The Look of Silence-2015
Reviewed April 18, 2016
An extremely grim and depressing 2015 documentary, The Look of Silence is a companion piece to 2013’s The Act of Killing. Both focus on the brutal Indonesian genocide of 1965-1966, in which an estimated one million people were exterminated. The documentary tells of the effects on one of the families who survived, who now must co-exist in the same village as the killers, who remain unpunished because of government corruption. They are still in power.
The documentary is cleverly put together as the central figure watches what appears to be outtakes of the related The Act of Killing on television, and the story is manipulated so that some of the killers do not actually realize they are being filmed for the purposes in which they are.
The main point of view of the film comes from a middle-aged Indonesian man, peacefully living with his wife and daughter, as well as tending to his very elderly parents, the father a torture victim and quite frail, who appears to suffer from dementia. The father is rail thin and the mother cares for him as much as she can. Their life is clearly very tough. For protection, throughout the documentary, the middle-aged man is unidentified. Through conversation with his mother we learn that his brother (their son) was one of the “communists” or leftists, who were led to nearby Snake River, tortured, and eventually murdered and thrown into the river. The mother reveals that by some miracle, the middle-aged man was conceived shortly after his brother was killed, thereby saving the parents from suicide because of their grief.
The middle-aged man, under the guise of fitting patients with eye glasses, goes from murderer to murderer (all still alive, very old, and living in the town) and politely quizzes them on their involvement in the Indonesian Massacre. It is unknown whether the middle-aged man is, in fact, a Doctor, or if it is merely a ruse. Interspersed throughout, the interview clips of the murderers on television proudly describing their feats, are shown.
The Look of Silence is a true downer, but also shockingly realistic, sad, painful, and eye-opening. Unlike many documentaries, we are not shown repeated clips of the events of the 1960’s- the story stays in the here and now. The audience uses their imagination to create what they think happened- this is powerful stuff. In the videos of the killers, they describe in brutal detail how they killed their victims and it is quite sickening to watch. Two men proudly reminisce of the chopping off of a woman’s breast, comparing the ruined flesh to an open coconut, or slicing off a man’s penis. Others tell of drinking the blood of the victims. Painful to realize is that this is not some horror film, but real life events.
Quite dumbfounding to me was that little or no remorse was shown when the middle-aged man questioned the killers in present time. Some shrugged their involvement off, some got hostile, some denied any involvement. Some, now quite feeble, were accompanied by younger family members unaware of their father’s or grandfather’s past doings. Some appeared quite upset.
The documentary is not filled with spliced together archives or flashy lights or graphics. It is slow paced and plodding and some I fear may find it too slow. The title, The Look of Silence is rather perplexing and makes little sense to the subject of the documentary so I am not sure why it has the title that it does. But that is merely an aside.
As much as citizens of the United States complain and stress about the political state of affairs or financial matters, we have it quite good, and viewing this painful documentary is a reminder of that. The Look of Silence displays the evil and the ugliness of human beings in the very recent past who show no remorse. In a world filled with ISIS, the documentary is a scary reminder that something like this can easily happen again. This is a sad and morbid reality and this film will stick with you for some time.