“The Look of Silence” and the Holy Year of Mercy

Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary about one of those murdered in 1965 by death squads in Indonesia is a reminder that there is only One who can heal and forgive

It is rare for a documentary film to arrive with such a fanfare. But The Look of Silence (www.thelookofsilence.com) just has. Perhaps, however, it is not so surprising after all when one considers its director and his earlier and much acclaimed film. What few secular commentators have realized is the aptness of such a release as we prepare for the forthcoming Holy Year and its Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy

Rightly hailed, that earlier film was The Act of Killing (2012), an incredibly powerful piece of cinema. A decade or so ago, its director, Joshua Oppenheimer, went to Indonesia to investigate the military coup that had taken place there in 1965. Rather than the typical documentary with talking heads and archival footage, we were given instead something as surreal as it was, by its end, all too real.

Rather than simply have those who did the killing talking candidly, brazenly even, of what they had done, the film took viewers into the world of a modern day morality play—and one played out in the most bizarre fashion. In fact, once these erstwhile killers warmed to the gaze of the camera they began to happily act out their former murderous modus operandi for it. At times they pretended to be in a Western or Gangster movie, with themselves as the ‘stars’ of the show and with their former actions as the plot. It sounds odd (maybe even disrespectful to those tortured and killed) but it proved to be something powerful and surprising, for the ghosts of their victim’s unexpectedly began to assemble.

By then, the former death squad members had opened up in ways that no documentary maker employing traditional methods could have hoped for. These men’s craving for fame had unknowingly revealed a much darker set of emotions—deep-set ones at that, but also ones barely conscious, emerging as they did only as the filming progressed. At its conclusion, feelings of guilt had risen to the surface. It was then that the camera captured their startled looks as the full horror of what they had done was at last unveiled to them, and, paradoxically, by no one but themselves. The whole thing proved to be as chilling as it was curious.

However, it left audiences feeling divided. Some were amazed by what was so graphically uncovered; others were appalled, feeling that there wasn’t enough open ‘confronting’ of those who appeared to boast of having committed acts tantamount to war crimes. It is precisely here that Oppenheimer’s latest film picks up the threads.

The Look of Silence is the story of the brother of one of those killed in 1965 by government-backed paramilitary death squads. Today, Adi lives with his own family and his elderly parents close to where that killing took place some 50 years ago. By profession, he is an optician; it is in this capacity that he arranges to meet those who carried out that and many other killings, but without alerting his interviewees to the real connection between them.

What we first note is that the killers are now old men. They are men content in the knowledge that they backed the winning side in a bloody internal conflict between government and communist agitators. And, just as with those featured in the Act of Killing, these new set of killers come across as equally full of bravado and bombast, until a realization starts to dawn. Slowly, they begin to recognize that the man in front of them lost a loved one at their hands. Thereafter, they become evasive, defensive even, before becoming simply amnesiac.

More telling still is the impact this revelation has on the various family members of the killers. One such has sat for years safe in the knowledge that her father was a heroic fighter against communist aggression. On screen her expression changes from puzzlement to horror on hearing from her father’s own lips of his taking part in gruesome ‘sadistic’ killings that ended in the drinking of the victim’s blood. As the camera captures this, one wonders if in the preceding five decades this man had talked of his past, nevermind so candidly as this. At that scene’s awkward close, the audience is left wondering what such spoken revelations would now mean for all concerned.

Into this, what could have been simply a tale of horror, Oppenheimer exhibits the best of what an investigative documentary filmmaker does. Thankfully, his films are not merely pious finger-pointing exercises; they are far too sophisticated for that. Instead, what is being explored is what other societies have also experienced today, namely, an inter-communal violence that has been and is conveniently forgotten about, and yet remains a sad and silent presence in the background of those countries so blighted. What Oppenheimer does well is to enter into and to interrogate that ‘silence’. In this new film it is through the presence of his optician collaborator, Adi, and his simple questions that we experience an altogether more devastating effect upon those questioned than even subject, interrogator, or director could have initially envisioned.

By the end, one wonders who to pity more: those that lost, like Adi and his parents, and who are wounded and hurt as a result but are without moral equivocation; or, surprisingly, those who killed, and now appear dehumanised and haunted by those actions. This is nowhere more transparent than when the camera catches a look or a glance from these now elderly men that seems to suggest—at least in a moral sense—they have been looking over their shoulders for many years. In this film we see that those ghosts of the past, like justice itself, are restless still in unquiet graves.

Needless to say, both films have provoked a debate within Indonesia, with an official recognition of the atrocities carried out and also the beginnings of a ‘truth and reconciliation’ commission. Nevertheless, it is still hard for those in power, and who draw their lineage from the events of 1965, to face up to the complexities and moral ambivalence of their nation’s history. In light of this perhaps it was not surprising that the official state censor banned Oppenheimer’s work. No one is under any illusion that such films open up old wounds and that it will take time, and even the passing of generations, before the national scars can truly start to heal.

At a recent screening I attended in London, Oppenheimer spoke about his experience of making these films. At its conclusion he talked of both films forming part of a ‘trilogy’ but that there would be no ‘third part’—that final ‘instalment’, he maintained, must come from the Indonesian people themselves.

There is much in this film, as befits its title about the nature of looking and seeing, being looked at and being seen, of silence as a question as much as a cover, with its optician interrogator bringing things finally into focus. There is much too that witnesses to the lack of mercy in human hearts lost in this fallen world. It is timely, therefore, that with Misericordiae Vultus, the Holy Father has announced the forthcoming Holy Year dedicated to mercy. In this year of pilgrimage we are asked to journey beyond those all too human limitations around guilt and forgiveness towards the only ‘gaze’ that can truly satisfy the human heart and through it win the Mercy of the Father.

Because, in the end, just like the killers in these films, the only thing that will free them, and indeed us, is not so much a ‘look of silence’ as a silent gaze upon the Pierced One, for only by so doing shall we see the face of the Father’s mercy.

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About K. V. Turley 61 Articles
K.V. Turley writes from London.