Sun. Jun 23rd, 2024


The sounds of a knock echoed through the dim room as the audience sat in anticipation, gazing at the black screen and the remaining headlights. It felt crowded, yet the experience was strangely isolating, as if each person was watching alone. The lights finally went out, shrouding the room in silence for about an hour and a half, a time that felt both faster and longer than expected, until it all faded to black.

The film showcased Adi’s father beginning to sing, but the audience could only hear his voice as they listened attentively. The name Joshua Oppenheimer appeared on the screen as the director, but there was a mistake—the co-producer was listed as Anonymous, along with the camera operator, assistant director, and other crew members. The credits slowly rose out of sight, and no one in the audience moved, keeping silent while continuing to listen to Adi’s father’s song.

In the end, everyone left the theater feeling both connected and strangely lonely, an empty feeling lingering inside them.

The Companion of The Act of Killing

The Look of Silence serves as a companion to The Act of Killing, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2012. The documentary offers a chilling glimpse into the United States’ support of the aging genocide in Indonesia. Many of those responsible for the atrocities still hold positions of power, being celebrated as heroes and shamelessly boasting about the mass killings they committed. They reenact these horrifying events in detail, both for Oppenheimer and the audience, showing beheadings, torture, and strangulation.

The first film attempts to understand the circumstances that led people to admire and respect these killers. The question arises: are they capable of feeling remorse for their actions? The Look of Silence shifts the focus to the survivors and the families of the victims, transforming their knocks into audible sounds. The camera follows Adi, whose brother Ramli was killed by a paramilitary group two years before Adi was born. With Oppenheimer’s assistance, Adi finally confronts his brother’s killer. Additionally, the documentary sheds light on the unseen force that lingers in the lives of those who have lost family members to the killers.

The film underscores the dangers of seeking healing and truth in a country that continues to defend the cruelty and perpetuate a legacy of lies.

Adi Rukun

Adi Rukun asked his mother about her feelings, living close to the site where his mother witnessed the kidnapping and massacre of Ramli during the September 1965 incident. Ramli had managed to return home, his intestines open from torture. Fearing for her eldest child’s safety, she hid him in the house. The following day, the army took Ramli away in a car, promising medical treatment. Sadly, it was the last time his mother saw her son.

Adi is the son of a husband and wife from East Java, residing in Deli Serdang Regency, North Sumatra. Decades after the tragic event, Adi decided to confront the people involved in the murder of Gerwani or PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) sympathizers. He represents one of the many families whose loved ones fell victim to the 1965 incident. In his pursuit of historical truth, Adi continues to explore the facts and seek explanations for the brutality committed by the perpetrators.

The Indoctrination of Communism

Joshua Oppenheimer presents The Look of Silence, weaving a story around the sounds of a knock. Compared to its predecessor, The Act of Killing, this film offers more appealing visuals and a compelling plot. The audience was left stunned by a brief but tense dialogue between Adi and the perpetrators involved in the massacre of his brother. The emotions of anger, sadness, and disappointment, recorded on Adi’s face, hold the audience’s attention, and they can’t look away from the screen even for a moment.

In a specific sequence, an elementary school teacher explains the events of September 1965 in front of his class, linking communism with atheism. He goes on to label PKI members as “cruel and inhumane,” employing dramatic effects, and horrifyingly recounts how the perpetrators gouged out their victims’ eyes. This portrayal provides an accurate depiction of indoctrination through educational institutions that many have experienced firsthand.

Ramli’s Death through Innocent Perspective

In another specific sequence, Adi said, “You killed innocent people” to the perpetrator. The perpetrator retorted, “I don’t want to talk about politics.” Adi persisted, saying, “You tortured and massacred my family.” The perpetrator loudly responded, “You ask too many questions.”

As the audience hopes to see forgiveness offered to those who do not seek it, despite being blind to the evil and disgusting deeds they have directly or indirectly contributed to, the arrogance of the perpetrators infuriates the viewers in the face of such heinous crimes and the silence they offer. Adi grew up in the village, witnessing the aftermath of the violence. Although he didn’t directly experience its suffocating effects, he learned of Ramli’s death from his mother. Through Oppenheimer’s camera interviews with the actors, the audience processes and learns the facts alongside Adi.

As Adi sits quietly in an empty room, facing an old TV, he watches an excerpt from a 1967 NBC News report. An Indonesian man tells an American journalist how beautiful his country became after the butchers purged the communists.

