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The Look of Silence

March 5, 2016

The Look of Silence (2014)
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

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Synopsis: Middle-aged optometrist, Adi Rukun, gently uncovers the events surrounding his brother’s brutal killing during the Indonesian reign of terror in 1965.

Review: Joshua Oppenheimer returns to the territory of the disquieting legacy of the Indonesian reign of terror he exposed so brazenly (to my mind, borderline disingenuously) in The Act of Killing, and although the method and end effect is somewhat the same, by taking a more plaintive, watchful brief, and in prioritising the history of the victims and the survivors this time, he is rewarded with a more moving and substantial film.

Oppenheimer almost entirely dispenses with the intertextual parlour games and performance art exposés of The Act of Killing, and instead seems much more content to let his camera and microphone quietly capture the ‘story’. When there are such compelling raw materials as the fascinating family of the murdered Ramli – especially the two aged parents – then Oppenheimer had the documentarian equivalent of an ‘open goal’ from which to exact his thesis of exposing the horrors of the Indonesian reign of terror from the victims’ perspective. Ramli’s parents, both seemingly on or over a hundred years old (their age is a lovely running joke throughout film), almost personify the term ‘survivor’ with their decrepit, quasi-mummified bodies. And Oppenheimer is right to linger on the sense of pathos and dignity projected by their ancient states, and how they speak for the poignancy that both parents will never get peace on the longstanding sore of their son’s untimely death (the father has sadly long since lost the memory of his son to amnesia, though the mother still mourns at his graveside every day.)

The only slight echo of Oppenheimer’s fastidious intent to communicate subtext familiar from The Act of Killing is in his clear ogling on the visual conceit and irony of optometrist Adi bringing the perpetrators of Ramli’s murder to account while also giving them their obligatory eye test (hence the striking focal lens images of all the film’s promotional material.) This is a slightly obvious conceit, though it does have some thematic logic in mirroring the film’s underlying aim to unpick the ‘rules of perspective’ and the privilege of narrating history that the ruthless Indonesian establishment have maintained since the violence of the mid-1960s.

The element of the film that works the best is in its adherence to an almost classical sense of narrative structure. The Look of Silence is as tense and well ‘acted’ as any fiction film, and its modus operandi – a quasi-staged set of scenarios where Oppenheimer follows Adi around on his arranged meetings with the various players in Ramli’s death – reminded me a lot of Laurent Cantet’s excellent ‘fictional documentary’ about life in a Parisian inner-city school, La classe. It’s in the quiet, staggering moments of drama – such as when Adi extracts an awkward moment of self-realisation from the otherwise feckless country peasant who actually killed Ramli – that Oppenheimer proves with the compelling ingredients of The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, he doesn’t need tricks or to over-communicate the already incredibly rich human and social testimonies that are unfolding in front of his camera. (March 2016)

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