The most radical thing about The Look of Silence isn’t that a man sits knee-to-knee while interviewing the men who brutally murdered his brother, but that the man approaches those interviews with the goal of forgiving them.
Watching Adi sit, shuddering as he contains a torrent of emotion, while powerful men describe in detail how they ripped their neighbors apart, is a challenge. Watching as the same men backpedal and deny their direct responsibility when confronted with Adi’s identity is enough to drain the blood from your knuckles. But it’s watching with the understanding that Adi’s purpose is one of mercy and compassion that’s almost impossible to comprehend.
How do you forgive the person who destroyed your family? How can we even begin to understand how Adi is feeling?
“If I can do my job well,” director Joshua Oppenheimer begins his explanation. “If I can capture with precision, sensitivity and intimacy, the inevitably complex array of human emotions that we will encounter here when a man goes into someone else’s home and says, ‘You’ve killed my brother, can you take responsibility for it?” – if I can capture the panic, the shame, the guilt and the fear of guilt, and of course the anger and threats that might follow – if I can show all those human reactions, maybe anyone seeing this film will be forced to recognize how torn the social fabric of this society is and how urgently true reconciliation and some form of justice are needed.”
He’s talking about Indonesia where – since a 1965 massacre saw a million people murdered under the guise of being “Communists” – communities have been divided between killers and victims, those with power and those without.
However, it’s crucial that everyone who sees The Look of Silence and its predecessor, The Act of Killing, looks beyond the borders of Indonesia and into their own backyard. The murders that took place in Indonesia in 1965 are both a specific entry into the history of one place and a universal symbol of human violence recognizable to every country in the world.
We are all dealing with the demons of the past. Some are still living under the icons of power that saw their grandfathers and grandmothers held down, dehumanized and killed. Some, impossibly, still choose forgiveness.
That’s why I had to ask Oppenheimer about his response not to the mass shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, but to Nadine Collier, who forgave the young man who killed her mother and her friends in the attack.
“When I heard that, I broke down in tears. It’s an act of empathy which is so wide and so generous and so, unfortunately in our world, rare that it took my breath away. Also, I felt like we were less alone. I’ve spent years working with Adi and his family, and at times you can feel very alone. Hearing this woman whose mother was killed and hearing her forgive the man who killed her mother, I had this feeling of fellowship, of community, and of hope.”
The Look of Silence is a beautiful, challenging, vital film. If you haven’t seen it, you should. If you have seen it, please take the time to listen to my full, 28-minute interview with Oppenheimer, where he expounds on human evil, our response to it, and what it was like behind the camera as Adi desperately requested an apology from the privileged men who killed his brother.