Monday 15 June 2015

The Look of Silence – a world-changing piece of cinema

Yesterday evening, I went to the Watershed cinema in Bristol to watch The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer's follow-up to The Act of Killing (2012). The screening was followed by a live satellite stream of a Q&A with Oppenheimer and Silence's protagonist, the incomparable Adi. It was hosted by fellow documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux. (I presume that the Q&A will be put online at some point but has not yet been, as far as I'm aware.)

The films concern the massacre of as many as one million 'Communists' that occurred in Indonesia in 1965-66. However, they are not, as the director is keen to make clear, historical documentaries as such. They concern Indonesia's relationship – or, in a way, non-relationship – with these events in the present.

The most crucial aspect of the history is that the killers won. They crushed their opponents ('realised their political ideals,' as one interviewed politician puts it), were richly rewarded and remain in positions of power to this day. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian calls it "a gerontocracy of tyranny."

The first film centred on a group of killers and particularly on Anwar Congo, a gangster who claimed to have killed as many as one thousand during the massacres. Extraordinarily, because of their positions of success and safety, the killers were happy to talk freely, openly boasting about their perceived accomplishments, gleefully recounting how went about it, and even being persuaded to elaborately re-enact their crimes in what has to be the most mesmerisingly surreal and horrific am-dram ever committed to film.

The Act of Killing explores how these men live with what they did in this almost unique situation of total impunity and suggests the dark, necrotic guilt wretching and writhing beneath their bombast and bravado.

The Look of Silence is not nearly as overtly horrifying, although it is just as moving in its own way. It follows Adi, an ophthalmologist whose elder brother Ramli was slain in an especially brutal fashion – so brutally that his name has become a quietly whispered watchword of resistance in that region.

Adi is filmed watching footage of the men who butchered his brother re-enacting their deeds with a casual and almost carefree air of nostalgia. Building on the reputation of Oppenheimer's first film, Adi also meets, interviews and provides free eye tests to the commanders and politicians who presided over the events in his region, some of whom remain extremely powerful and one of whom openly threatens Adi when his questions push too hard.

We also meet Adi's family; his young children and his elderly parents. We get to know him and feel intimately part of his world. The effect is a filmic experience that is emotionally moving beyond description.

Last night I felt utterly without words. Now I am just starting to process it. However, I still feel completely overwhelmed. In the Q&A, Oppenheimer referred to The Look of Silence as a poem dedicated to the lost. It is not didactic; it mentions the geopolitical context and opens the door, I hope, to a third film that deals with the silence in the US and the wider West on these events – a deplorable hush no less profound and no less important (although perhaps less easily broken).

Adi's family have since been moved to another part of Indonesia and, while they have allies in the country, their lives were endangered by their participation in this film. Oppenheimer himself says he felt his life to be under threat. The main thing protecting these brave souls seems to be their new-found fame and notoriety.

Nevertheless, the films have succeeded beyond any possible expectation. Both have, with some difficulty, been screened widely within Indonesia and young people are having an open conversation about their own relation to the actions of their grandparents. Reactions of family members of killers in the film range from the most heartbreaking contrition to angry dismissiveness. At the film's climax, Adi meets the wife and two sons of his brother's killer (now dead). One of the sons wants nothing to do with it but the other is drawn to remark: the wound is now open, and we are here together.

This short note doesn't even begin to do justice to the force and poetry of Oppenheimer's film-making. His dedication to his project is a wonder to behold and the bravery of his cast and comrades is awe-inspiring.

I can only add, in what I find to be an oddly profound banality, that I've never seen an audience pay such rapt attention to the credits of a film. Rapt attention to what was not there. Line after line after line: 'Anonymous'...

With only a few exceptions, all the names shown unredacted are European. The film derives from an international movement of resistance with deep local roots. I'd love to know more about how it came about and came together, although a degree of secrecy seems to be essential to the safety of those involved.

This is a film of dignity, beauty and boundless importance, both artistically and politically. However, I do feel that the two films, taken together, are incomplete. Oppenheimer described them as a diptych; it seems to me that they should become a triptych.

The director's passionate and erudite comments during the Q&A demonstrate his understanding of how this wound goes far beyond Indonesia. The massacres developed out of the vicious mixture of Cold War realpolitik and capitalism-driven neocolonialism. Western businesses were getting up to precisely the same kinds of slave labour practices in the forests of Indonesia that fascist industries had been in Europe only two decades before.

Oppenheimer started working on these issues in 2001, when he travelled to Indonesia to make The Globalization Tapes, a film about oil plantation workers being poisoned and killed by the chemicals they are forced to work with. Their brief attempt to unionise in order to resist their own slow, horrible deaths were quickly dissuaded by the same networks that committed the massacres in the '60s. These people never went away – and nor did the corporations.

Of course, all of this has been known for years but now someone has given these issues an emotive force that no amount of didactic documentation can produce. It is so much more than a documentary. It is soaked in themes of memory, loss, ageing, love and, above all, living with the unfathomable. I cannot recommend it enough.