The Snake River

Adi also witnessed two older men reenacting, happily recalling how they castrated people, dragged the victims through the fields, and dumped them into the river. However, the most gripping focus for the audience is when Adi sits with his real-life brother’s killer. During these encounters, he courageously holds them accountable for their heinous crimes. One of the killers claimed to be a headhunter, intimidating Chinese owners. Others confessed to drinking the victim’s blood as they believed it was the only way to prevent madness. Inong, the leader of the death squad, described the taste of the blood as salty and sweet. When Adi asked for clarification, Inong repeated his chilling statement.

In another scene, a middle-aged man wearing a black cap and jacket walks towards the location of the Ramli massacre, accompanied by Adi. This man managed to escape during the execution at the Snake River and showed Adi where Ramli was tortured. He recounted how Ramli screamed for help, knowing that everyone would be killed. The middle-aged man fled to an oil palm plantation, becoming a living witness to the cruelty inflicted upon him and Ramli by the murderers. He had sincerely closed that dark chapter of his life and did not wish to revisit the painful memories or stir up any more trouble, even when talking about it with Adi.

The Invisibility of The Look of Silence

In The Look of Silence, the sounds of a knock play a critical yet invisible role. Oppenheimer encourages Adi to collect stories from the killers, but he doesn’t just pave the way for Adi to meet them safely. Instead, he tries to win the hearts of the paramilitary groups and their leaders. By talking to dozens of actors, Oppenheimer begins to understand their revisionism as a symptom of collective ignorance. To Adi, they present bitter and rotten memories, coated with the sweet language of a victorious history.

The film explores the lies perpetuated by both the perpetrators and the victims, carried on for decades as a means of survival. The Look of Silence evokes disbelief, disgust, and horror on one hand, while also evoking empathy and admiration for Adi on the other.

The audience can easily feel a sense of emotional numbness, but the focus remains on Adi. Despite the circumstances, he never once raises his voice with his guests. Adi’s courage leads his family to refuse when he tells them he has met with the leaders of the Komando Aksi death squad. His wife warns him to be careful, while his mother advises him to bring a bat or knife. “Tell them that you are fasting,” his mother instructs, cautioning him not to drink anything they offer in a cup.

The Slice of Life of Adi and His Family

Oppenheimer adds a personal touch to the film by showing the daily life of Adi’s elderly parents. At the beginning, a scene depicts Adi’s mother bathing his father, who is senile and in need of assistance to move due to old age. When asked about his age, the father, whose hearing is already poor, answers 16 years. The absence of Adi’s father and his mother’s stubbornness in life gives The Look of Silence a feeling almost akin to big-screen fiction. However, this aspect also loads the film with profound significance that captivates the audience.

The film’s themes resonate widely beyond national borders, encompassing more than just the role of one nation in genocide. When a perpetrator suggests that the American government should reward him with a trip to the United States for his actions, he implies that America teaches them to hate communists. If America hates it, then the rest of the world must follow suit. By portraying horror in close proximity, Oppenheimer draws parallels between the Indonesian genocide and America’s history of mass killings of Native Americans. He encourages audiences to reflect on America’s involvement in past and present mistakes.

The Personal Touch

Compared to The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence is lighter in tone, not subtly conveying its message. Like its predecessor, the film boldly confronts the wall erected by the New Order government concerning the historical facts of the 1965 events. Oppenheimer presents sources recounting their involvement in and massacre of people labeled as “communist supporters.” It also emphasizes another crucial point: no one is exempt from the brutality. Perpetrators and victims of mass massacres are all ordinary people.

The Look of Silence unfolds as a historical narrative with a hidden knock, leaving the audience with a sense of unease and prompting reflection on the survivors’ stories from the September 1965 incident. The film makes viewers contemplate the justification for such a massacre and the distorted historical facts perpetuated by the ruling regime. It serves as a stark reminder that there are still historical gaps that remain obscured and unresolved.

Human Nature

A void will not be filled if the public remains silent, pretends not to know, or chooses to remain ignorant. Despite the Indonesian government’s recognition of the genocide, The Look of Silence reached more than 3,500 views and touched the lives of over 300,000 people in Indonesia. Many of the viewers might even be relatives of the perpetrators. However, the film offers a glimmer of hope, illustrating how generations living in the shadows of past crimes can come together and move forward.

The film is inherently political but doesn’t rely on lengthy texts to plead for forgiveness from the audience. Like its predecessor, it showcases the beauty and power of cinema. Oppenheimer and Adi skillfully reveal aspects of human nature, addressing themes of honesty and grace.


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