Listen to this article
In powerful cinema there is a thin line between affecting and infecting. The Look of Silence is a dangerous film to watch. It could crawl under your skin. It could crawl into your soul, you almost feel, and lay eggs. Joshua Oppenheimer’s shocking new documentary about Indonesian genocide — the last was the praised and prizewinning The Act of Killing — reintroduces us to a group of southeast Asians who make us despair of reason, mercy and humanity. The surviving slayers and torturers of the country’s junta-led 1960s anticommunist purges.
“If we didn’t drink human blood we’d go crazy,” recalls one old spokesman for slaughter. Another: “We’d dig a hole and bury them alive.” A third: “We deserve a trip to America. We did this because America taught us to hate communists.” Oppenheimer’s camera crew keeps going back to Snake River, escorted by the willing dogs — human dogs — who want not just to revisit their vomit but to show it off. Here (they boast) victims were sliced or diced, sometimes disembowelled, sometimes castrated, before being chucked in the water. Comments an elderly fish vendor in a following scene: “After it was all over, no one would buy fish.”
The Look of Silence may be even better — for the squeamish even worse — than The Act of Killing. The director’s method this time is inspired. He uses a single, simple stalking horse: a young-looking itinerant ophthalmologist, brother of one of the genocide victims, who visits people’s houses to help them see better. (That irony, intended or not, is quietly lethal.) He coaxes on-camera confessions, often couched as boasts, from men whose evil you can almost smell. Even the ophthalmologist’s uncle is visited and confronted: “You were part of the killings.” The uncle, at sea in a swell of perceived betrayal, gathers such tattered indignation as he can and orders the nephew from the house.
“It’s covered up, why open it again?” is one ex-murderer’s querulous query. Unstated answer: you have to reopen wounds that are still infected. The film is so cumulatively coruscating, so unblinking that you almost hope, at times, it is all made up; that Oppenheimer and Co really are, as some of the accused counter-accuse, dirt-seeking scoundrels staging scenes of gratuitous defamation. Then you note the cornered looks and know better. This generation did step into blood. They did find it purging, cleansing, invigorating. They even found it pleasant to taste (“both salty and sweet”).
The triumph of Oppenheimer’s approach is that there is no authorial outrage. There is no need. The criminals just hang themselves, one after the other. Yet, as a chastening postscript makes clear, the crime, in a quiet way of near-imperceptible propaganda, is still going on. Visiting a schoolroom we eavesdrop on a teacher expounding the meaning of “democracy” as if it is a synonym for anticommunism. Genocidal hatred; ideological cleansing; in Indonesia they were, and in some places clearly still are, not so much a pogrom, more a way of life.