See Me
By Eric Hynes

The Look of Silence
Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, U.S., Drafthouse Films

There’s a shot. And there’s a reverse shot. There’s one face. And then there’s another. Then it’s back to the first one, followed again by the second, and onwards, but rapider, the cuts coming with higher frequency as a conversation develops. The quickened cuts engender tension, amplified emotions, and dramatic momentum. These are the very basics of film grammar, but when used to construct scenes in The Look of Silence, in which a man confronts the murderers of his own brother, dangerously deposing the genocidal butchers that still hold sway in Indonesia half a century after wetting their machetes, such techniques prove to be overwhelmingly, incomparably powerful.

In its effects, Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to the Academy Award–nominated The Act of Killing is like a hologram that changes depending on how you look at it. From this angle it’s a work of elegance and quiet; from that angle it’s a blunt object, vibrating rage. The whole movie operates dialectically, toggling between or overlaying distinct, often oppositional elements. The face of a victim with that of a victimizer. Eyes of condemnation with eyes of panic. Beauty with horror. Sound infiltrating picture. Past with present. And receiving it all is the viewer, for whom the composition exists, for whom a complex reality has been refracted into this complex art, who’s tasked to accommodate such disparate information.

We open on eyes blinking behind glasses—a lens for each eye, the brain bringing together two sources of observation, the viewer’s task immediately reflected on screen. Yet as we’ll come to learn, the eyes (and lenses) belong to a murderer, an old man who’s expert at denying what he sees. After a brief close-up of jumping beans stirring and popping—larval lives trapped and unseen—we cut to another face, that of the man who will become the film’s conduit and conscience, Adi Rukun. Unlike the first set of eyes, which stared directly back at us, Adi’s are trained beyond the frame, to a television set where, over the course of the film, now aged perpetrators narrate and pantomime their participation in the military-led, anti-communist Indonesian massacre of the mid-1960s. All are looks of silence: Adi’s in patiently confronting the banality of an evil that destroyed his family, society, and culture; the old man’s stubborn, well-practiced dumbness; and ours, inevitably somewhere on a continuum between the two.

You can talk about The Look of Silence—as many have and will and should, including the dauntingly articulate Oppenheimer himself—in terms of what the film means to present-day Indonesia, where, along with The Act of Killing, it’s starting a long-suppressed dialogue about the past, and of how that horrific past continues to rule the present. And you can discuss the film in terms of its importance, its bravery, its vitality—applicable and deserved words every one. But as with Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, another masterpiece dedicated to present-day witnessing, to chasing the ghosts of atrocity across the living landscape of our ruined humanity, it’s important not to overlook the extraordinary artistry that allows for such extra-cinematic effects.

There’s a level of craft in The Look of Silence that arguably exceeds that of the equally but differently devastating The Act of Killing, trading formal and visual daring for deliberation, exactitude, and classically calibrated suspense. Privileging one film over the other is a fool’s game. They serve different, complementary purposes. The Act of Killing explores the impunity of the perpetrators from the point of view of the perpetrators, The Look of Silence from the vantage of their victims. They’re both achievements of the highest order. But the strategy of The Look of Silence is so elemental that it can be too easily taken for granted. With all of its stillness, its tripod shots of seated people, its language of shot/reverse shot, it can come off as quite restrained, especially when compared to the feverish, careening, activated Act of Killing. But in truth, every moment of The Look of Silence is fully directed. The shots, the performances, the frame, the soundscape: it all supports an idea, it’s all marshaled towards an effect, it all freights meaning. There are simple cuts in this film that can buckle your knees.

Over the first third of the film, Oppenheimer introduces and cycles between several platforms for his drama. One is the old tube TV, which plays footage that the director captured ten years prior, in 2003, of various perpetrators freely sharing the details of their actions—who they killed, why they killed, how they killed. Some are in their homes, others are proudly walking through town, others are revisiting the locations of the killings. Another is a darkened room in which Adi sits alone, the TV light flickering across his placid, suggestively emotive face. Then there are exteriors—painterly landscapes framed almost artificially, with foliage often serving as a proscenium for somber labor outside of Adi’s family’s seemingly secluded property. Then there are interior scenes of Adi’s elderly parents, his mother bathing his blind and infirm father, and recounting to Adi what she recalls of his brother Ramli’s sickening murder. Finally, there’s the centralizing metaphor of Adi serving as a traveling optometrist, sitting across from older members of the community and peppering his examinations with questions about the genocide.

