So once again we have survived.

The Look of Silence

tn_lookofsilenceI’ve told you before and I’ll tell you again, THE ACT OF KILLING was, unexpectedly, one of the best movies I’d ever seen. And you might’ve said then, and might say now, “Okay, yeah, I heard I should see that, but did you say it was a documentary about genocide in Indonesia, and how the people that did it are still in power and treated as heroes and talk openly about what they did as if it’s something to brag about?”

Yeah, okay, when you put it that way it sounds like not a good thing to watch on a Friday night. But sometimes it’s good to learn about the bad things in this world, and there are worse ways to do that than watching an absolutely fascinating, gorgeously shot film that works as an expose, a parable about the power of cinema, and a dark, sick, you-would-be-buckled-over-laughing-if-it-wasn’t-such-a-nightmare joke about the mundanity of evil. Parts of it play like a Christopher Guest mockumentary, but it’s real footage of actual war criminals trying to make a weird art movie glorifying their own atrocities.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s followup is a companion piece that’s less surreal, more intimate, but similarly profound. He continues on the same topic, but instead of focusing on the perpetrators he goes back to his original idea of following one of the survivors. To me that sounds like it would lose the unique hang-out-in-the-living-room-of-evil, give-them-enough-rope-to-hang-themselves power of the first movie, but it ends up being just as impressive because of the amazing person they focus on.

We don’t even know his name, but he was born a few years after his brother was murdered as a supposed communist in 1965. Both of his parents, who say they are over 100 years old (and his dad looks about 200) are still alive, and to them the emotional wounds still seem fresh.

mp_lookofsilenceThis man is in a unique spot between personal connection and distance. He seems driven to understand the people who did this to his family, or the people who let it happen. As an eye doctor for the elderly who makes house calls he casually brings up the topic and tries to get people who were there to talk about it. Eventually he tries to get up the balls to talk to the people who did it, or their loved ones. He sits and silently watches interview outtakes from THE ACT OF KILLING. Sometimes the killers talk about his brother by name. They laugh about what they did to him.

The most unbelievable thing about THE ACT OF KILLING was that these killers were so open about what they’d done, and would brag about it and celebrate it even though it seemed clear that on some level deep down they understood how sick and wrong it was. Here, happily, the most unbelievable thing is the inner strength of this man to go and confront these people, but to do it calmly and quietly. He gets them to talk and then instead of arguing with them he’ll just look at them silently, let their words sit there in the quiet and fizzle out on their own. It works every time. He doesn’t back down from saying what he needs to say, but he knows how to make the most powerful statements be the ones in between the words.

I know Indonesia is a Muslim country, otherwise I’d guess this guy was a Zen Buddhist. I don’t know how the fuck he does it. My heart would be beating out of my chest like a baby alien. How can a person be so intense and so gentle at the same time?

Each of his face-to-face talks are interesting in different ways. In one scene he surprises one of the perpetrators with the information about his brother being a victim, and the guy instantly becomes sad and apologetic. But after a few minutes of that his defenses kick in and you see him slide from a broken, remorseful man to a pathetic bully, making veiled (hopefully empty?) threats against the man and his family.

It’s a movie made up mostly of things you can’t believe you’re seeing, but there are two scenes in particular that struck me as important, especially in relation to each other. In the first one he talks to a perpetrator who had told him earlier that many of the killers went crazy from the trauma of what they were doing, but he himself didn’t because he drank their blood. You know, that old thing where you don’t go crazy if you kill someone and drink their blood (?).

But this time they talk about it in front of his daughter. She’s grown up hearing that her dad was a war hero. She must’ve had questions and suspicions, but it was easier to try to ignore them than to come to terms with them. At least before. Now he’s talking in front of her about drinking human blood. Telling a guy this. On camera. Her whole demeanor changes. She apologizes for her father, asks for forgiveness, tells the man that her family is his family now, hugs him. She seems completely sincere, and he seems to accept her as such. It’s an incredibly emotional moment that’s unlikely to happen, let alone be filmed.

In the second scene he talks to the family of a perpetrator who has passed away since being interviewed for THE ACT OF KILLING, but was so proud of his killings that he published an illustrated book about it. He even did a drawing of how he killed this man’s brother. But when his wife and sons figure out that’s what’s going on they suddenly don’t want to talk anymore. “We know nothing of this,” the sons keep saying angrily as he tries to tell them what happened. Meaning they would like to keep it that way. They might as well cover their ears and sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” real loud. They use the excuse that it’s upsetting their mom, and she’s gonna have a heart attack. Then she gets up and leaves, but when she returns to the room she says that she’s sorry for what her husband did.

