Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Look of Silence (****)

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer


When I saw Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing in 2012, it completely transformed the concept I had for what contemporary human beings were capable of. That film explored the killing of one million Indonesian 'communists' (pretty much anyone who even appeared to threaten the new military regime) in the span of a year. It focused specifically on the men directly responsible for the slaughter, and it's main star was Anwar Congo, an elegant self-proclaimed gangster who not only personally killed hundreds of people, but did it in horrifically grotesque ways, speaking of it proudly. The ending of that film - with Congo finally, in advanced age, coming to grips with the absolute horror of his actions and literally retching on his own porch - is one of the most powerful images I've seen in any piece of nonfiction filmmaking. The Look of Silence is another film from Oppenheimer, a companion piece and a film that takes less of an objective glance of the killings, and becomes actively confrontational. When we meet Adi, a 44-year-old ophthalmologist, we learn that he was born only a year after the killings, and that his brother Ramli was one of the victims. Ramli's death, a death that took place over several days and included particularly brutal details such as the extraction of intestines and castration, we understand why the intellectual Adi would want to seek an explanation. Adi visits the numerous men who played a part in his brother's death, asking only for a small gesture, an expression of regret or even an apology. The responses he does receive are both fascinating and sobering, a bleak picture of humanity's ability to distort history to comfort their own demons.

Adi's mother claims to be almost 100 years old. She doesn't know for sure (and she probably isn't, considering the age of her son) but she definitely looks it. Decades of grief has hardened her, living day to day with the way her Ramli was murdered. Adi's father is in even worse shape. According to his ID card, he is 103 years old. He's blind, almost completely deaf, frighteningly skinny and toothless. He spends his whole life cradled and cared for by Adi's mother. When asked, he claims that he's probably 16 or 17 years old. Adi's mother claims that Ramli's death is what lead to his father's demise, that the grief was too strong for him to handle. In the face of his parent's suffering, it infuriates Adi to know that the history of his country still treats the communist killers as folk heroes. That Ramli's death is not portrayed as the atrocity that it was, but is instead treated as a curious anecdote. A short way to explain just how serious these killers were at their job. In a classroom, we see a teacher preaching the propaganda. The godless communists threatening Indonesia with their backwards ways, and it was the military and their sadistic devices who rescued the nation from sin. Of course, the schoolchildren aren't given the details of the killings. The mindless torture, the perverse violence. At least two of the killers in The Look of Silence admit to daily drinking the blood of their victims to stop themselves from "going crazy". "It was salty and sweet, human blood," one killer claims.

And this is what is so shocking about both this film and The Act of Killing. Catch these killers in even a marginally private moment and they will regale you with violent tales of how they tortured and killed. They'll explain what a woman's breast looks like when cut off, that it's easier to decapitate someone from the back of the neck, but more fun to hack away at the front, blood spraying everywhere. Most of these men are very old now, and senility may play a part in their openness, but it's still shocking that there isn't even one that considers remorse. Adi's plan to meet the various people is obviously dangerous. There is a moment in nearly all the interviews where the subject becomes annoyed; a frequent claim is made that "the past is the past". The head of legislature is even attempts intimidation, claiming that if people do not get over the killings they will happen again. It's obvious that these men and their families do not want to confront the reality of their actions, and who would? These were not intellectual men, and they've been reinforced by decades of praise and the vindication of altered history books. What bothers Adi isn't the selfless killing - all nations have horrors in their past - and it isn't even particularly that these men still hold power today in the Indonesian government; what bothers Adi is not a one of them is willing to even consider that what they did was wrong, a steel veneer of ignorance which will only help to keep the circle of suffering going.

Like The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence's most powerful image might be the end credits. Scores of crew, including one of the film's directors, are listed as 'Anonymous', a depressing reminder that there are still many entrapped within Indonesia's racist, violent cocoon. Oppenheimer's films haven't done much to help their situations, but their exposure to American audiences has done something few documentaries have done in a while: showcase a true, pure evil firsthand. It's one thing to read about history, or watch Schindler's List, but to watch actual people get in front of camera and talk about killing someone by sodomizing them with a broom handle until they bled to death - and talk about it as if they're giving you their favorite recipe for scrambled eggs - is like an out-of-body experience, it's literally breathtaking. Oppenheimer's two films are two of the true masterpieces of this decade, a haunting call to the violence of humanity. We look at history and we read about all types of genocide from the Vikings to the Nazis, and we think that's in the past that we have pushed forward. His films remind us that humans are, at their base, a fierce predator, an animal capable of shocking cruelty and thoughtlessness. These two films are far from the most fun you'll ever have watching a movie, but this is required viewing for anyone unaware of just how far the corruption of the soul can go.

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