‘Keep silent and forget the past: Overcoming the past through the present in 'The Look of Silence'

An old Indonesian woman with white hair and deep wrinkles in her face is seen sitting in her garden, chopping up pieces of fruit. We hear a man asking her how she feels about living surrounded by her son’s killers. To be seeing them every day. “It’s horrible” she answers. “When we meet in the village - we don’t speak”. Although the subject of the conversation is painful, the scene is tranquil and dreamlike as she is seen positioned in the middle of the screen, light shining through the trees that surround her in her garden. Only the chirping of crickets and the chopping of the fruit can be heard when she states: “I hate them”. 

In The Look of Silence (2014), Joshua Oppenheimer's follow-up to the acclaimed The Act of Killing (2012), the viewers follow an optometrist named Adi Rukun. Adi’s brother Ramli was killed during the Indonesian killings of 1965-1966. In the film Adi confronts many of the killers and people in charge of the killings in the area where his family lived by asking them questions about the events of the past. Most of them are not reluctant to talk about the events and do so quite elaborately. It is only when Adi asks 'to deep of a question’ when the perpetrators display some unease. Many times Adi is told that ‘the past is the past’ and that it is better not to ‘open old wounds’. In doing so, Adi is told better to keep silent the atrocities and forget of the past. After watching the movie many questions remain, sometimes due a lack of background information, but many more times due to the actions of the perpetrators. The viewer may need some more background information to truly understand the dangers that Adi and Oppenheimer have put themselves in to make this film. To realise that the perpetrators of these events are to this day still seen as heroes and to realise that the events are still kept silent gives just a little bit of insight in these matters. It is no coincidence that many perpetrators coin Adi’s questions as being ‘political’. The film touches upon and lays bare a profound system of murder, politics, angst and (collective) forgetting that deserves the attention it has received due to the film. Importantly, these systems are certainly not only part of the past, but are intrinsically linked to the present. 

Personally I was curious and sceptic about the question whether Oppenheimer would be able to make a film as striking as The Act of Killing was. However, in my belief he succeeded. By following Adi and his family the film adds emotional involvement on a different level than with The Act of Killing. Although the ‘shock’ effect of the previous film (whoever could have foreseen that narrational structure?) is not present for most of the viewers, at the same time the subject is every bit as shocking as the previous film. Beautifully shot, emotionally gripping and certainly confrontational: it is truly an impressive filmic experience.

There is a talk with the director of The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer, after the eight o’clock screening of the film at the Movies that Matter Festival on Friday the 27th and Saturday the 28th of March.

by Arnoud Arps