Who could forget the pain on Maria Falconneti’s face in The Passion of Joan of Arc or Jean-Pierre Léaud’s hopelessness in The 400 Blows? Some of cinema’s most memorable performances are not from big and extravagant gestures but from quiet and still faces. We leave Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence hoping that the faces were just an act.
In Indonesia from 1965-1966, union members, farmers, and intellectuals were all branded communists and subject to execution. 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, which is one of this decade’s finest films, chronicled some of the odious gangsters directly involved in the genocide as they bragged 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.
I’m reminded of John Berger’s famous phrase “seeing comes before words”. Perhaps there are no words to describe the poetry, power and pain infused in the quiet images in The Look of Silence. To explain them is to destroy their mystery; to describe them is to undermine their beauty; to analyze them is to dismiss their power. Cinema is a language of images, and no words can do it justice. As a reviewer left to exposit only with written language, how can I possibly describe the faces of the one million victims, or the teary eyes of their broken families, or the sharp tongues of the perpetrators who brag about the genocide? Words written in a newspaper or facts spoken on a radio don’t provide the same gateway into the suffering soul as the intense agony and despondency on faces. Similar to how a description of your happiest memory as “ethereal” or “joyous” pales in comparison to the actual feeling, calling the effects of the genocide in Indonesia “insidious” and “barbaric” are hardly close to capturing the real thing.
The Look of Silence explores the pain on the faces primarily through three metaphors: an eyesight test, metallic rocks, and an old man’s Alzheimer’s. The eyesight tests in the film 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: (1) from a practical perspective it gives Adi and Oppenheimer the opportunity to talk with the perpetrators in a safe context; (2) it’s 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 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 apparatus to have their eyes tested. By highlighting certain aspects in the frame with color correction, Oppenheimer is not just documenting reality but commenting on it through the filmmaking process.
A second powerful metaphor is Adi’s father’s Alzheimer’s disease, which appears to be an unlinked tangent in the film. If it weren’t for an overwhelmingly powerful sequence in the film, I would be inclined to criticize the lack of focus, but it’s clear that Oppenheimer uses the context of Adi’s family to comment on a larger issue. During the scene, Adi’s demented father crawls on the ground in one of the rooms in his house as he cries out for help. He doesn’t know where he is or what is going on, but he’s scared that someone is coming to kill him. The details of the past have been forgotten, but the pain and fear will always remain.
The film’s last prevalent metaphor is a collection of magnetic rocks with which Adi’s two children are depicted playing in the film’s second image. The final shot is a close up where the mother stares at them as they mysteriously flutter in her palm. A ghastly mood is set over the entire film, as Oppenheimer has transitions between scenes which linger on the buildings and landscapes of modern Indonesia as he considers the dark past upon which it is founded. In certain sequences we feel the weary souls who do not rest in peace and who haunt the landscapes and architecture.
In one of the film’s more powerful scenes, a man who escaped the river bank where thousands of people were killed returned to the terrifying place to reminisce. When he walks through overgrown trees and plants, he whispers prayers for those who died there. This kind of supernatural unease permeates much of The Look of Silence, and it is expressed through the rocks. The two children who are taught propaganda in school are seen looking at the invisible force, because the new generation hasn’t mourned or been educated on the genocide. It’s also significant that the film ends with a member of the older generation pondering the unrest of the perished souls, as she too has been unable to speak up for those who are killed because of the fear that it could all happen again.
Oppenheimer is a poet-journalist. He uses metaphors from true situations to affect us deeper. 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, Oppenheimer 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 the forgetting of the crimes, and the unease created by the ghosts of the victims: the images, faces and metaphors in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence are the closest we will come to understanding the pain inflicted by the senseless killings during 1965-1966 in Indonesia.