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Joshua Oppenheimer's moral intervention

The Look of Silence confirms Oppenheimer’s status as one of the most ambitious filmmakers of his generation. His cinematic approach aims at nothing less than a reconciliation between the Indonesian people.
Part of our partnership with the Unorthodocs programme of screenings and events.

From the openDemocracy archive. 'The Look of Silence' will be screened at London's Somerset House on 22nd February. 

Joshua Oppenheimer. Flickr/Heinrich-Boll-Stiftung. Some rights reserved.In his masterpiece Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2011), as well as in numerous public lectures, the distinguished historian Timothy Snyder has emphasised that in order to comprehend the scope of atrocities such as the Holocaust, we are obligated to tell individual life stories of victims, survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators. The histories of the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Srebrenica massacre, the Rwandan and Indonesian genocides are too enormous and complicated to grasp by simply analysing graphs and figures. One needs to feel that the victims, their lives, hopes and deaths were real, otherwise history will remain at a cold distance from us. The Look of Silence , the 2014 film by the acclaimed documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer, masterfully fulfils Snyder’s injunction.

The film is a follow-up to the hugely successful The Act of Killing (2012), a film that examines the mindset of the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide (1965-1966). The latest documentary takes a closer look at the victims of this horror, while also recording the encounters between two groups of people who have been neighbours for nearly 50 years. The Look of Silence confirms Oppenheimer’s status as one of the most ambitious and humanistic filmmakers of his generation; his cinematic approach aims at nothing less than a reconciliation between the Indonesian people.

Only time will show if Oppenheimer is destined to succeed, but he has already raised awareness of the Indonesian genocide to a truly remarkable extent. Together with The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence constitutes a formidable political and moral statement, which will be increasingly difficult for the Indonesian government (mainly comprised of the perpetrators of the massacres) to ignore or deny.

The victims speak…

Indonesian couple. Flickr/HaRRiS NasutioN. Some rights reserved.Whereas The Act of Killing illuminates the phenomenon of the banality of evil so originally and breathtakingly (perhaps even more forcefully than Hannah Arendt did in her account of Adolf Eichmann), The Look of Silence adopts a more intimate, emotional attitude to tackle the questions of remembrance and the traces of terror in present-day Indonesia. Film critics are almost unanimous in calling the The Look of Silence a more 'conventional' film than Oppenheimer’s previous masterpiece. The verdict is reasonable; yet I believe this is not due to its cinematic qualities, but, instead, to its subject matter. 

The stories and self-justifications of the perpetrators are simply more interesting and challenging to capture than the silent sorrows of the victims. The Nuremberg and Eichmann trials fascinated the world more than the memories of Primo Levi or Viktor Frankl, although the latter are equally relevant in our quest to comprehend the horrors of the Holocaust. The Look of Silence, in the same way as The Act of Killing, is thoroughly truthful to its subject matter – an achingly traumatic encounter of the victims and their relatives with their unhealed wounds, their all-powerful, triumphant killers and an ineradicable sense of injustice. Although the account of the victims may seem “conventional”, from a moral point of view, it is even more significant and urgent.

…but the perpetrators rule 

What is truly unconventional is the fact that the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide remain in power. The military dictatorship that ousted president Sukarno in 1965, banned the Communist Party and staged one of the most horrible crimes of the twentieth century, effectively rules the country and maintains an unchallenged aura of impunity. 'Anti-communist' purges are described in history textbooks, school lessons, public commemorations, and the media as a heroic struggle against the forces of evil, carried out in the name of democracy. The organisers and the executioners of the mass killings are revered as heroes, whereas the survivors and victims’ relatives live in constant fear. 

The Act of Killing exclusively portrays the perpetrators and their boastful, enthusiastic re-enactments of the murder scenes, creating a sense that the victims are visibly and entirely consigned to the dustbin of history, without leaving even a tiny footnote. The Look of Silence restores the dignity of the victims, enabling their stories and complaints to be seen and heard. Since history is meaningless without narration, both of Oppenheimer’s films – compassionately and courageously narrated interventions – may already be regarded as part of Indonesian history. Together they create an almost irresistible counter-narrative that challenges an entrenched, official narrative of the past 50 years. The survivors are likely to be grateful to Oppenheimer for bestowing historical, political, and existential meaning to their suffering and protracted decades of silence.

Micro-history on camera

A camera filming near a general. Camera and general. Shutterstock/lanych. All rights reserved.The emotional impact of The Look of Silence reaches the degree of intensity comparable to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, widely regarded as the best documentary of all times. Both films explore the impact and magnitude of the atrocities through a metonymy – they concentrate on individual accounts and stories instead of figures, extensive footage or sweeping historical generalisations. As Oppenheimer himself expounds: “By looking at a single family, I am going microscopic to show the much broader picture.” Oppenheimer’s metonymy is even more forefronted than Lanzmann’s; it mostly concentrates on a story of a single Rukun family and the film’s protagonist, Adi Rukun, who puts himself and his family in danger by investigating his brother Ramli’s murder and challenging his all-powerful killers. 

By employing a technique of metonymy, Oppenheimer achieves a staggering cinematic effect, where an element casts light upon the whole, allowing viewers to comprehend the overall scale of similar stories, all of them comprising a human tragedy beyond our imagination. The Act of Killing, of course, provides a crucial background – most viewers see the sequel already familiar with the broader historical context.

