In psychology class, you learn about the concept of diffusion of responsibility, a sociopathic event that explains that when more people are present or complicit in an unfavorable event, the less personally responsible that group will feel for its outcome. The public murder of Kitty Genovese – in which a woman was stabbed to death in NYC but not one neighbor alerted the police – is a tragic true-to-life example of this but no piece of fiction or nonfiction has better captured the ghastly phenomenon than Joshua Oppenheimer‘s The Look of Silence.
A companion piece to Oppenheimer’s fascinating and Oscar-nomianted The Act of Killing – in which Oppenheimer had Indonesian death squad leaders reenact murders they commited against 1960s national “communists” – The Look of Silence probes similar material but from a new angle. At its center is spirited ophthalmologist Adi Rukun, a soulful survivor of the genocide whose older brother was slain in particularly grisly fashion. While The Act of Killing saw Oppenheimer struggling to unclog the pipes of these monsters emotional stoppage, The Look of Silence sees Adi ask the hard questions about his brother’s sadistic slaughters. His inclusion makes the affair gut-wrenchingly personal and it’s a ghastly, breathless thing to watch him refuse to back down in the face of these cold psychopaths. He’s unshakably convinced that there is some threshold; that a dying Darth Vader’s confession to Luke that he was right, good must exist somewhere in there. He is the harbinger of that emotional transformation and he won’t step out of the ring until they’ve at least shown evidence that they’re attempting process the baggage he lays at their feet.
At first, they brag about their role in the killings, envisioning themselves as some brand of Hollywood war heroes – the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers of Indonesia. They describe their actions in brutal detail. Often they laugh as they recall specific details – slicing people open and dragging their intestines hung out; slicing apart a women’s breat and how the insides looked like “coffee filters”; cutting off a human penis after repeatedly stabbing and beating him. They casually confess that they drank human blood…in order to stay sane. In the same sentiment, I love that irony (is there anything more insane than drinking human blood?) and am absolutely horrified by its seeming veracity. These people are chilled and emotionally demented, whether from their cannibalism or otherwise. After they’ve spilled their glorified tales of saving their country from the malice of the communists (they mention more than once how the US’s disparaging portrait of communist influenced their biases), Adi drops the truth bomb: my brother was murdered under your watch, likely by you or your people.
And then the story changes. “Well, I wasn’t directly involved”, “What district did he live in? Was it this district?”. And again and again, “I was just following orders.” All of history’s worst events can be traced back to the excuse of men following orders and Adi doesn’t let them off that easily. And yet, amazingly, he is not vindictive or revengeful in his desire to have these mass murderers come clean. In fact, in every confrontation, he sizes the older men with glasses to better “help them see”. The irony there again is both beautiful and tragic. His intention is earnest; he truly wants to forgive them – and even help them – but without any admission of guilt, there is no foundation for forgiveness.
Where Oppenheimer tried to amp up the surrealistic elements of the tragedy with tactful, tasteless (on the Indonesian butchers’ parts, not his) reenactments in Act of Killing, he allows silence to sink in here. The film is essentially without a score and moments of Adi staring at video footage of his brother’s executors are thick with stillness or crickets dully chirping. The natural beauty of Indonesia is juxtaposed by its decrepit political stature and Oppenheimer illustrates the dichotomy with sharp visual precision.
As the agents of genocide repeat “The past is past”, the delicacy of Indonesia’s current political balance becomes a focal point of fiercely high intensity. At one point, a politician threatens Adi – you don’t want things to go back to the way they were, do you? You know how easy that would be, don’t you? In a culture of passive ignorance and totalitarian fear, The Look of Silence is everything and actually has the power to change the world. It’s nervously hopeful and yet completely crushing. It left me hollow, speechless and yet full of life and true fury. It is a film that all human beings should be required to watch, if only to learn an invaluable lesson in empathy and what the world might look like without it.