The Look of Silence and the Violence of Memory

By  · Published on July 20th, 2015

Drafthouse Films

Two years ago, when The Act of Killing was finally released in theaters after a long and rewarding festival circuit, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary arrived as something one could not avoid, a film around which one could not participate in movie culture without having a position on. Its radical and compelling premise – depicting former military rulers of Indonesia as they reenact the atrocities they committed during a 1960s mass killing of perceived political dissidents – demanded a type of attention rarely afforded to documentaries themselves (as opposed to the subjects upon which they focus). Argued by several critics to be irresponsibly scant on socio-political context, the “have you seen this shit” circulation potential intrinsic to the film’s premise perhaps overshadowed what The Act of Killing did do – namely, depict the killers’ unstable balance of repressed remorse and compensatory machismo, a latent force of humanity forever suggesting to burst hysterically forth from their state-sanctioned histories of violence.

Oppenheimer’s follow-up film (shot before The Act of Killing’s release), The Look of Silence, which tracks the brother of one of the purge’s victims as he confronts a variety of perpetrators, will likely not prove as controversial, popular, or widely discussed, which is a shame as it’s an equal if not superior film – a revealing study of the lengths the psyche will go to in order to avoid acknowledging devastating truths about the past.

Where The Act of Killing focuses on exterior productions of memory – the killers literally reenacting their violence when not reminiscing and bragging amongst themselves about their bloody conquests – The Look of Silence is an investigation of the interior affects of memorializing. The film explores how various acts of memory and ways of speaking about the past possess the capacity to heal or, far more often, reproduce the violence of the past.

As its title suggests, this is a quieter, more inward-looking film departing from the spectacle of its first part. But its revelations are profound.

As with The Act of Killing, contextual information is relegated in this follow-up to a brief title card (although there is some revealing historical footage interspersed, notably a newsreel that highlights the influence of America’s Cold War on these killings – an overtly political analogue to the role of Hollywood movies in the first film), but The Look of Silence has a far greater scope in terms of the ongoing emotional turmoil depicted. Defensive knee-jerk pleas by former killers and their enablers that the past shouldn’t be reopened ring absurd in an Indonesia in which former killers, survivors, and the families of every side of this one-sided war live silently with that history on a daily basis, enduring its rippling traumas a generation later.

In this film, silence in the face of the horrible and difficult truths of the past equals complicity under no uncertain terms. History is no abstract concept, but a direct determinant of the present, its outcomes resonant in the pregnant silences exchanged between killers and families of the killed.

As Adi, an optometrist, quietly confronts former killers and their families as he tests their vision (forming an obvious and slightly clunky metaphor), a distinct impression is made between the ways in which people speak of accepted history – that is, justifying through detail the grotesque killing of a variety of perceived enemies – and unacknowledged history – the fact that such killings were a monstrous regime of militarized execution and fear. What’s most striking about these exchanges is that when Adi (perhaps the most patient man on Earth) challenges the former killers and their families’ interpretations of past events, his interviewees almost invariably react with metaphors of violence. Subjects accuse Adi of opening up past wounds, several going so far as to deem his attempts at conversation traumatic and hurtful. One interviewee – an elected official– confirms Adi’s mother’s fear that these conversations will reopen the cycle of violence upon him by exasperatedly asserting, “If you keep making an issue of the past, it will definitely happen again!” It’s an odd but telling reversal of that old proverb demanding we learn from history to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

The contrast is stark: killers and their sympathizers revel in lurid details of killings past, but history suddenly transitions into an unacceptable topic when the morality of such killings is brought into question. This is hardly a surprising psychological defense, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen such desperate acts of dissonance portrayed so distinctly on film.

These conversations are readily transportable to contexts well outside the Indonesian backdrop. Nations are formed through histories of killing. But rather than deny that such events occurred, long-held narratives of justification and heroism are perpetuated from classrooms to dinner tables to shared definitions and rituals of patriotism. Attesting against this history is a difficult but essential act, for to not acknowledge histories of killing is to continue to live with, and in many ways perpetuate, them.

History is brutally violent, so recalling it becomes an act of violence as well. For Adi, memorializing means needing to revisit the history of his slain brother and preserve the perversion of justice against his family in the face of a society that sees the dead as nothing other than unsympathetic enemies. For former killers and their associates, memorializing is a challenge to the narratives they’ve long assumed to be true and have justified for themselves. To think seriously about the killings as anything other than a national victory is to confront one’s own complicity in a violent history. The Look of Silence does not dismiss the difficulty or even stubbornness that the killers perform in the act of memorializing. Instead, Oppenheimer seems to perceive import in these metaphors and the inherent psychological violence, so to speak, of separating oneself from a pervasive consciousness that’s been carefully assembled by the state.

The Look of Silence makes the importance of Adi’s memorializing clear in no uncertain terms, even as he faces threats to himself for doing so. The act of conversation is the greatest weapon against the tyranny of silence – to “open up the wound” as Adi’s detractors claim, is to acknowledge and ask why one was cut in the first place.

Where Adi’s rituals of confronting his brother’s killers and their families often looks futile, only re-cycling the violence of the past, The Look of Silence suggests that being a witness to history is far more important than its immediate outcome. Adi cannot singlehandedly change the state’s interpretation of its history, but (amongst the minor breakthrough he has with a killer’s daughter, placed towards the end of the film) the presence of alternative consciousness can be surprisingly difficult to destroy. As Oppenheimer said in an interview with Nonfics.

“Younger Indonesians see this film and are forced to talk about something that they always knew but were too afraid or found too painful to talk about, namely that everyone is being asked to live their lives, grow up, raise their children in a kind of prison of fear. It is because of Adi’s example and the example of that daughter who apologizes, who finds it impossible not to somehow support the cause of truth, reconciliation and some form of justice afterwards.”

The conversation must go on.

Related Topics: