The documentary I wrote about last week for Rialto Channel - ONLY THE DEAD – was no easy watch by any stretch of the imagination. It was harrowing, brutal and infuriating in turn, and as I said at the time of its first showing, unmissable viewing. This week’s foray into the personal stories behind wars is THE LOOK OF SILENCE
, and it is no less a hard watch but in a more elegant, cinematic way.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary, THE ACT OF KILLING was a profound indictment as well as what some critics have called “a stunning experiment”. Its main subjects were the ruthless, seemingly heartless death squad leaders who had been responsible for brutally killing thousands of their own people during the 1965-66 genocide in Indonesia. Unbelievable to watch at times, it depicts the killers as openly proud as they elaborately reenact their most hideous crimes in an almost comical fashion. This “re-staging” of their unspeakable deeds for Oppenheimer’s camera is a sickening thing to watch, especially as the perpetrators are filmed laughing over the horrors visited upon their victims. It was transgressive stuff upon its release but told an important tale, and those that saw it will never look at that time in history the same way again.
This week’s documentary, THE LOOK OF SILENCE has been called a follow up of sorts to Oppenheimer’s original work about the Communist purge in Indonesia, this time focusing on the victims of the genocide. The main focus is on one - an Indonesian man with a communist background named Ramli was brutally murdered when the aforementioned genocide took place in 1965. His remaining family members reportedly lived in fear and silence until the making of this documentary, making it an essential watch if ever there was one.
Oppenheimer follows Adi, a young, married optometrist who is also Ramli’s brother. Adi never met Ramli, whose killing is recounted in decade-old video interviews shot for the earlier film. His mother, Rohani confesses that Adi was born out of her grief, and it appears that while his birth perhaps allowed his mother to keep on living, it did not help her move on from the death of her first son. Ramli’s killing still haunts his family, with Rohani continuing to commune with her dead son and admitting that she sees him in her dreams. Meanwhile, their invalid father is now struggling with full-on dementia, the only silver lining being that he has forgotten the horrific death of his son.
In the gut-wrenching doco
we see Adi revisit both the horrific incident and - amazingly – meet with the men who were responsible for the killings. These meetings uncover sadistic details of the murders that no family member should have to hear, as well as show the indifferent reactions of the killers' family members about the horrors their relatives perpetrated.
Although serving as an accompaniment to Oppenheimer’s earlier film, THE LOOK OF SILENCE easily stands on its own as a carefully and elegantly made documentary. It is astonishing to stop and think about the fact that it details a genocide in a country where vast swathes of the population have yet to admit any crimes took place at all, much less come to terms with them.