Wednesday, May 4, 2016


Joshua Oppenheimer's follow-up to The Act of Killing is deliberately less spectacular because it shows the perpetrators of Indonesia's anti-communist massacres of 1965-6, in which hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered on often slight pretenses, in less boastful circumstances. While the earlier documentary, which famously presented the perpetrators' cliched, hagiographic and surreal dramatizations of their dirty work, attempted to encompass the entirety of the slaughter, The Look of Silence takes place on the micro level, focusing on one village, one family and one event. At the same time, a certain artsiness persists, only at the narrative rather than the visual level.

For the most part, the new film is about the act of killing one person, a young man named Ramli. Two of the killers remember him well, or at least claim to. These two knuckleheads will remind you them most of the previous film as they narrate how they dragged people to the killing field, one playing the killer, the other the victim, both in apparent good humor. After almost fifty years they remember specifically how they killed Ramli, though they treat his execution like another day at the office.

Meanwhile, Ramli's brother Adi (to the right in the picture on top), born after Ramli's death, returns to the community as an eye doctor. Because Oppenheimer understandably has kept most information about his collaborators secret, I don't know whether this was Adi's real work or whether it's a ponderously symbolic device to illustrate the different degrees of blindness among the people Adi interviews. In any event, while he tests prescriptions on their eyes softspoken Adi goads his patients toward admissions of responsibility for the slaughter of mostly if not entirely blameless people. Some claim to know nothing about the killing, though some had told Oppenheimer otherwise on camera. Some insist chillingly that everyone would be better off forgetting the past if they don't want it repeated. When you hear these subtle and not-so-subtle threats you see the true face of the Indonesian repression and you understand, despite the country's democratization, why so many credits at the end go to "Anonymous."

The big irony that has little to do with the politics of Indonesia is that while Adi, who never knew his brother, is determined to get some accounting for him by his persecutors, his father, senile and mostly crippled, has forgotten his older son. In one sad scene the old man's long-suffering wife tries to remind him of Ramli, but while he can sing some pop tune from memory he can't hold on to Ramli's name or the idea that he had a son who was murdered, from one sentence to the next. There's something slightly unsettling about Oppenheimer's denial of any dignity to the old-timer, last scene scuttling around on hands and butt in a panic, convinced that he's wandered into someone else's house and will get beaten for it, but maybe he sees some tragedy in the old man's madness, as compared to the forgetting that the perpetrators, who still remember things well, seem to require of the families of their victims. They'd like to see everyone forget the Ramlis of long ago like his father has, while Adi and Oppenheimer are battling them for the Ramlis' place in history, beyond memory. While The Look of Silence is less of a stunt than The Act of Killing, and will never yield as many compelling screencaps as its predecessors, it's in many ways, especially by documentary standards, the better film for capturing that dangerous collision of memory and history.

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