The Look of Silence

MPAA Rating: PG-13 | Rating: ★★★★
Release year: 2015
Genre: Documentary Director: Oppenheimer

The Look of Silence is the second of Joshua Oppenheimer’s incisive examinations of the bloody history in Indonesia, where thousands of people were systematically murdered by government-backed gangs in the mid-20th century. This documentary is a more intimate companion piece to The Act of Killing, yet with a different emotional gravitas. Where The Act of Killing followed the elderly gangsters who willingly retold and reenacted their atrocities for the camera, The Look of Silence centers on one man, Adi, and his quiet journey towards forgiveness. The younger brother of one of the genocide victims, Adi chooses to seek out and confront the men who killed his brother after nearly 50 years of silence. The killers remain in power within their village, and Adi chooses to take a bold step: look these men in the eyes and ask them to take responsibility for their crimes.

Adi is an optometrist, and his practice often comes into play within the film. The large red lens-holders frame the face of the murderers as Adi asks them questions about their past. The image is striking, pointing to the moral blindness of these men who actively perpetrated genocide. Oppenheimer’s camera is a static lurker, a silent witness. More imagery: Adi peering into the glowing screen of a television as footage rolls of the men and their families sharing the memories of killing Adi’s brother. Like the gangsters in The Act of Killing, these men show no regret for their actions, and eagerly revel in their work. Adi only watches.

Adi’s aging parents are reluctant to share their own memories of the night their son was killed. His mother, full of gumption and a maternal strength, scolds him for opening past wounds and stirring up trouble unnecessarily. His father doesn’t say anything—the man is blind, emaciated, unable to walk, a human skeleton. One scene made me uncomfortable, where the elderly father is scooting around blind, calling for help, and the camera doesn’t look away. The scene doesn’t really add much—we already know the father is totally helpless. I wanted Oppenheimer to stop filming and help, or at least show someone coming to his aid, but this didn’t happen. Perhaps the image is meant to provoke our discomfort; no one comes for this man, just as no one came to rescue his son.

The Act of Killing climaxes in a literal purging, a violent, visceral reaction from the main perpetrator as he is emotionally confronted with the depths of his crimes. In stark contrast, The Look of Silence is summarized by its title: the pained, stoic stare of the victim’s brother. It is powerful, devastating, emotionally-draining film, but one which offers a glimmer of hope (something The Act of Killing never fully accomplishes). Adi’s motivations are not only to seek justice for the past wounds, but to find solace and healing in his own soul—he recognizes that forgiveness is costly, but necessary.

The film presents an impossible situation and leaves us with few clear answers on how to proceed. Let me offer one possible response to witnessing such injustice. In Miroslav Volf’s excellent book, Exclusion and Embrace, he shares his own story of experiencing a genocide in Croatia, and offers a meaningful theological perspective on the nature of forgiveness in the wake of atrocity. He writes, “Whatever the reasons, when forgiveness happens it is always a miracle of grace.” While full reconciliation may not be possible for Adi and the perpetrators—at least one makes a clear threat on Adi’s life—perhaps a quiet miracle is captured by Oppenheimer’s camera as a silent man stares through a different moral lens than those in power: the lens of grace.

IMDB Listing:

See all reviews

Comments are closed.