Adi Rukun is an ophthalmologist living and working in the Indonesian province of Aceh. He’s handsome and soft-spoken and seems very patient. He embodies an ideal of the country doctor, but for many members of his community a visit from Adi comes with a heavy burden. Over the course of The Look of Silence, U.S. director Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to his 2013 film The Act of Killing, Adi calls on several neighbours, sometimes with medical equipment in tow, sometimes not, and begins to ask questions about their shared past. “You ask too many questions” and “I don’t want to remember” are common responses. On one occasion Adi is told that if people of his generation aren’t careful, if they don’t leave well enough alone and learn to “get along like the military dictatorship taught us,” what happened in the past will happen again.
What happened in the past, some 50 years ago now, was the slaughter of at least a million Indonesians, ostensible communists, in the wake of a military coup. One of those murdered was Adi’s brother Ramli, killed by the Komando Aksi. His story is not unusual. Ramli was hacked by machetes. He ran home, was stolen from his home under the pretence of being escorted to a hospital, then he was hacked some more, his intestines spilling from his torso, and thrown into Snake River. And when it seemed to his murderers that he was still alive he was fished out and dismembered and thrown back in. Those murderers became the leaders of Adi’s community, where they remain in power to this day. A scene in The Look of Silence finds a teacher explaining to schoolchildren that the slaughtered communists were evil and the government had no choice but to exterminate them. In another scene one of the leaders of an Aceh death squad declares, “We did this because the Americans taught us to hate communists.”
The Act of Killing, in which Oppenheimer, collaborating with several locals forced to remain anonymous, focused on the perpetrators of the killings, their legacy and continued self-glorification. The Act of Killing is the only film I can think of that afflicted me with prolonged nausea. Not because of the physical violence, which we don’t see (except in the bizarre, crude reenactments staged by Oppenheimer’s subjects), but because of the film’s portrait of human nature. Call it existential nausea. The Look of Silence concerns the same horrors as The Act of Killing, but it’s the reverse shot: it assumes the perspective of the victims. As he makes his rounds, Adi isn’t out for revenge. He’s too young to remember the most violent years—though he lives in a world permanently transformed by those years, one where living in fear has become the norm for much of the population. But his unwavering, silent gaze, one of this film’s most potent motifs, feels like the gaze of an entire traumatized nation’s conscience. Talking to the children and spouses of killers or to the killers themselves, Adi is out for forgiveness—this is what makes The Look of Silence one of the most moving films I’ve seen. But in order to forgive a crime the crime must be recognized, which is something almost no one Adi visits is willing to do.
The Look of Silence features no scoring, no voice-over commentary, no archival footage (save a brief NBC report from 1965, one of many videos we watch Adi watching on TV), but it is a film in which every frame is infused with context, compassion, curiosity, and over a decade of Oppenheimer’s life, doing the hard work, opening his heart, earning people’s trust, finding the story. And Oppenheimer is an inveterate storyteller. There are many images of people in repose and every one seems essential. There is a central question woven through the film, one concerning the value of remembering versus that of forgetting, and Oppenheimer conveys this question elegantly and diversely through interviews with killers who jocularly boast of their acts of torture, rape and murder, through the contrast of Adi’s mother, who remembers everything, and Adi’s father, who is severely demented, believes he’s an adolescent and sings naïve love songs, though in certain moments of confusion is overcome with panic and terror.
Taken as stand-alone films, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are masterpieces of the documentary form at its most rigorous and creative. Taken as a pair they constitute one of the most important cinematic events of our time. I had the honour of attending the Canadian premiere of The Look of Silence at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where both Oppenheimer and Adi were in attendance. After the screening they took the stage to answer questions, but Adi was overcome with emotion and, weeping, was unable to speak. Perhaps sharing this story with so many people at once yielded more feelings that he’d expected. But his presence was intensely affecting, and, as though so much of the film, his silence spoke volumes.