The eye doctor’s mom worries about him, she thinks they’ll retaliate against him for making this film. (Like many people on the credits, he’s listed as “ANONYMOUS”.) But he keeps telling her that if the perpetrators showed some remorse then he could start to forgive them. I think this could apply to alot of transgressions around the world. That’s why I think those two scenes are so important. We can listen to people who have suffered, we can try to understand, we can even apologize. Or we can be defensive and deny what happened, refuse to listen, not want to know about it. Go ahead and guess which one moves us toward a better world.

Note: I don’t know how long it will be up, but right now Drafthouse Films has THE LOOK OF SILENCE available for free on Youtube.

Update: If you understand Indonesian. I missed that part in the news stories. But you can see here how good it looks. Go buy it with English subtitles now.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016 at 10:18 am and is filed under Documentary, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

14 Responses to “The Look of Silence”

  1. This was my favorite film of last year, although The Act of Killing’s surrealism is more my speed. Oppenheimer finds the most amazing characters. It really is something.

  2. Also, I think the free version on youtube doesn’t have English subtitles. Oppenheimer wants the film to be easily accessible to Indonesians. I had to drive an hour and a half to see it (in the same theater that I met you at the Seagal fest).

  3. This movie is one of the biggest disappointments I’ve ever seen – it’s very powerful, but completely generic. There are dozens and dozens of other (not quite as good) documentaries just like this one, where an aggrieved party wanders around trying to find someone to answer for an atrocity. Sure, it’s super depressing (i.e. “powerful”) and the person seeking redress is frequently remarkable, but there’s not a lot to the films. They’re usually righteous and noble as a substitute for being, you know, good. ACT OF KILLING seemed to announce a new filmmaker with an original voice, but SILENCE suggests he’s more like the CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS guy who stumbled into something interesting, got famous and then went right back to making the kind of generic films he had intended to make all along. This movie is not bad by any stretch, it’s just generic – it’s not special and KILLING was beyond special.

  4. Not as “weird” as Look of Silence, but maybe even more personal and incredible powerful. A masterpiece that’s gonna lose to a Behind the Music episode at the Oscars.

  5. That’s slightly uncharitable towards “Amy”, Jeremy09 – I thought that was a really good documentary. Of course it was nowhere near as powerful and impactful as “The Look of Silence”. This was one of the best films of last year and a worthy follow-up to “The Act of Killing”.

    On a minus note, as far as Indonesian movies are concerned, I find these less entertaining that the The Raid franchise and the martial arts aren’t as well choreographed.

  6. I got to see this film with a Q and A session with Oppenheimer and Errol Morris afterwards. It’s one of my favorite movie going experiences. According to Oppenheimer, he got the idea for the The Act of Killing while doing a documentary about field workers in Indonesia. They were working in terrible conditions, and he asked them about unionizing, and they told him that no one would dare discuss unions considering what happened decades ago. He had never heard about the genocide before then.

    Also, apparently the films have helped Indonesians to start talking about their past. If I remember correctly, the main figure from The Look of Silence was moved to a new location along with his family for his safety. But I guess he doesn’t have to worry about reprisals now.

  7. Chemical – What are some of these other movies that it’s exactly like? Maybe I haven’t seen enough documentaries, but I don’t know what you’re referring to. If the people they interview are as fascinating, if the discussions bring up as many ideas about humanity (and bonus if they’re as beautiful in their filmmaking) I should see them.

    About AMY – I didn’t really know how to review it, but I really liked that movie. Some of the appeal is just the way it showcases the talent of Winehouse and the way it rebuts the media image of her by showing how charming she was and how much the shitbag men in her life (father, husband, manager) encouraged her tragic end. But what I liked most is how much more it made me appreciate her lyrics by, in the first half, telling about all of these events in her life, and then in the second half showing her recording that second album so you realize that all of those songs are talking about the things we saw earlier.

