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Berlinale Blog: The Look of Silence – another opinion

The Look of Silence is a very different kind of film to its Oscar-nominated predecessor The Act of Killing – it is much less brain-frying, but in some ways more honest.

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The Look of Silence was always meant to be a very different kind of film to The Act of Killing. Filmed after its predecessor, but before its release, The Look of Silence is about the victims of the Indonesian massacres of 1965, rather than the perpetrators. Maybe inevitably, it is much less bizarre, much less bewildering, much less unnerving. There are no fat death squad leaders in drag, no B-movie make-up effects, no cheap gangster movie sets, no giant fish with multicoloured girls dancing out of their mouths, and no elaborate, sanity-testing re-enactments of executions. America’s complicity in the atrocities is much more straightforwardly shown with a shockingly mendacious 1960s NBC news clip, rather than with references to the indirect influence Scarface and Goodfellas and Elvis Presley had on the killers. Perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t throw up confusing questions about what the people who were in the film thought they had agreed to make.

From the start, The Look of Silence is controlled by its main protagonist, determined to confront the men who butchered his older brother. In the post-screening Q+A, producer Signe Byrge Sørensen confirmed that it was Adi’s idea to conduct the interviews with his brother’s killers, something he does with amazing calm, sensitivity, and bravery. (“You ask much deeper questions than Joshua ever asked,” one executioner tells him in a tetchy encounter.) Another key difference is that the interviewees are visibly aware that the man asking these “deep” questions is potentially within their power – unlike director Joshua Oppenheimer, who conducted all the interviews in The Act of Killing. In another tense scene, a paramilitary commander accuses Adi of “communist activities,” and wants to know what district he is from. 

Just how much physical courage it took Adi to make the film is hinted at in a brief scene with his wife, but also became clearer in the Q+A – he and his family were all relocated inside Indonesia before the film’s release, and contingency plans were made to get them out of the country.

That doesn’t seem to have been necessary – whatever you think of The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, they have apparently had a real impact in Indonesia in the two years since the first film came out. Unlike The Act of Killing, which first had to be screened in secret by human rights groups, some 1200 public screenings of The Look of Silence have been organized in the country, including a premiere in Jakarta where Adi himself appeared on stage. Only 26 of these, Sørensen said, had to be cancelled because of threats from security forces. Given the atmosphere of state terror in Indonesia, so chillingly depicted in both films, that’s a real victory.

Check out John Riceburg’s take.