary of the imagination”. It’s bizarre, unsettling, and at times impossible to comprehend. It’s horrifying, repulsive, and unflinching in its focus. It’s an overused statement but “The Act of Killing” is unlike anything you have seen before and digesting what we are fed isn’t all that easy.

To understand this documentary you must first look back to 1965 in North Sumatra, Indonesia. A splinter group’s failed coup d’état led to a military takeover of the government. The new leadership blamed the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and soon sanctioned the wholesale massacre of communists across the region. But the killings weren’t restricted to alleged communists. There were also brutal mass murders rooted in racism and religion. It is said the killings have been overlooked in most Indonesian history books and by the international community, yet a CIA report called them “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century”.

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With that historical backdrop in place, the film spotlights some of the authors of the murders and we are told of their atrocities from the men themselves. Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry went from movie theater ticket scalpers to heads of military death squads responsible for thousands of brutal killings in 1965 and 1966. Even more appalling, they have never been punished or even found guilty of any crime. In many ways they are celebrated among the ignorant or sympathetic. These are the men we spend two hours with in “The Act of Killing”. Their words, their candor, their lack of remorse, their impunity. These men openly discuss their parts in the anti-communist purge in uncomfortable detail and often with smiles on their faces.

These men also have an unusual infatuation with western cinema which finds its way into the movie on several occasions. They constantly refer to themselves as ‘gangsters’, a term stemming from their love of American gangster movies. But it also seems that some of their real-life killings were patterned after these films. Anwar especially seems to treat the title of gangster as a badge of honor.

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But their love for movies also plays into the stories they tell. Throughout the documentary we listen in on pointed and detailed recollections of some purely evil murders. But these men also tell their stories through dramatic reenactments for the cameras intended to glorify their atrocities. Their scenes borrow from their favorite mob movies, westerns, and musicals. It’s these uneasy sequences of boastful self-aggrandizement that reveal the true evil dwelling within these people. As we get deeper into the movie the reenactments become more bizarre and surreal possibly a result of Anwar’s desire to squash any feeling of guilt that may be surfacing.

It took Joshua Oppenheimer over five years to make “The Act of Killing” and during that time he accumulated 1200 hours of footage. The result is a potent exposé that unveils one of the darker secrets of our world. I knew nothing of this horror which made the film all the more enlightening and disturbing. At times I did feel disconnected from the more absurd and unintelligible mini-productions from Anwar and company. But there are far more times where I sat in silent shock due to what I was watching. This is audacious filmmaking and there are several scenes carved into my memories. I would be surprised if others didn’t have that same experience.

VERDICT – 4 STARS