Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence
The follow up to The Act of Killing is a loud piece of work. Not in any measurement of volume, but in what it has to say.
Published on September 21, 2014 | Filed under NYFF 2014
The Look of Silence

This review will contain spoilers.

The opening and closing of sections of The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow up to The Act of Killing, feature the central character Adi watching a television set alone. On that television is footage – likely shot by Oppenheimer – of perpetrators of mass genocide speaking casually of the crimes that they committed decades prior, while Adi watches silently as Oppenheimer’s camera captures his face. Whereas the previous film was about the titular act, manifested not only in conversation but through lavish re-enactments by the killers themselves, this new work is a much more subtle (though equally haunting) attempt at understanding how to approach this period of history from a singular, personal point of view. Or, in essence, how to look at it.

The concept of spectatorship is central not only to the medium in which Oppenheimer has chosen to tell this story – in both iterations – but also to the story as removed from cinema. Throughout The Look of Silence‘s run-time (a much more manageable 99 minutes), we hear first hand accounts of what happened during the government ordered genocide that took place decades ago. We don’t only hear these accounts from the mouths of those who executed the communists, which is primarily what The Act of Killing offered up, but also from families of the victims as well. Though this is an oral history, with likely very little moving image record available to cull from anyway, it all comes down to how this was seen by people even if that has been skewed by and/or lost to time. Which ultimately brings us to what The Look of Silence is truly about: memory.

The Look of Silence

The Act of Killing featured known killers – people remembered and even potentially revered – re-creating their crimes through means of cinema, establishing a new public record of history. This historical record was not only being established through what they created, but through the eventual finishing and distributing of Oppenheimer’s feature, allowing for audiences around the world to share in this collective re-discovery (or flat out discovery, for most people) of what was once covered up or at least not discussed. The Look of Silence is mostly concerned with this very discussion, or lack thereof, as Adi begins to confront those responsible for his brother’s death during the killings. Much of this time is made up of former death squad leaders either boasting of their crimes or doing little to atone for it, usually reaching for justification rather than admitting responsibility. But, what becomes the focus of the feature – and is perhaps the most hard to swallow aspect of it all – is Adi approaching families of the killers, who had (and at the time still have) no idea what these men had done. This all culminates in a sequence involving the family of a deceased killer being shown footage of their husband/father discussing with pride the killings that he helped to carry out. It’s a sequence rooted in memory that is realized through shared spectatorship, that of the family watching the footage and us as viewers watching Oppenheimer’s film. And we are the silent ones.

The Look of Silence

Though its title may suggest as much, The Look of Silence has very little silence going for it. This is a loud piece of work. Not in any measurement of volume, but in what it has to say. The Act of Killing brought to many viewers an event in history that most knew absolutely nothing about, including those from the very country that the events took place in, but The Look of Silence takes it further. One of the family members that Adi talks with speaks of a wound now being open because of Oppenheimer’s films and discussion starting, whereas everything was okay beforehand and people just lived and didn’t talk about it. But people are talking, including the killers. Over the course of two films there have been accusations, confessions, re-creations and revelations all in the interest of memory. At least a couple of the subjects of The Look of Silence are old enough (or young enough) to not fully remember what happened – for reasons medical or otherwise – and so begins that statute of limitations of time. Are those too young to remember ignorant? Are those too old to remember fortunate? Ethical conundrums may be raised by the tactics in which Oppenheimer utilizes to establish such a memory – as when the family protests watching the footage shown to them – but what choice do we have other than to look silently at the screen?

Justin LaLiberty holds degrees in film preservation from the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation and film studies from Keene State College. He is the Creative Manager at Alamo Drafthouse Yonkers and is an itinerant projectionist, ready to run reels if you've got 'em.
Justin LaLiberty