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Film Review

The Look of Silence

In 1965, a military coup in Indonesia overthrew the Sukarno regime. Sukarno had kept Indonesia in the nonaligned nations group, with good relations with Soviet Russia and China. All this deeply discomforted the American government because we were engaged in an increasingly bloody war in Vietnam, determined to defeat the Communist menace (as we saw it) to South Vietnam. The new military government said that the PKI, the Indonesian Communist Party, was responsible for the killings of six generals, and began rounding up Communists and others opposed to military rule. At the same time, the military spread propaganda about how dangerous the Communists were, and began to have many of the prisoners murdered by paramilitary groups. The murders became widespread, and the best estimates are that at least 500,000, and likely a million people were killed, mostly with clubs and machetes. The Indonesian genocide was completed in less than a year, which testified to the huge number of paramilitary and civilian groups involved. Killings on this scale since WW II had only been seen in China under Mao and Russia under Stalin. There were some Chinese Indonesians murdered, but the great majority of those killed were ethnic Indonesians. A few months after the killings began, the military also enlisted devout Muslims in their campaign against the Communists, claiming that the Communists wanted to force all Indonesians to abandon their religions. None of this seems to have been true, but their propaganda set in motion the genocide. The military, under Suharto, continued to rule for the next 30 years. In 1998 Suharto stepped down, and Indonesia began a difficult transition to a democracy. The accounts of the killings in 1965 and 1966 continued to be suppressed and attempts to investigate them were strongly discouraged by the government. Consequently this dark period of Indonesian history remains largely unknown and unacknowledged by most Indonesians, especially the younger generations. These mass murders were no secret in the West. It was widely reported by newspapers including the NY Times.

About 10 years ago, a young Texas born (1974) Harvard educated filmmaker, Joshua Oppenheimer, went to Indonesia to assist workers at a rubber plantation in their attempts to unionize. The union drive was not successful because of intimidation, but Oppenheimer did meet and become friends with many Indonesians, and first heard of the genocide. He began filming interviews with Indonesians, both the killers and surviving family members of victims. Often the killers, heads of paramilitary groups, would brag about the killings and describe in gruesome detail how they killed. They even staged a bizarre theatrical production glorifying the killings, the equivalent of a musical about Auschwitz. The military had suppressed attempts to examine the era and the post Suharto government was opposed as well. Oppenheimer finished his first film about the genocide, The Act of Killing (2012), but realized that there was more to be explored. He began filming for a second project, before The Act of Killing was screened, knowing that he would never be able to film again in Indonesia once The Act of Killing had been released. The Act of Killing was highly praised, received many important awards and was a finalist for best documentary at the 2014 Oscars. In 2014 Oppenheimer himself received a MacArthur "Genius" award.

During his initial filming, Oppenheimer met an optometrist, Adi, whose older brother had been killed in the genocide. Oppenheimer discovered that Adi, while going from village to village prescribing glasses, had been asking older people what they remembered from that era. At first, many claimed not to have remembered anything, but soon they began talking of witnessing and even participating in killings. For his second round of shooting, Oppenheimer began to accompany Adi, filming the encounters between Adi and the killers, most of whom were proud of what they had done. Many of these killers were still important figures in their villages or districts, and the families whose loved ones they had murdered still feared them. They lived side by side, with no one speaking of the past. Oppenheimer's second film, The Look of Silence, continues the theme of his first film, listening to the killers talk of what and why they did terrible things, without remorse or reflection. But Oppenheimer explores the trauma of victims still living with the killers in the same village, with anxieties that cannot be expressed except within the family, and only rarely then. The accounts of the killers, now old men, are wrenching, but we see Adi listening carefully, without visible signs of upset. He tells them that his older brother was killed, and even asks them, in a respectful manner, why they did these things and whether they have any remorse. Surprisingly, given the numbers murdered, the killers remembered his brother, and describe his agonizing death. Again, with no remorse. This is dangerous stuff, and Adi is very courageous in a quiet and determined way. The film opens with a night time shot of a line of trucks on a dirt road through a village, coming toward the camera, with their headlights illuminating the dust clouds. The significance of this opening scene does not become apparent until mid way through the film.

Adi's parents are an important part of The Look of Silence, as his very elderly mother cares for his even older, shriveled father. His brother's death still haunts his mother, who tells Adi to be very careful. She is right. We see several of the killers threaten Adi and Oppenheimer in not very veiled statements. Oppenheimer actually never appears in front of the camera. Confirming that the threats were real, the credits for most production workers in the film, who would normally be named, are listed as "Anonymous." The risk to the Indonesian film workers was considered so great that Danish workers were used for the local filming.

The cinematography is very accomplished. Beautiful shots contrast with the horrible accounts and reenactments, as if nature is trying her best to repair what cannot be repaired, and trying to hide the darkness. Although there is no onscreen violence, the accounts of the killings are horrifying. There isn't even a shred of remorse to leaven the horror. You can well believe one killer's threats that this could happen again if people "stir up trouble." Presumably meaning the attempts to look back. Many characters, both the killers and the victims' families say the very same thing: "The past is past." The killers know no one will challenge them, and the families live with a constant background of fear. All of this is carefully observed.

Two famous documentary film makers are listed as producers, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris. Both men's influences can be seen in Oppenheimer's film, but no narration. There is no soundtrack other than the sounds of birds in the daytime and crickets at night. The Look of Silence is very powerful, moving, and an important film, not just for its documentation of terrible things. Each film stands alone but Oppenheimer considers them a "diptych." Both films are appropriately depressing but brilliant and riveting works that may succeed in helping to heal now concealed wounds on a national scale. I loved them both and highly recommend. The Look of Silence just opened at Opera Plaza, the Shattuck (Berkeley), and the Camera 3 (San Jose). Running time: 99 minutes.

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