In Indonesia from 1965 to 1966, union members, many farmers, and numerous intellectuals were branded as communists and executed. In that short span, close to one million people were killed, and the perpetrators have ruled the country ever since.
Oppenheimer’s genre-defying debut The Act of Killing, one of this decade’s finest films, chronicled some of the odious gangsters directly involved in the genocide as they bragged about and recreated their killings on film.
The Look of Silence has a significantly smaller scope — we follow one man’s search as he learns about his brother’s murder by interviewing those involved with the killing — but it is almost as powerful.
The facial expressions are convoluted and complex. Sorrow is expressed with narcissism, and narcissism is expressed with sorrow. When the perpetrators are bragging about their killings, they hide their pain; when they express pain, they do so with insincerity and for their own sake.
We see the wrinkly, old faces of a mother and father whose son was senselessly killed. Adi’s teary eyes hint at a torment induced by never meeting his brother.
The film explores the pain on the faces primarily through a metaphor: an eyesight test. The examinations are performed by Adi, a middle-aged man who interviews those who were involved in his brother’s murder.
The reason behind this device in the film is twofold: from a practical perspective, it gives Adi and Oppenheimer the opportunity to talk with the perpetrators in a safe context, and it is also a metaphor for the blurred vision that the people of Indonesia have towards their past.
During the first eye examination, a local woman who doesn’t appear to have any direct role in the killings tells Adi that he is “asking too many questions.”
The intense irony is that she is being prescribed a new pair of glasses, and yet she still fails to see the injustice that was done and is still being done.
As we meet the perpetrators, they have identical reactions: an unrelenting hatred that is disguised by present comforts and a blind eye to the past that their lifestyle is built on.
The eye exams are given metaphorical significance through Oppenheimer’s stylistic choices of framing perpetrators in extreme close-ups when they are wearing the eye-testing apparatus. By highlighting certain aspects in the frame with color correction, Oppenheimer is not just documenting reality but commenting on it through the filmmaking process.
He is a poet and a journalist. Oppenheimer uses metaphors from true situations to affect us more deeply. He uses symbols in real life to unveil injustice.
The camera seems like a fly on the wall, but by juxtaposing images, creating visual motifs, and developing metaphors cinematically, he is directly intervening in the documentation process, while preserving the conventions that create the appearance of unmediated truth.
The excruciating irony that the perpetrators are blind to their crimes despite Adi’s eye examination, the agony caused by forgetting their crimes, and the unease created by the ghosts of the victims.
These images, faces, and metaphors in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence are the closest that we will come to understanding the pain inflicted by the senseless killings during 1965 and 1966 in Indonesia.