The Look of Silence review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
There’s a very chilling aspect in how The Look of Silence holds a mirror up to the audience. The first shot is of a television set with elderly Indonesian men casually discussing how they murdered communists in the 1960’s. They boast and chuckle as they demonstrate the dark acts they carried out as though they were more factory workers than soldiers. Watching this footage is a young Indonesian man who stares at it without emotion. His face is as mute as his mouth the way he emits no expression when witnessing this footage. He wants to understand why these men got away with murder and what went through their minds. His silence is our silence in how these older folks speak from experience of inhuman acts.
The young man watching the footage is a traveling optometrist who had a brother that was killed during this genocide of the 1960’s. When he’s not playing joyfully with his children, he’s making house calls to small homes and villages to test the eyesight of the elderly. The optometrist clinically uses his medical device for testing the eyes of the aged to determine what glasses are best for them. After his work is done, he begins to calmly ask questions to these men about their history of working as a soldier. The old men playfully describe their experience of slaughtering others that they found dangerous to their beliefs. Many will often provide a pantomime description of how they would toss bodies or deliver beatings. The optometrist is silent with these answers just as he was with the footage. He continues to ask more questions with no change in tone. The more he asks, the more angry these men become. The questioning becomes uncomfortable as they can see the strings being pulled to paint them as villains. They start to become violently irritated to the point where they refuse to discuss the subject anymore.
The optometrist does not attempt to egg on or persist passionately with his questioning. He asks simple questions and leaves a long enough pause for the answer. The longer the pause, the more irritation. During the silence of the optometrist, the angered men attempt to see through his quiet as that of an agenda-driven person who intentionally wants to dig up ghosts of the past for political sensationalism. The optometrist doesn’t answer and only asks another question if the opportunity arises. These elderly soldiers can sense a level of spite not present - one that remains where there appears to be none. These men are killers and have not answered for their crimes. The silences eat away at their integrity and bring forth guilt the way they refuse to continue the interview.
Many of those interviewed, including their families, bitterly ask why all the prying. The optometrist has a good life at the moment. He makes a decent living and has wonderful children that he absolutely adores. His life is good; why must he dig up the past? The reason becomes clear as he presses on with patience and silence. These are men that have no remorse or haunting nightmares about what they’ve done. Their killings were justified in their minds and can’t think of it in any other way than jovial. It isn’t until this history is revealed to the daughters of one of these killers does the shock set in. Her father is frustrated by this reveal and promptly wants to end the interview, shutting his eyes and closing his ears, pretending that this is not an issue.
The Look of Silence was directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and intended as a companion piece to his equally important documentary The Act of Killing. It is absolutely essential viewing for the inhumanity that never seems to leave old eyes. The fact that the optometrist had to remain anonymous for this picture while these war criminals continue to live out their lives without worry or punishment is the most shocking aspect. And yet the optometrist remains silent and listening, as the Indonesian government swept these crimes under the rug.