In 1965, the Indonesian army along with many civilians “cleansed” their country of “communists,” leaving more than 1 million people dead and countless families shattered. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence tracks one of these personal stories, that of a forty-four year old man named Adi, a traveling optometrist who seeks to engage his customers in conversations about the country’s past.
Adi’s story is simple: his older brother, Ramli, was brutally executed in the genocide by men known in the home village, some three years before Adi was born. Adi’s parents are still living, though his father, 103 years old, is blind and has largely lost the use of his legs. As Adi moves through the villages that surrounded his family’s home in 1965, he inevitably meets a number of older people who respond to his historical queries with equal measures of denial, misinformation, and righteous indignation in support of the cleansing. Most of all, however, these villagers—whether observers, perpetrators, or victims—simply encourage and/or threaten Adi to discontinue his line of questioning about the past. The past is in the past, they say. In other words, leave it there, and let the injustice continue.
The quiet determination that Adi carries into his conversations about the genocide stands as a call for justice in the face of what almost seems unbelievable injustice. Not only has his brother been executed, but those most responsible have not just avoided punishment. These executioners have lived comfortable lives, gaining their wealth from political favors or from entering government and making their living on the backs of the people for three or more decades. Adi, a simple tradesman, has no means to bring those responsible to justice. He brings with him only his doggedness to expose and confront the evil that has long lay dormant all around him. That no one—neither victims nor perpetrators—has any interest in pursuing justice suggests the depth to which the genocidal wickedness has done its work.
Taking a quieter approach than Oppenheimer’s previous film on the same historical subject (2012’s The Act of Killing), this film examines the contours of the personal cost for the victims and their continuing powerlessness in the face of communal silence. Adi’s courage to speak with this cast of killers serves to humanize both the victim and the killers. Scene after scene places Adi face to face with these brutal men. These men deny or soften their crimes, or they threaten Adi. But these he accuses are most certainly men.
One affecting scene late in the film finds Adi visiting a man and his adult daughter. The man begins by bragging about his crimes in graphic detail. But once Adi tells his story, the man’s daughter admits she knew nothing about these things, and describes these killings as ‘sadistic.’ As Adi leaves their home with a familial embrace from the daughter, one cannot help but hope for some measure of reconciliation among the next generation.
But the reality is probably much different. If there is hope it is likely only a glimmer. Most others of Adi’s generation and older remain stubborn in their silence, firm in their refusal to even listen to a description of the crimes of their fathers. Further, the string of “anonymous” names in the end credits testifies to a continuing fear among the people. And this is the reality: Evil has bred that fear. The people’s fear has birthed isolation and silence that leaves the community enforcing and extending the injustice of prior generations.
This isn’t a land of freedom or democracy, despite the claims of the Indonesian government officials. Far, far from it, in fact.