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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

CIFF Review: The Look of Silence


"The past is the past." If the subjects of The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer's follow-up to his groundbreaking 2012 documentary The Act of Killing, have a motto they all inexplicably share, it is this: "The past is the past." Why stir up trouble thinking back on all the bad things done? You can't undo them. The people have moved on.

Never mind the incredible wealth these men received in return for murdering over a million of their neighbors. Never mind the propaganda still spread every day revering these men as heroes and demonizing the dead. Never mind the not-so-subtle threats. Try not to think about it. The past is the past.

In the 1960s in Indonesia, there was a military coup. As they solidified their power within the government, they empowered local gangs to arrest and execute any citizen accused of being a communist, an act that earned them a frightening amount of good will from America as they casually slaughtered their own people. In the years since, those killers have not only never been punished, but have been glorified as national heroes, given wealth and political power while the children and grandchildren of their victims are denied basic rights. In The Act of Killing, director Joshua Oppenheimer spoke with these killers, gave them free reign to reenact their crimes in hopes of getting them to realize the enormity of what they did.

The Look of Silence takes things a step further, forcing the men responsible for many of the brutal slayings to face what they had done by having them interviewed by the brother of one of their victims. Adi is an optometrist whose brother, Ramli, died in one of the most notoriously brutal deaths ever doled out by the Komando Aksi, the local death squad. Born two years after Ramli's death to parents who were crazy with grief, he was seen as a 'replacement' for their lost son, forced to grow up in a land where the story of his brother's gruesome murder was regularly told as a funny story about getting one up on the communists. This is as close as Oppenheimer can confronting these killers with a ghost of their victims.

In addition to some of the most harrowing interviews I've ever seen - Adi maintains some anonymity when interviewing these people, and it's easy to see why given some of the reaction his questions garner - Oppenheimer also includes some more abstracted looks at the victims of these slayings. Adi's parents, racked by grief and ravaged by age and poverty, are frequently returned to, as if to point out the way they live in comparison to the estates of the guards and killers, but Oppenheimer also finds a man who escaped the march to the Snake River execution site, and allows him to give a pointed counter to an interview given by a pair of the killers. There's a sense of place to The Look of Silence that was lacking in the previous film, a feel for what grief looks like. While this film is still about the killers, is still about trying to find any bit of redemption in them, it's broader and more far-reaching than Oppenheimer's previous, more formally audacious film.

The Look of Silence is, in short, phenomenal. Not as journalism - Oppenheimer has been accused of ambushing interview subjects and some selective editing - but as film, as an indictment on humanity's inability to take responsibility for their actions and the actions of their ancestors. As we visit schools and government officials, retired members of the military and Komando Aksi leaders, Oppenheimer manages to get at what was lacking from The Act of Killing: A sense of consequence. These killers got away with everything, and they will never see the error of their ways. They're lost. But a nation is more than its monsters, and everyone suffers under the weight of these sins. The past may be in the past, but that doesn't make it any less heavy.

The Look of Silence recently played at the 39th annual Cleveland International Film Festival, and will be released in theaters later this year. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer.
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