REVIEW: The Look of Silence

7 09 2014

Telluride Film Festival

When I was in eighth grade, I had the remarkable opportunity to hear a Holocaust survivor recount his experiences surviving the cruelty of the Nazis.  After his speech was over and the whole room was crying, he stood at the front of the room and received hugs and other warm gestures from anyone who wished to embrace him.  No gesture of kindness could erase all the pain he endured, but it somehow felt like the only possible way to end the session.  The hug became a sort of promise to bear witness moving forward.

I had never seen anything like it again until I left my screening of “The Look of Silence” at the Telluride Film Festival, which the documentary’s protagonist, Adi Rukun, attended.  After a brief Q&A following the film, the crowd somberly filed out (appropriately, in silence).  And when the bright sunlight entered my eyes, I noticed a sight both moving and surprising: a queue had formed to embrace Adi.  One man seemed to clutch him firmly for well over a minute.

“The Look of Silence” is the kind of film that can inspire such a deep outpouring of emotion with its brutally pared-back power.

The Look of Silence

In the film, documentarian and humanitarian Joshua Oppenheimer revisits the subject of the 1960s Indonesian genocide that made him an Oscar nominee last year with “The Act of Killing.”  That film, as profound an impact as it had upon release, rubbed me the wrong way as it allowed (at least in my audience) repeated instances of laughter at the excesses of men who took joy in murdering large quantities of people.  “The Look of Silence,” its companion piece, thankfully operates under the appropriate sense of solemnity and reverence that is rightfully due to the victims of the extermination and their families.

The narrative journey Oppenheimer fashions in his second take on the subject is assuredly less flashy and entertaining.  It moves slowly and episodically towards its conclusion, never quite signaling where it will eventually deposit us.  “The Look of Silence” occasionally frustrates with its gentle, slow pacing, yet the periodically interspersed revelations more than redeem any plot sluggishness.

To elaborate on Adi’s travails in any great detail would only rob you of experiencing the intellectual and emotional impact of the film.  With Oppenheimer’s help, he embarks on a dangerous and painful quest for answers about the killing of his brother, Ramli, at the guns of a death squad.  What the two uncover is far more than just textbook examples of the social construction of morality or the banality of evil.

That the killers boast of their exploits is hardly news to anyone who saw “The Act of Killing,” but “The Look of Silence” still finds new ways to explore how that past continues to loom large over the present in Indonesia.  The perpetrators continue to perpetuate their revisionist narrative of history, not only by making ludicrous claims as “some of the communists wanted to be killed,” but also through more insidious means of controlling thought and expression.

Ultimately, the film is not about the killers, though; it is about Adi – and subsequently every other Indonesian citizen in his position.  Oppenheimer frequently circles back to a scene of Adi watching a video of two military men detailing how they committed Ramli’s murder.  The camera often lingers on his calm gaze, which contains so much more than merely the look of silence.  The same subterranean power gives haunting resonance to every moment in “The Look of Silence” on the whole.  B+3stars

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