Cloudy Vision, by David Bax
A man named Adi, with a face that looks younger than his 44 years but is a serious one nonetheless, visits elderly people in the vicinity of his Indonesian village to perform home vision tests. He sits them down and adorns their faces with odd eyeglasses featuring thick red circles and dials to help gauge prescription. They look like something Jean-Pierre Jeunet might have dreamed up. Very subtly, Adi has put himself in control, captivating his subjects. While he drops various lenses in and out of the contraption, repeating the familiar questions about which one is clearer, he also asks them about the genocide that took place in the country 50 years ago. These older men were among the perpetrators and Adi’s older brother Ramli, whom he never met, was one of their victims. He’s helping them to see in more ways than one.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence is a companion piece to his earth-shaking 2012 film, The Act of Killing, which depicted the legacy of the Indonesian genocide from the fascinating and (sometimes literally) sickening point of view of those who carried it out and who remain in power, national heroes to this day. By limiting his scope in this second film to one village and its environs, Oppenheimer is able to include a different group of state-sponsored murderers. And by placing Adi, from a family of survivors, in the driver’s seat, he can approach the legacy of the killings in a new way.
The Act of Killing unsettled by relying on its audience’s cognitive dissonance. Men gleefully boasted in great detail about how they killed thousands and then cast themselves as cinematic heroes in recreations of those events. It often played like psychological horror. The Look of Silence differs immediately. Taking cues from its own title, this a quieter, more meditative film. The palette is the bluish sky of early morning or late evening. The overall feeling is one of melancholy. And yet, despite its measured pacing and (mostly) soft volume, it’s as tense as a movie can be. When the credits roll, it becomes possible to take a deep breath for the first time in over 100 minutes.
Much of that tension comes from the unspoken threat of violent retribution that hangs over each of Adi’s confrontations. When he starts asking about the killings, each of the men initially adopts a smiling assumption of pride, like a celebrity being approached in a restaurant by an adoring fan. When he tells them who he is, though, and who is brother was, they change. Some of them are flustered, searching for justifications. Or they shift blame, like the man who says, “We did this because America taught us to hate communists.” At least one of them, though, is incensed by Adi’s gall. Detecting this anger, Adi asks the man how this conversation would have gone 50 years ago. The man levels his gaze at Adi and says, “You can’t imagine what would have happened.”
In many of these cases, though, the reaction, though not so chilling as that, is more confounding. These men behave as if they are the ones who should be offended, that Adi is in the wrong for bringing these things up. “That’s politics,” more than one of them sighs dismissively. They just want to get their eyes checked. How dare they be so rudely inconvenienced with talk of politics? This is what liberals here in the West call privilege. Being the victors – being the rulers – they can easily adopt the exasperated position of someone who would like the country to just move on from its shameful past, if only these troublemakers would stop bringing it up. But this film takes the point of view of one such troublemaker. If The Act of Killing was about the identity of a nation who perpetrated a genocide, The Look of Silence is about the other identity, the one that genocide was designed to erase.
So much of the discomfort of Oppenheimer’s previous film comes from the times when its subjects are talking and bragging. In The Look of Silence, the most unsettling and effective moments are the ones described by the film’s very title. There’s the silent look of Adi, trying to reconcile what he knows of humanity with the monsters he’s confronting. There’s the silence of the killers, as we can see their minds working to process how they can justify themselves to this man or if they even have to. And, of course, there’s we the audience, looking on wordlessly, both because it’s impolite to talk in a movie theater and because there are no words to describe the torn existence of a man like Adi or the damned legacy of the men for whom he makes eyeglasses.