Even though the film is about Indonesia and its particular narrative of genocide and terror, The Look of Silence is so unforgettably transfixing precisely because it is so much more than that. Ultimately, it is an exceptionally sensitive exploration of the human condition, or rather the wounded human condition. The intonations, gestures, facial expressions, and the look of silence on the part of the victims speak to us directly about the most universal aspects of our being. 

The Look of Silence is about the loss of beloved ones, the difficulty of openly confronting the past, the understandable suppression of one’s guilt, and the fear of the stronger. It is also about love, care, empathy (or lack thereof), the primordial urge to uncover the truth, and both an ability and necessity to forgive. The film is a brutally honest reminder that first of all we are moral beings – even some of the perpetrators eventually get exceedingly emotional when confronted with their own complicity, corruption, and bloodthirstiness. Their brisk, hot-blooded denial is a confirmation that it is possible to cover one’s guilt and responsibility, to hide it for a very long time; yet it is impossible to eradicate it from within completely.

The universality of evil

Skulls in Indonesia. Skulls in Indonesia. Flickr/adiputra singgih. Some rights reserved.Thanks to the rich tradition of Holocaust studies and education, the universality of human evil and cruelty is now harder to deny than ever. It will be difficult for western viewers to watch The Look of Silence calmly, hiding behind the imaginary construct of 'primitive', 'backward' Orientals, in this case – Indonesians. As the Holocaust experience has taught us, even the most cultured, sophisticated European nation such as Germany – the country of Goethe, Schiller, Bach, and Beethoven – may descend into a total moral abyss and almost literally create hell on earth. The shocking realisation of the Jewish genocide as well as the Nazis’ motivations and worldview prompted us to acknowledge the fact that moral goodness is not dependent on cultural sophistication. Such an acknowledgement is salutary since it enables us to confront the Rwandan, Cambodian, and Indonesian genocides seriously, not to brush them aside by conveniently resorting to the 'backward East' argument.

The universality of evil is also manifest in the self-justifications of the perpetrators. “I was only following orders” – such line of apology served as the main defense in Eichmann’s repertoire during his trial in Jerusalem; the same line is continuously repeated in The Look of Silence. Likewise, the strategies of dehumanisation are comparable. In the course of genocides, half the job is done by producing labels and attaching them to particular groups, who are subsequently dehumanised. Labels, such as 'rats', 'cockroaches', 'Jews', 'kulaks', and so on, when attached to certain people, enable the perpetrators to cease perceiving them as 'normal' human beings. The nature of labelling is such that labels do not necessarily have to have any relation to reality. Accordingly, one does not need to verify the label’s validity in concrete cases. The use of labels is always generalised, empowering one’s imagination to subsume every particular case under such tags. Throughout the course of the Indonesian mass killings, the label “communist” stripped a person from their personhood, allowing paramilitary butchers to ease their consciences in killing those “subhuman entities”.

Indonesian military commander sits in front of a microphone. Indonesian military commander. Demotix/Denny Pohan. All rights reserved.In The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer and his partly anonymous film crew (the oft-repeated “Anonymous” in the credits is another chilling indication of the still-present danger in confronting the killers) achieve something beautiful and benign, at the same time sending a political message to Indonesian and other perpetrators of mass killings. Through sincerely compassionate cinematographic touches, they restore individuality and uniqueness to their characters. The message is clear: these people were not communists, and even if they had certain ideological convictions, they were first and foremost unique personalities. No label could ever exhaust all of one’s humanity and individuality, no life story could be fully accounted for by a single keyword. Besides other things, The Look of Silence is a commentary on the existential dangers that human language poses, as well as the potentially healing effect of a dialogue between the killers and the victims’ relatives. Oppenheimer and Adi continue to stress that their aim is not to avenge or fight back, but rather to speak, understand, and eventually reconcile. This film once again vindicates the ethical value of cinema and art in general; sometimes only a visual encounter with the eyes and face of another person is powerful enough to enhance our moral sensibilities.

Alas, there is absolutely no guarantee that Indonesian perpetrators will change their attitudes after seeing Oppenheimer’s film. Cinema is only one force among many others in the world. Another force being, as Arendt formulated in her study of Eichmann, thoughtlessness: an inability to appreciate the fact that “men, not Man inhabit the earth”. Thoughtlessness is an indication of the loss of common sense; a sense that different people lived, live, and will live in this world, that no man possesses the right or privilege to eradicate the essential conditions of human existence – worldliness and plurality. 

The butchers from the ranks of the Indonesian military have flatly denied those basic conditions, and they still do not acknowledge the need to apologise for their crimes. Their consciences continue sleeping, despite the fact that The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence documented a few glimpses of their latent presence. “Keep going”, a former leader of one paramilitary formation threatens Adi in one interview. It is our obligation to keep going in helping Adi Rukun, Joshua Oppenheimer and other human rights activists to raise awareness of this appallingly unjust environment in Indonesia and in other forgotten places.

About the author

Simas Celutka studies history of political thought and intellectual history (MA) at UCL, focusing on Hannah Arendt's political theory. He is also a freelance journalist.

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