Sound and sight are two primary senses that allow humans to discover the world. Because they are two distinct perceptions that function in different parts of the brain, it’s not commonly believed that a sound can be seen or a sight can be heard. However, in Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, “The Look of Silence,” you can see silence in the way that an old grandmother whose children had been murdered over 50 years ago tenderly bathes her blind, deaf husband and in the way that a man watches vivid re-runs of ex-militants describing how they murdered his own brother, silently, every day. Some Indonesian children lay on the dusty floor together and imagine dead cicadas emerging from the shells they will never escape from.
These are only broken fragments of the lives of Indonesian civilians whose family and friends were slaughtered by people who are now their neighbors and people who still run the government today. “The Look of Silence” is a close-up view of the family of Adi Rukun, whose brother, Ramli, was ruthlessly killed in 1965 as part of the Indonesian killings of 1965-66 and has haunted their memories every day since his death.
Throughout the movie, Adi bravely works as an optometrist, oftentimes treating patients who were soldiers for the Komando Aksi, a death squad of the 1965 Indonesian military. After adjusting the lenses and asking the patients if they can see better, he looks them in the eyes and asks them questions about their involvement with Komando Aksi. Each person that he interviews enthusiastically and passionately describes the slaughters like precious memories they told themselves they would never forget. One man named Inong, the leader of a village death squad, claimed that, “Some (soldiers) went crazy, and the only way to cure it was to drink human blood!” Shortly after this statement, Adi resumed with his questions, which Inong abruptly interrupted and exclaimed, “Human blood — both sweet and salty!”
The sad reality behind the homicides is that at no point do any of the murderers or their family members show any signs of remorse or regret, with the exception of one woman whose father, a former soldier of the Komando Aksi, had gone senile and was impaired. After the end of each optic check-up, Rukun informs his brother’s murderers that he will give them a new prescription that will help them see better. Unfortunately, he can never change the way they look at their past and make them see the look of silence that surrounds them.
Oppenheimer captures the reality of the Indonesian civilians sensitively and purely with an exceptional heed to details. Throughout the film, there is an absolute blankness in background noise, a similar action to that of an earphone that suctions out any noise beyond the plastic buds. The only sounds are the words of the people, giving the movie a surreal, dream–like quality, as if everything in the movie is occurring within the head of a victim who cannot escape the past. There were many scenes that fixated on one place for an extended period of time, such as Adi’s face as he watches videos of men describing Ramli’s murder. The stillness of his face as the movements play in the deepness of his eyes gives the viewer a sense of hopelessness, as though the only thing he can do is sit and watch the same scenes over and over again, never being able to change what happened.
There were also many moments that were overwhelmingly laden with disgust and horror that made the viewer even more engrossed with the injustice of Indonesia’s reality. These moments were created with immensely contrasting scenes, usually a horrendously passionate, violent scene followed by a desolate, silent one. A particularly impactful moment that demonstrated this technique was when the two soldiers who “finished off” Ramli before tossing him into the Snake River enthusiastically, joyously re-enacted the killing, with one man pretending to be Ramli and the other acting as himself. The man acting as Ramli gripped a tree and cried “Help me!” as though he were in a play, while the other stabbed him multiple times, rapidly, while explaining what he was doing and how Ramli’s demolished body was changing.
Immediately after this scene, viewers adjusted their ears to complete silence as Adi and his friend silently walk through the same forest pathway that the two men from the previous scene had been in. They watched the Snake River consistently flow at the same speed it had moved in when it was polluted with blood and human organs.
In order to maintain the realness of the characters, Oppenheimer masterfully incorporated scenes with Adi’s daughter that added a humane touch to the movie. Audience members laughed in adoration as his kindergarten-aged daughter read a story she wrote about “her fart” and joked that she hadn’t brushed her teeth in “a thousand years” after counting only four fingers. It was refreshing for the viewers to see this tender moment between Adi and his daughter in the midst of dismay and made them feel even more solicitude towards the characters.
Perhaps the most symbolic moment of the movie was at the end when Adi’s hearing-impaired father was crawling around the concrete floors, wailing for help. “I’m lost, I’m in a stranger’s house, I don’t know where I am!” As we watch a deaf man who hears nothing but the re-runs of sounds from decades ago frantically squirming within the confines of a small room, we can’t help but realize that this is what Adi and his neighbors have heard in their minds every day since the world from 1965 and beyond became silent.
When the movie came to a close and the credits began to roll (many of which were acknowledged as “Anonymous,” most likely for the safety of those involved with the film), none of the audience members spoke or even moved. Everything was quiet. It was one of the incredibly rare moments in movie－viewing history in which the audience remained seated until the very last second of the credits had been completed. It was difficult to process in everyone’s minds that everything that had just been shown to them in an hour and 43 minutes was an entire lifetime of agony and painful memories. Those last few minutes of stillness and reflection was when the viewer got to experience one grain of the world of silence that some people have to live with for the rest of their lives.