On Thursday, Nov. 10, I had the opportunity to attend the screening of “The Look of Silence,” a film a part of UNCG’s Human Rights Film Series. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, this critically acclaimed documentary is incredibly moving and thought provoking.
The film recalls the killing of a man named Ramli: a victim of the 1965 purge of communists in Indonesia. Viewers follow Adi, a brother of his, in his quest to uncover more of his brother’s death through interviews with the very murderers themselves. Twisted and disturbing, these dangerous interviews uncover raw emotions and reactions from the killers and their families.
In 1965, mass killings of communists, ethnic Chinese, and alleged leftists were instigated by the government. These killings initially began as a response to a coup by the army, known as the 30 September Movement. These events eventually lead to the downfall of President Sukarno and the uprising of Suharto’s dictatorship. It is important to note that, 1965 is at the height of the Cold War; therefore, the United State supported the killing of communists.
Interestingly, this is not Oppenheimer’s first documentary related to these events. His 2012 film, “The Act of Killing,” consists of interviews and explanations from the killers involved in the genocide. “The Look of Silence” incorporates haunting scenes of Adi watching clips of the killers explaining their execution of his brother, Ramli.
Joseph Stalin once said: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” The film follows one man’s story, but never once do we see a picture of Ramli or hear about his personality. However, witnessing the effects of his death on his family, the violent and brutal details of his killing and the sheer fact that there is a name attached to this particular victim, creates an extremely personal attachment for the viewer. But, it is crucial to recognize that Ramli was just one victim; there were at least 500,000.
Adi attended a number of meetings throughout the film: from the legislator of their district during 1965, the leaders of the killing group and the murders themselves. Often, if the certain person was deceased, Adi would speak to their family. These interviews brought out many reactions; however there was one common phrase with each: “the past is the past.”
But this statement brings up the ethical question: does the fact that the event is in the past really make it acceptable?
For many of the killers themselves — most of them very religious — they believed they were doing the right thing. Propaganda depicted communists as crooked souls who wanted to die. Killers were brutal and malicious; often stabbing victims multiple times, slashing open their stomachs, cutting off their genitalia, slitting their throats and pushing their dead, butchered bodies into the nearby Snake River.
They even had the twisted mindset that they only way they could remain sane, was by drinking their victims’ blood. These graphic images were carelessly brushed aside by the killers, some of them almost seemed proud.
Families of the killers, however, seemed more sympathetic. Some yelled and snapped at the Director and Adi, but some apologized and were shocked by their elder’s actions.
Adi tried his best to defend his position; however, he was constantly confronted with the phrase: “The past is the past.”
Incredibly frustrating, viewers could feel Adi’s heartbreak and disappointment.
Interestingly, the name “The Look of Silence,” takes on a number of meanings. Firstly, to grant each interview, Adi, an optometrist, grants each person a free eye exam. This brings up the vital question of vision to the killers.
How could they not see what they were doing to their victims? How could they see them suffer and remain silent? And, how is Adi attempting to help them see, in terms of their literal sight, as well as the error of their ways.
Secondly, the title denotes the silence of Ramli and Adi’s family. Until the film, they never once spoke publically about their loss. It is also very dangerous to speak up, because their enemy is still in power. Therefore, the family personifies silence.
I was struck by the many beautiful, quiet moments in the film. Silence, to me, is not simply an absence of noise; rather, it is an opportunity for reflection and internal contemplation. Silence is an opportunity to process thoughts and experiences that cannot always be fulfilled through word.