This documentary is the companion piece to an earlier film, An Act of Killing (see below) by the same director. Nominated for an Oscar and dozens of film festival and critics’ associations awards, it deals with the 1960s genocide in Indonesia. When the government is overthrown by a military dictatorship, any citizen who opposed or criticised it, or was deemed likely to oppose it, was labeled a Communist, arrested and brutally executed. About a million Indonesians were killed in this way. Members of the regime responsible remain part of the existing government.
The film follows Adi Rukun, whose brother Ramli was one of those murdered during this period, as he confronts the various people known to be responsible, many of them his neighbours and local government officials. He approaches these men, and their families, calmly and with a courtesy that seems incongruous in view of the atrocities he is discussing; but part of the ghastliness of life in post-genocide Indonesia is the fact that the families of the victims must live with their killers as part of their community. In such a situation, a code of silence is a natural survival mechanism. Adi is told repeatedly that such things are in the past and not to be discussed – sometimes as a matter of fact, sometimes with an implicit threat.
Adi approaches each interview subject with the same simple questions, asking if each person remembers the genocide, witnessed any of it, or was personally involved in it. The initial response is usually a claim of total ignorance, although this is so clearly understood to be a polite fiction, that this denial is often followed by descriptions of the killings, sometimes only minutes later. It is clear that many are still fearful of reprisals, and perhaps not without reason. Adi’s interview with a government official demonstrates that the mind set which led to mass murders is still not far beneath the surface. The official speaks with him politely, even jovially, explaining past actions as a sad necessity of politics. However, when the questions go on too long, the official warns that the killings could conceivably return, if people insist upon dwelling on the past.
The subjects of Adi’s interviews include harmless people who were relatives of either victims or the soldiers who killed them, and who are able to fill in missing details about the era. One is his own elderly mother, who is finally coaxed into describing her son’s death. Others are former soldiers who were actively involved in the genocide. Some are quite astonishingly willing, even eager, to describe their actions on camera. Two soldiers agree to return to the site of one mass slaughter of suspected anti-government people, and demonstrate the exact methods used to kill hundreds of men as efficiently as possible. They become quite animated as they act out the gruesome murders and the casual disposal of countless bodies in the nearby river. Their nostalgia for the military camaraderie of the time is as genuine as it is chilling. Similar interviews involve former soldiers cheerfully describing the killing and maiming of prisoners, laughing as they offer graphic details. There is a suggestion that their demeanor is meant to hide their true feelings about their actions; sometimes the truth eventually comes out, and at other times they maintain their facade of a cold-blooded nature.
Almost none of the men responsible for the genocide accept responsibility. Many try to rationalise their involvement, like the prison guard who delivered hundreds to their death, but insists he bears no guilt because he merely guarded the condemned men, but did not actually execute them. Another uses the familiar explanation that he was following official orders, in the belief that he was working for the betterment of the nation.
Adi’s quiet, impassive manner in response to excuses, descriptions of unbelievable horror and violence, threats and obvious lies, at first seems oddly bland and inappropriate; but over the course of the two hour film it begins to look like a silent accusation. It is only in scenes of private moments, when Adi is seen with his family, or caring for his elderly parents, that he shows any emotion. He deals with witnesses and perpetrators of the genocide as stoically as the camera itself, letting the testimony speak for itself.
The one genuine personal breakthrough takes place when Adi’s mother, her memories of her deceased son brought to the surface by Adi’s questioning, impulsively breaks silence and describes Ramli’s death to an official who had been involved, weeping in grief at the memory, while the man responsible briefly sets aside his wall of denial to comfort her. It is a small gesture set against a depressingly implacable system of official disavowal.
The style of the film is slow paced and thoughtful, Adi taking the role of observer rather than commentator. The pacing and the slow and reluctant release of information can make it difficult to watch at times. There is little real action or actual footage of violence; only the statements of witnesses, which are pieced together like a puzzle, one person’s denial contradicted by another’s testimony, until a clear picture of actual events gradually emerges. Not only the gruesome facts of the genocide are brought out, but the depressing realities of life in the aftermath of the event.
For further viewing: More films on genocide
The Act of Killing (2012) Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
This is the counterpart to The Look of Silence. In this strange, audacious documentary, the men responsible for the Indonesian genocide are given a chance to re-enact their crimes on camera, using whatever cinematic style they prefer: Western, Hollywood musical, etc. As brash and crazy as The Look of Silence is quiet and contemplative.
Ararat (2002) Director: Atom Egoyan
A drama centered on a man trying to produce a documentary about the Armenian genocide, and to overcome the officials determined to deny it out of existence.
The Canary Effect (2006) Directors: Robin Davey, Yellow Thunder Woman
One of the most extensive, prolonged, government-sponsored genocides in history, that of the Native Americans, is seldom dealt with on film, particularly not in well-sponsored feature films. This one hour documentary is one of the better independent efforts to address the history of a people who were systematically slaughtered, and the struggles of their remaining descendants.
Labyrinth of Lies (2014) Director: Giulio Ricciarelli
An historical drama about a German lawyer who manages to uncover the truth about German involvement in Nazi death camps, in spite of an unyielding culture of denial and a systematic post-war government cover-up.