For the remainder of the film, these elements lock into a forcefully sequential, cause-and-effect pattern. Adi watches the TV, on which a man is recounting hellish details of Ramli’s execution, and then we cut to Adi, implicitly motivated by the footage, visiting that man in the present, examining his eyes and gently pushing for some kind of acknowledgment of what those homicidal, government-sanctioned actions wrought—personally, societally, emotionally, psychologically. And then, at the height of tension, we cut to Adi’s parents or their environment. Not as a safety valve—never as that, though that’s often the purpose of this kind of a cut. Rather it’s to transfer the violence, thrusting us back into that beautifully fertile landscape freshly aware of what haunts it, palpably aware of the mourning that people have been living with for decades, and of the fear that continues to rule those who were subject to that violence.

These are all constructions. They’re scenes that exist for the camera, often provocatively lit and set designed, with dialogue seemingly subject to the moment. Oppenheimer makes little effort to disguise or elide the artificiality, confidently unconcerned about literal-minded viewers crying foul. His cinema is an articulation of a frustratingly inchoate actuality, operating in the simplest and yet most powerful way he can conceive. Perhaps his greatest, and most manipulative tool, is heightening tension through sound design, which is dominated by multi-track recordings of crickets that rise, fall, thicken, and distort depending on the drama, and hardly ever fade out entirely. Happening upon moments isn’t nearly as vital, or effective, as conceiving of and expressing truthful moments in the language of narrative film. Adi faces off with the footage, he has a lone heart-to-heart with his wife who fears for his safety, he sits side-by-side with his mother to talk about her marriage, or his slain brother. They’re scenes comprised of composed shots—not to deceive us, but to make a reality he’s encountered intensely real for us, to reach us where we sit and watch.

There’s no footage or photographic evidence of violence presented in The Look of Silence, much as there wasn’t in The Act of Killing—just clearly denoted dramatizations of it. But as with Shoah, the fact of the violence becomes even harder to shake because it can’t be distanced through archival media, it can’t be couched as a then, versus a now. In Oppenheimer’s films, the violence instead arrives via language and demonstration in the present moment, expressed by a living person who admits to having committed it. Delivered via testimony, rather than filmic evidence, the violence is created in our own heads, we create our own pictures of what’s been described to us. The film is using the limitations of the medium to exploit our imaginations, which have the potential to affect us deeper, to enhance our empathy, to heighten our identification. For it’s not just the unseen victims this method forces us to identify with (I’ve seen the film three times and have no recollection of being shown photographs of Ramli, the subject of nearly every scene), but also the perpetrators. When Oppenheimer films two slaughterers by the Snake River, the site of their carnage, one crouches down to offer his neck to the other’s pantomimed machete chop. (“Film there. Stand here. Let’s make it more authentic,” one says. “We should have brought a machete, to make it more realistic,” says the other.) We follow the arm up, and follow it down, and picture the completion, perhaps even the sick satisfaction, of the action.

We’re always aware of what we’re not seeing. We’re also aware of what we don’t want to see, what no one else really wants to see, though for varying, often opposing reasons. “I see very little,” says Adi’s father when asked about his eyesight. By their demeanor, their unconcern as Adi inspects their eyes, you get the sense that no one really cares to see much clearer than they already do, that the glasses might even be an inconvenience. “I want to see you come out. Are you really there?” a child asks in the end of those jumping beans we met at the beginning, lives suggested but never witnessed. There’s no answer to this, no satisfaction. There’s only the question, and the willingness to see even that which can never be. Within the willingness is a potential for empathy and understanding.

Everything comes together in the final confrontation of the film, in which Adi visits the family of one of Ramli’s murderers, including his widow and sons. Oppenheimer is mentioned or addressed at several earlier points of the film, but this time he’s directly invoked, and there’s no forgetting his presence. With so many people in the room (and possibly one less camera than he’d had for other scenes), the camera moves a bit haphazardly from one face of denial to another, from an alternately forgetful and apologetic old woman to a young man impatiently asserting that it’s best, and safest, to “leave the past in the past.” We’ve seen Adi threatened before, both subtly and bluntly, but never by a contemporary, by someone not directly responsible for the atrocities, who’s also lived under the long shadow of the genocide, albeit from an opposing side. But there’s a charge in the room that the camera captures, and it’s terrifying. “I don’t want to see this,” says one of the sons, when confronted with Oppenheimer’s footage of his father boasting of his blood-curdling actions. Do we? Do we want to be in this room with Joshua and Adi, do we want to be this camera in the center of it all? Have we wanted to see any of this? The camera then catches Adi’s face, and holds there. He looks directly into the camera. He sees us. Maybe he sees us wanting to look away. But he also sees himself being seen. He’s silent. And he’s looking. And nothing in that moment is okay, nothing is relieving any of the pain or the history or the horror or the unshakable, incurable stink of humanity having turned against humanity. But we’re seeing it for what it is. We’re witnessing each other. And for that moment at least, we’re together.