    On the down side it really makes you want to bust out her album while you’re watching it and then at the end it seems too sad to listen to. “Rehab” already bummed me out when she was still alive and obviously troubled, but now that I know that her dad really did tell her she didn’t have to go…

  8. Vern – I haven’t actually seen it, so I can’t confirm that it’s “exactly like” this one, if it’s better, if it’s not as good, but there’s a documentary called ENEMY, MY FRIEND? that seems like it would qualify at least as “sort of similar” and at least “pretty interesting” if not fascinating. It’s about a former POW who travels to confront one of the Japanese soldiers who tortured him during WWII, 50 years after the facts. And they become friends (SPOILERS).

    My best guess is that Chemical was referring to documentaries about Holocaust survivors/Holocaust victims’ children confronting former Nazis/Nazis’ children. I think there’s a few of those.

  9. I know it’s not your field of expertis, but there’s so, so many of them – there’s the human rights watch film festival every year and just off the top of my head you get stuff like s21 Khmer rouge killing machine, the rape of nanking, and endless movies about Iraq or the holocaust. It’s not my argument that silence is bad (it’s probably the best version of this sort of thing – although, the emperor’s naked army marches on is stunning) but that it’s another entry in a genre. Act of killing wasn’t – it was more sui generis and suggested the exciting possibility of a filmmaker as original as Herzog or Errol Morris. Silence does not suggest that. It suggests he’s going to be a Laura poitras / Alex Gibney type who finds a bad thing that is happening and artfully points his camera at it.

  10. (Obviously, the antecedent for most of these kinds of docs is Roger and me, which was Michael Moore wandering around unsuccessfully trying to find someone to answer for the collapse of flint.)

  11. And I compare act of killing to capturing the Friedman’s because in both cases the filmmaker initially set out to make an entirely different film until outside forces insisted they make what they made. In oppenheimer’s case I think it’s very interesting that survivors told him repeatedly he should talk to the “gangsters” and not them – silence is a bit like “Ok. Now that I have the survivors ideas out if the way, let me make MY movie” and it’s far less unique of a film. Not worse, just much less unique.

  12. Speaking strictly for myself, I think that Oppenheimer’s lack of “uniqueness” in THE LOOK OF SILENCE was a deliberate stylistic strategy; Herzog-style philosophical pyrotechnics would have run the danger of obscuring his subject’s method of confrontation, which, while profound, is also a rather delicate and nuanced thing to behold. No doubt there are more artful ways to convey the material in this film, but I think Oppenheimer made the right choice to reject them. I can’t imagine that slow-motion footage shot from a helicopter or sanguine voiceover narration would have helped this film.

    I love Herzog’s documentaries, but on some level the subject matter of his films is always Werner Herzog. Given the subject matter of THE LOOK OF SILENCE, I don’t think Oppenheimer was wrong to steer clear of this choice: the stylistic “silence” of the film itself never drags attention away from the content.

  13. Vern, my man. For incredible documentaries about the way the world is, good intentions leading to bad, you should watch THE PRUITT-IGOE MYTH.

    Its the most powerful documentary I have ever seen – at least it has stayed with me the most.

  14. I hate to say it, but I was a little disappointed in this one. It’s not fair to compare it to ACT OF KILLING, but man, how can you help it? It’s manifestly a less ambitious artistic achievement, which, as Jareth points out, is probably appropriate for the subject material, but nonetheless kinda a letdown. But my bigger complaint is that I don’t think the approach that LOOK OF SILENCE documents is as revealing as the one in ACT OF KILLING. The movie is a series of meeting which all go basically the same: people are open about everything right off the bat, and then when he points out that his brother was killed, they get all uncomfortable and either claim up or get vaguely threatening. I mean, this guy has balls of brass to do what he does, but we don’t really learn anything about him, and we don’t really learn anything about the people he interviews, so… I dunno, what are we looking at here? As a symbolic act of confrontation, it has plenty of raw power… but not a lot of insight.

    If anything, it’s an interesting companion piece to ACT OF KILLING, in that it shows how not, to approach people who have done horrible things if you want to actually learn anything about them. Part of the brilliance of ACT OF KILLING is the way Oppenheimer’s approach is so disarming that the killers walk themselves right into his trap. The direct approach just gives them the chance to be defensive, and so they shut down and we learn nothing. I’d actually like to see it edited down to maybe 30 minutes and added as a subplot in ACT OF KILLING, so we can get a sense of what it’s like for people who actually do try to openly confront the killers. It’s really frustrating and painful, but I don’t know if it’s enough to hang an entire movie on. It’s well worth seeing, but IMHO deserves to be a remarkable special feature on the ACT OF KILLING DVD more than a full companion piece.

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