The Look of Silence: A Review

The Look of Silence, by Joshua Oppenheimer, is a powerful new film about history, memory, conflict, and the Indonesian killings of 1965-66. As part of Cornell Modern Indonesia Project’s recent film series Observing the Silence: Remembering 1965, I had the opportunity to see The Look of Silence for the first time yesterday. It is a remarkable film, and if you are reading this right now, you should see it.

The film centers on Adi, whose older brother was one of those murdered during 1965. The exact perpetrators are not known, but we see extensive footage of individuals describing the process through which Adi’s brother was killed. At least some of these people live near Adi; he claims to know them, but they claim not to know him. (The one exception is his uncle, who was a guard at the jail where Adi’s brother was detained.) In an interview with Adi’s mother, who is still alive, we hear her describe the pain of knowing that the people who lived nearby had killed her son.

The main “action” in the film, though, is Adi’s interviews with the perpetrators. These are just amazing. Most of the interviews follow a similar structure. Adi speaks with individuals about the killings, and they proudly—sometimes boastfully—describe their roles. Then Adi informs them that his brother was among those killed. At this point nearly all of the interviewees begin to distance themselves, blaming the killings on “the people” or the Army, and saying that they played no direct role in the violence. But Adi presses on, and pushes them to acknowledge what they know to have happened. Some of those involved at this point begin to get angry, and to threaten Adi indirectly by raising the possibility of “this happening again,” and in one case obliquely suggesting that Adi is a “hidden communist” himself.

On several occasions, interviewees describe the process of revisiting the events of 1965 as opening an old wound. On other occasions, interviewees describe drinking their victims’ blood in order to avoid going crazy. These moments are powerful.

But for me, even more powerful are the moments when younger generations are confronted with their parents’ actions. One woman insists—I believe genuinely—that she had no idea of the scale of her father’s crimes, hugs Adi as he leaves while her father looks on, and claims that they are now family. In another case, an elderly woman swears up and down that she had no idea of her husband’s crimes, even when presented with a book that her late husband penned about the people he murdered (she claims never to have read it) and even when shown a video of herself with her husband as he describes the crimes while holding the book.

As great as The Look of Silence is, it would not have received such attention had it not been for The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer’s previous film. I have complex thoughts about The Act of Killing (see here and here). My thoughts about The Look of Silence are rather less complex. This is for several reasons. First, the translations are much better—although many of the older characters speak only in Javanese, which I do not understand, so I could be wrong. Second, I do not think that this film is as hard for non-experts and non-Indonesians to fathom.

But I would emphasize that a film like this—with just a very cursory historical presentation, focusing narrowly on the stories of one family—should raise as many questions as it answers. I hope it encourages viewers to learn more rather than to accept what they see as self-evidently all they need to know.

So in the spirit of providing more, here are two things that occurred to me as I watched this film.


One is the role of silence. Oppenheimer uses silence very effectively throughout the film. We repeated see long close-ups of faces of Adi and his interlocutors during their conversations, with no one saying anything. As we look into their eyes, this is “the look” of “silence.” As a viewer, this weighs on you.

And yet, this seems incomplete to me without knowing something about Indonesian conversational practice. It is striking, for Westerners, the extent to which many Javanese and many other Indonesian ethnic groups will welcome long stretches of silence in the midst of a conversation. For those raised in Western environments, these silences are uncomfortable. Our urge is to fill that conversational pause with something, anything. The fact is, long silences are just not that uncomfortable for most Indonesians. Understood in context, my guess is that these conversational pauses are not as meaningful as they appear to the viewer.


Another, perhaps more meaningful, thing to note is the role of anonymity in justifying what happened in 1965. English speakers might be interested to know that one of the only words that English has borrowed from Indonesian/Malay is the word amok. It means the same thing in Indonesian. It describes a condition in which a faceless mass is beyond control, disruptive, unpredictable, violent. It is something that Indonesians fear [amuk massa = the masses run amok], and regimes warn against.

And yet unless I missed it, amuk is pointedly not the word that any of the perpetrators use to describe the killings and the social and political condition at the time. They always describe a movement [= gerakan] of the people [= rakyat], or something controlled or directed by the Army, or by the United States itself. They took part in mass behavior that was organized, perhaps instinctual and spontaneous and surely violence, but in no way disorderly.

All of this reflects how the perpetrators run a fine line between order and disorder. The crimes are unspeakably horrible, and many people cannot accept their own participation, yet they are remembered as part of an orderly response to an actual threat.

Now, imagine a perpetrator remembering these events otherwise. Imagine someone saying “Adi, it wasn’t my fault. Society had broken down. I killed because I fear being killed myself, and we were out of control. We had run amok, and some of those in power stood aside as we did this, and the rest helped.” Is that kind of memory or post-hoc justification for killing “better?” I can’t see how it is.

But how different this memory would be! And how much easier it would be to build a process of national reconciliation on such a foundation.

Posted in Current Affairs, Indonesia, Politics
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