I find it difficult to give a grade to some of the films I see. I find this idea to be especially true to some of the documentaries I watch. It’s significantly harder to grade many of these films because there sole purpose is to be a raw and unedited look at real life. It’s not true of some of the more stylish and visually ambitious documentaries like the ones of Alex Gibney or Morgan Spurlock, but sometimes you watch these films where you can’t really grade them because to grade them would be to grade real life.
This is definitely the reason why I cannot give a rating to The Look of Silence. In some aspects, this is an absolutely awful film that I never want to sit through again, but it’s not the fault of the director but rather the people Oppenheimer is recording. There is nothing wrong with the way the story is told and Joshua Oppenheimer does an excellent job editing this together. The problem is that what is going on on screen is so hellish and awful to watch that it sucked the life out of me by the time it reached the mostly anonymous credits. The Look of Silence isn’t a film so much as a well-crafted collection of the absolute worst things about humanity. In other words, don’t enter expecting to be entertained or even inspired by the end.
For those who don’t know, The Look of Silence is director Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow up to his previous, award winning documentary The Act of Killing. Both movies focus on the mass murders from 1965 to 1966 of the communists of Indonesia. The people who performed these killings got away with their crimes and today they live wealthy lives and many of them have large power within the government. If you’re like me, you’re interested in seeing The Look of Silence due to how incredible The Act of Killing turned out to be. The Act of Killing is perhaps one of the most ambitious and powerful documentaries I’ve seen and the way that film looks at the madness and the mentality of this deeply, messed up, grotesque human being is beyond fascinating. But if you’re looking for a repeat of the style The Act of Killing took, I think you’ll be mostly disappointed. The Look of Silence’s take on this topic is in some ways more accessible and in some ways less accessible than that of The Act of Killing.
In The Act of Killing, the movie focused mostly on the perspective of the culprit. The movie is so great because to a point it stops becoming a story of the killings of Indonesia but rather some insight into how the mind of a madman functions. By the end, you don’t have sympathy so much as this heavy portrayal of how haunted and damaged this person is by what they did, even if they don’t openly reveal it on camera.
The Look of Silence is way more focused on the victim, or rather the son and brother of victims. We aren’t given the real identity of the main character we follow because he could get arrested by the government if he did that, so I will call him Anonymous for the rest of the review. Anonymous spends the film interviewing and discussing the past with many of the men responsible for the brutal, unspeakable murder of his brother. The Act of Killing was a loose take on this moment in history centered around this complex figure. The Look of Silence is far more interested in being a full on description of this brutal period. More time is spent here soaking the audience in the sheer, unstoppable ugliness this moment brought forth. I don’t mean this in a bad way but The Look of Silence is a far more straight forward take on events. I think because of this, this film ends up being far harder to watch than The Act of Killing.
There are some moments here involving these people that Anonymous interviews that are more despicable and sickening that anything that fiction could create. As I said before, this movie mostly shows you the perspective of a victim so I think it’s far more horrific and infuriating to watch these scenes in The Look of Silence where the guilty take joy in there ugly crimes than it is to watch these very same, still shocking scenes in The Act of Killing.
For example, you get to follow the elderly parents of Anonymous and you see them often grieving for the loss of their first son. Later you find out that one of the murderers of Anonymous’s brother wrote a book about what he did and you even get to see a drawing that this guy did of how he murdered him. He joyfully tells Oppenheimer how Anonymous’s brother struggled to stay alive so they finished him off by cutting off his genitals and throwing him into the river. They nostalgically mock the pleas for mercy from the people they were about to kill.
You see him taking a photo with his friend at the spot where he killed countless innocent people. All of these things were present in The Act of Killing but The Look Silence is a film that succeeds at making those scenes that much more disgusting and brutal to watch. I dare you to watch the scene where an old murderer tells Anonymous not to even imagine how he would’ve been treated by him in the 60’s and not feel like taking this guy and beating him unconscious. I haven’t even gotten to the part where a man talks about how he cut off the breast of a woman and fondly recalls how they could drink the blood of their victims for strength. When this movie isn’t being absolutely heartbreaking, it’s creating this violent, deep anger for the people you are witnessing.
When I first heard a short synopsis for the movie, I think I expected something far more hopeful and inspiring. I thought this would be a movie of redemption and forgiveness. Ultimately, this is a movie that’s far more hopeless and unpleasant than even something as terrifying as The Act of Killing. The ultimate guilt and sorrow revealed in Anwar Congo now seems to have been a rare exception. The killers either embrace what they did or simply want to forget what is was that they did. They tell Anonymous to let the past be the past. If Anonymous did try to forgive them, they would probably not know the reason why they were even being forgiven in the first place.
The worst part about this movie is that there isn’t a lot that people can do about it. These people live happy lives and at this point, it’s highly unlikely any of them will face any jail time. Too many of the owners and politicians of The Act of Killing are connected to this evil for anything to come of this. Most of them will lead rich and fulfilling lives while the poor, poverty stricken victims remain at the bottom of this society. Even if you did arrest them, it wouldn’t help and it wouldn’t stop the influence they already have on the country. You can hope that the next generation will be able to do what the previous generation didn’t do but even that feels unlikely. A teacher near the start of the film tells a large class of young students of the brave government going up against the evil, violent communists. You can hope for more of the people like the daughter of Anonymous or the deeply apologetic daughter of one of the culprits, but for every one of them it feels like there will be two who passionately accept what’s been told to them or even worse, simply forget about that time in their countries history.
The Act of Killing is a more watchable, thought provoking look on evil, the way that movie looks at the time period aims for a mood and an idea that is far more subtle. Using the same time and place, The Look of Silence has a stance on evil that is far more visceral and blatant. This is an ugly, exhausting film that I can’t even say feels rewarding to watch. There isn’t some big, hopeful moment at the end of the misery like in 12 Years a Slave. This is quite simply a stream of hate and ignorance that doesn’t seem to be complete by the ending. I put The Act of Killing in my top ten for 2013 and I don’t think I can do the same for The Look of Silence. This movie is maybe a 5 star in terms of quality and depth but it’s a 0 in terms of the entertainment. Prepare to leave The Look of Silence feeling exhausted and deeply depressed.
Release Date: 11/13/2014
Directed by: Joshua Oppenheimer