“You can’t make a work as apocalyptic in its vision without somehow being a pessimist”
Dir: Joshua Oppenheimer
Produced with help from Werner Herzog & Erroll Morris, Norway, 2014/2015
After the resounding critical success, and surprising commercial triumph, of Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 fever dream documentary The Act of Killing, the aforementioned director was gifted the Macarthur fellowship grant, a prestigious award more commonly known as the ‘genius’ grant. Previous winners of this award have included author Cormac McCarthy, who used part of the $625,000 grant to relocate to the Mexican borderlands and begin researching the characters and historical elements that would go on to form the foundation of the 1985 book Blood Meridian – a novel often considered the Pulitzer Prize winner’s magnum opus and listed frequently amongst the best books of the previous century and beyond.
The concept of the grant is arguably not to reward success or recognise achievement, but rather it acts as an investment in vision and originality, a financial endowment with the intention of aiding in the development of important and relevant works in any field, be it scientific or creative. Oppenheimer currently finds himself in the company of mathematicians, philosophers and political figures alike on the list of fellows, and rubs metaphorical elbows with Thomas Pynchon, Ornette Coleman and Tim Berners-Lee, amongst others. The recipients of the grant are free to spend the money however they see fit, and whilst I have very little idea of, or curiosity towards, how Oppenheimer chose to distribute the grant throughout his work, his first contribution to his respective field since the awarding of the fellowship, certainly goes some way to justify the investment.
The Look of Silence is a direct companion piece to The Act of Killing. The documentary concerns the same subject (the Indonesian genocide of 1965) and recycles footage from the first film to craft comparisons and form a recurrent thread between the two. An established knowledge of the first film is not necessary, but does add an extra layer of interpretation that I will expand on later in this review.
Where The Act of Killing was, in Oppenheimer’s words “A documentary of the imagination”, The Look of Silence strips away the dramatic and fictional elements, and the infamous re-enactments, of its predecessor, and functions entirely in the real world to examine the reactions of both the perpetrators and the victims of the genocide, half a century later. Essentially the film is a series of interviews conducted by the brother of a victim, an investigative figure who confronts the numerous men and political figures that he believes to be directly and indirectly involved in the brutal slaughter of his brother and many others. The film dares to venture into all levels of a functioning dictatorship in order to examine a reluctance to admit involvement, or take moral responsibility, by those who remain shockingly boastful, conveniently forgetful, or totally silent.
Where the interviews are intense and uncomfortable insights into the minds of those who refuse to demonstrate regret or sorrow after having committed their respective atrocities, the interludes and the sequences of footage that link them are poetic and melancholy explorations of the landscape and the country itself. Concerning the country of Indonesia as much as it does the genocide, The Look of Silence is shot with the stylistic flair of an experimental narrative film and lent the precise structure of a documentary in order to give each interview and encounter its own specific impact.
Particularly memorable moments include the interviewer calculating the glasses prescription for the most feared killer of his village, whilst the killer proudly explains his habit of drinking the blood of his victims to remain sane, and the interviewers own uncle refusing to accept the idea that he played a part in his nephews death. When I noted that the viewing of The Act of Killing was not a critical ingredient in the appreciation of this film, these chilling moments are where the two pieces work in synergy and hybridise. The former sets the tone for the confrontation whilst the latter delves into it, The Act of Killing examines the perpetrators whilst The Look of Silence focuses on the victims and their legacy.
Before the screening of the film, I took my seat next to an American man and his girlfriend and we briefly conversed before the lights dimmed, about our predictions for the quality of the The Look of Silence. He explained to me that he doubted the film could retain the visceral power of its prequel, that it would struggle to reach the lofty heights of hatred and loathing set by the first film. However, towards the end of the screening, during a sequence in which an elderly blind, crippled and demented man struggles to find his way out of a strangers’ hut that he has crawled into, the man seated next to me began to cry. He explained to his girlfriend, as the credits rolled, that the sequence had reminded him about his own grandfather and the pain that he had experienced during the throes of dementia and old age, and that this sequence, among others, had triggered inside him an extreme sympathy and empathy for the people of Indonesia that the previous film had not instilled. It was this moment specifically that confirmed to me that the Macarthur Grant had been awarded wisely, as the film had taken on a universal importance and would extract the awareness, sorrow and possible action of viewers worldwide, even those with no connection to the country or knowledge of the context.
The Look of Silence is a film directly tied to Indonesia and its people, but one that spills over into the wider human consciousness and addresses the nature of aging and time, and how an event so removed from our western society, can be so easily applicable to concepts we all know and identify with. Oppenheimer’s achievement is crafting a documentary that does not simply educate and inform, but imprints a sense of discomfort, rage and sadness upon its viewers regardless of their geographical separation and temporal dislocation.
There is a momentary sense of triumph that emerges from the confrontations depicted in the film. Observing the killers and those involved, attempting to avoid discussing their involvement, shifting the blame to others, and squirming under the intense gaze of an affected man, provides a strange, alien sense of satisfaction. The fact that those questioned openly blame others, the state, or feign forgetfulness and ignorance, highlights the deep wounds that many of them still carry and are forced to reopen on camera. However, this sadistic version of satisfaction quickly dissipates when the credits begin to roll, and one notices that many of the contributors are listed as ‘Anonymous’ due to the inherent danger of their collaboration with vocally anti-establishment material.
The dictatorship which carried out these killings is one that still holds power, and many of the people involved must conceal their identity so as not to attract the wrath that is still aimed at political dissidents in Indonesia. The victims depicted in this film are not historical victims or figures who have managed to escape from the regime to tell their story; they are still very much trapped in silence by their memories of the slaughter and more so, the figures that enforce the resulting rule. The Look of Silence is a dangerous film in numerous ways, a piece of art simultaneously capable of disturbing, destructive moments of sadness and caustic satisfaction. The question remains as to whether Oppenheimer’s work will go down with other Macarthur alumni such as Blood Meridian, The Shape of Jazz to Come and The internet, but nevertheless it is a piece of work that contains comparable scope and vision to these landmark artefacts, and certainly has the ability to remain relevant and essential over a considerable amount of time.