It may seem like a minor creative choice, but one of the most powerful aspects of “The Look of Silence,” Joshua Oppenheimer’s stunning documentary about Indonesian genocide, is the chorus of crickets that plays quietly under almost every scene. The sound provides a rural backdrop for the ghastly memories Oppenheimer pulls from his subjects, but more than that, it conveys a calm, inexorable sense of justice biding its time. To a country and a culture heavily invested in avoiding the past, that sound says: Take all the time you want. Judgment is coming.
The movie is a companion piece to 2012’s Oscar nominee “The Act of Killing”; both films address a 50-year-old atrocity and its lingering fumes. In 1965, an army coup in Indonesia installed General Suharto in the presidency and unleashed a wave of death squads across the country. In the months that followed, from 500,000 to well over a million “communists” — teachers, farmers, mothers, anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time — were butchered in ways that boggle the mind. It was another of those periodic bursts of atavism that remind you of just how little humanity has evolved from the beasts.
Fifty years later, the army still runs the country, the killers remain folk heroes, and generations of children have been taught that, in the words of one schoolmaster, “the communists were cruel, so the government had to repress them.” Oppenheimer, Harvard-educated and currently living in Denmark, has taken it upon himself to be a one-man Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but in a sneaky sort of fashion.
In “The Act of Killing,” the filmmaker hung out with a number of aging death-squad leaders, mesmerized by their pride in what they’d done. Because many of them were fans of American movies, he got them to restage some of their crimes in various genres, which led to the profoundly discombobulating vision of an imagined South Seas genocide musical.
In “The Look of Silence,” a markedly more dangerous proposition, he has company: a contemplative eye doctor named “Adi” — it’s by necessity a pseudonym — whose brother, Ramli, was murdered in the genocide two years before Adi was born. To lay the groundwork for what they’re about to do, Oppenheimer films Adi impassively watching earlier footage of two squad leaders, Amir and Inong, bragging about their actions at the riverside site where thousands were systematically beheaded, gutted, or had their throats slit.
They remember Ramli: “He clung to the tree roots, begging ‘Help me!’ So we fished him out and killed him by cutting off his penis.” They drank their victims’ blood in the belief it would keep them from going crazy. And they feel they have not been properly acknowledged. “We should be rewarded with a trip to America,” says Amir on the tape. “If not by airplane, a cruise will do. We deserve it! We did this because America taught us to hate communists.”
Oppenheimer intercuts these sequences with scenes of Adi’s family: an ancient mother still mourning her child, the senile father so memorable in “Act of Killing,” an adorably high-energy daughter, a watchful son resisting the brainwashing he receives in school. And then the director and Adi head out to confront the men who killed his brother, often under the guise of giving them eye exams. It’s a potent natural metaphor that the film doesn’t have to belabor: The central image of “The Look of Silence” is that of an aging man fitted with the baroque hardware of optometry trial frames, his eyes enlarged yet still unseeing in the most fundamental sense.
It goes about as well as you might think. The elderly Inong puts up with the eye doctor’s gentle probing about these long-ago events, even observes that “I know from experience that if you cut off a woman’s breast, it looks like a coconut milk filter. Full of holes.” Eventually he grows defensive: “Communist members had no religion. They had sex with other people’s wives. So people say.” By the end: “Why the questions? Your questions are too deep! I don’t like deep questions!”
That sets the template for most of these encounters, sanguine recollections followed by discomfort, growing hostility, and veiled threats when the matter is pushed too far. What culpability there is often comes from the women: the daughter of one of the killers, her eyes welling with tears as she asks Adi for forgiveness, another’s widow apologizing while her son yanks the microphone from her lapel and tells Oppenheimer, “I welcomed you here, Joshua, but I don’t like you anymore.”
What do you do when a people have committed a great crime and then organized their reality to exclude it? “The Look of Silence” is an unassuming masterpiece that can stand with “Shoah” and other inquiries into history’s mass slaughters, but it is even more important as a provocation, not just to the killers of Indonesia but to anyone who believes that ignoring facts is the same as erasing them. Oppenheimer is a filmmaking natural; and “Silence” is a visually rich experience, the colors ripe and tropical, each shot weighed for balance and beauty. Yet there’s a rage far beneath Adi’s placid expression and the director’s dispassionate style. It’s not a rage for vengeance but anger at an all-consuming blindness.
There is evidence that the blindness may be lifting. While Oppenheimer has stated that he feels it’s too dangerous for him to return to Indonesia, “The Look of Silence” has become a hit film and a cause celebre in that country, with sold-out screenings, a military backlash, and a populist and media backlash against the backlash. The government of President Joko Widodo has introduced a truth and reconciliation bill into Parliament; it’s weak but it’s a start.
Over and over in “The Look of Silence,” we hear people tell the filmmakers, “The past is past.” The wound is healed, they say, and if you don’t want trouble, don’t reopen it. The movie itself proves otherwise. The past is everywhere around these people, enveloping them unseen like a nighttime field of crickets. Judgment is coming.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.