The Look of Silence is a conversation and confrontation between perpetrators and survivors of the violence, but most of all it is about connection
In his latest film, The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous and their team, turn their lens to the story of Adi Rukun, a young optician and his family living in North Sumatra. Adi was born following the grisly and slow murder of his brother – trade unionist, Ramli – at the hands of the Sungai Ular (Snake River) militias in 1965. It was up to these militias to pick up detainees, well-known leftist activists in the area, and where required, to dispatch them on the banks of the river by slitting their throats. The circumstances of Ramli’s extremely violent death are never fully revealed in the film, which is in some ways merciful. This is the story of a family in Sumatra upon whom the loss of a loved one fifty years ago has left an indelible imprint.
If The Act of Killing was larger than life, loud and bombastic on screen and attention-grabbing with phantasmagorical images and a parade of young beautiful women engaged in a spot of bizarre filmmaking, this follow-up offering from Oppenheimer and Anonymous is quite the opposite.
It is a small, quiet, meditative film with extraordinary poignancy and pathos. The colours are rich and saturated, such as the scene in which Adi’s mother, Kartini, slices vegetables. In a quiet moment between mother and son, Adi asks her how she feels when she sees the people who were responsible for her son’s death. She answers simply and honestly that she hates them. While doing so, she squats on the ground, methodically slicing the vegetable and is bathed in the orange light of late afternoon. Stripped of the bright lights and loud noises of The Act of Killing, this film amplifies the human emotion through this sparseness. The sense of loss is all the more real. Yet the bright colours in the scene, such as the red of Kartini’s housedress, speak of the vitality of life coursing through this film and through the survivors of the violence. This family has survived and rebuilt their lives, all the while making compromises to be able to live in the small town. Such compromises include holding one’s tongue and being resigned to a spartan life, in spite of the hatred she feels towards the perpetrators.
Kartini is the primary carer for her husband who suffers from senility. She is old herself and is exhausted from the daily routine of bathing and feeding him. The film focuses on this small cast of Adi’s parents, Adi, and some of his children, who appear in the film sharing tender moments with their father. Beyond this tight-knit circle lies a small group of elderly perpetrators of the violence, who along with their own family members, alternately seek to hide facts, to obfuscate, to express sorrow and to rise in anger in response to Adi’s persistent questioning about 1965 and the effects of Ramli’s killing on his family.
Adi’s work, fitting spectacles for the elderly, brings him to the streets and laneways of the town and to meeting these men in their homes. He plucks up the courage to ask them some pointed questions and to tell them that his brother was one of those killed. The responses these men and their families give are fascinating, sometimes horrifying. For some, the visit of Adi does not ameliorate their difficulties but creates new ones, in the memories he brings to the surface. Not all perpetrators remember willingly.
The Look of Silence provides space for the interplay of voices between victims and perpetrators. Their words, anguish, indifference and emotions joust, leap and spar on the screen. At times this makes for uncomfortable viewing. But as is always the case with people’s stories, one is captivated long after the last word is spoken.
This film also presents the complexity of the interaction between perpetrators and survivors. Survivors are not confined to silence. Perpetrators are on the back foot at times. At other times, they swagger and almost leap with joy as they slide down the river embankment to demonstrate to Oppenheimer how they slit their victims’ throats. This complexity is invaluable to understand the nuanced interaction between the oppressor and the oppressed that takes place, sometimes on a daily basis. Survivors are shaped by their experiences, but they also go on, making new lives and new meanings of their circumstances. In spite of their intense grief, Ramli’s parents went on to have another son, Adi. During the New Order regime, Adi’sfamily secretly prayed at Ramli’s grave, located in what became a palm oil plantation. They pretended to be plantation workers and always made quick, furtive visits. Now they are freed from these constraints after the demise of the Suharto regime. They have adapted to new circumstances.
As in The Act of Killing, a central theme of this film is the larger picture of impunity in Indonesia when it comes to the anti-communist violence. Adi’s family continues to chafe at the impunity which has choked them for decades and which in turn led Adi to confront the perpetrators. A member of parliament maintains the killings were necessary. Here Oppenheimer et al could have explored how Ramli posed a threat to the new world Suharto was constructing in 1966 with the inauguration of the New Order regime. How did a trade unionist in the plantation sector in North Sumatra pose a threat to the Western investment-driven, capitalist agenda the regime was implementing in Indonesia? Why was his murder necessary? For viewers not familiar with the Indonesian case study and the background story of Adi and Ramli’s family, the lack of a strong narrative arc in the film is not helpful. Rather, the film focuses on the conversations between Adi and the perpetrators, and is preoccupied with long takes of the town and of Adi’s family going about their daily business. In that way, the film shows a slice of small town life in North Sumatra. But it does not necessarily explain to the viewers the political composition of the town and the impact this had on the violence there.
We can only speculate on the significance of Ramli’s murder for his family. We can empathise with them, as we see his father dragging himself around on his hands, disorientated and talking to himself. Ramli, while absent, is represented through Adi’s dogged quest to demand answers from those involved in his killing. One can only be moved by Adi’s quiet dedication to risking his life by simply asking questions. He seeks to make human connections to those who took his brother’s life in the most painful ways possible. Ramli’s murder was dehumanising, but in forging this connection Adi seeks to leave us not with despair, but with a sense of hope.
The Look of Silence (2014), Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer & Ass. Dir. Anonymous; Final Cut for Real; thelookofsilence.com
Vannessa Hearman (email@example.com) lectures in Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney. Her research deals with the 1965-66 killings, memory, activism and social change.