26 October, 2015Issue 29.2Film & TVThe Arts

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The Act of Looking

Alexis Brown


The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
UK, 2013/2015
Released together as companion pieces on October 12th, 2015.





It was an incredible move. One wonders what angel of inspiration must have visited Joshua Oppenheimer when he formulated the concept behind the first of these companion pieces: to let the murderers behind the 1965 Indonesian genocide make a movie, in whatever way they wished, about the massacres they orchestrated. The Act of Killing (2013) was not the first time a documentarian had thought to ask a killer about their crimes—for instance, Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988)—but this film is something else entirely. The results are incendiary, in effect two films in one: the film that the killers have made, embedded within the broader film that Oppenheimer creates about this process. Never has the vanity, capriciousness, and unabashed cruelty of mass murderers been captured with such transparency (in large part, of course, because the killers are still in power). It is in Anwar Congo that Oppenheimer finds his main subject, an aging octogenarian who slaughtered hundreds of ‘communists’ during the massacres that followed an attempted coup of the Sukarno government. He was part of a paramiltary group called Pancasila Youth, which was partially responsible for the more than a million people killed in the genocide.

Anwar is no stranger to the medium of film. Before joining the paramilitary group, he worked at a local movie theatre, where his favourite films were American, especially those starring Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, and John Wayne. He takes up Oppenheimer’s offer with particular verve and excitement, often boasting that he and his fellow killers were even “more sadistic” than the American films they watched. This is, he thinks, why his film will be so appealing: “Why do people watch James Bond? To see action. Why do people see movies about Nazis? To see power and sadism!” he tells us. “We can make something even more sadistic than what you’d see in movies about the Nazis. Sure I can! Because there’s never been a movie where heads get chopped off – except in fiction, but that’s different – because I did it in real life!” Here enters one of the most disturbing elements of the film. Anwar and his cronies re-enact various scenes of murder and interrogation in the style of film noir—right down to the lighting, cigar smoke and garish fedoras. It would be almost amusing if it weren’t so horrifying, these farcical bits of theatricality that dive dangerously and immediately into historical trauma.

Thankfully, this shameless self-glorification does not remain uncomplicated for long. Slowly, a self-awareness begins to creep to a conscious level. “So, the communists were not more cruel than us. We were the cruel ones,” one participant in Anwar’s film says to another. “No, cruel is totally different from sadistic”—the latter an adjective that has, apparently, taken on a positive connotation and become a point of pride. “No,” another answers, “it isn’t. They are synonyms.” The other grimaces. “You’re playing with words.”

Beneath the level of semantics, however, a deeper self-awareness in Anwar begins to stir. “When I’m falling asleep, it comes back to me,” he confesses. His growing guilt paves the way for the film he thinks he is making to become something truly psychologically strange. What began as an exercise in glorification—and more importantly, justification—transforms into a revenge fantasy, but the revenge here inflicted is upon himself. His nightmares become literal, re-enacted in grotesque detail, as demoniacal ‘communists’ come back from the dead to haunt him. His recollections of beheading others are juxtaposed with a dramatic performance of having his own head cut off. His film becomes a self-excoriating gesture of repentance, directed towards an absolution he knows he will never achieve. For whether he is glamorously murdering in the style of American gangster movies, or elaborately performing his own torturous demise, all of it remains in the realm of fantasy. And herein lies the real brilliance of Oppenheimer’s work: its keen awareness that it is always through fantasy that we justify our lives and begin to grasp some sense of ourselves, however illusory. It is, I think, why Oppenheimer has elsewhere described the film as a “documentary of the imagination.”

The bizarreness of Anwar’s psychological exploration only escalates. In a later scene, he sits, beheaded, and is fed his own liver by Herman Koto, another paramilitary leader, who inexplicably wears heavy makeup and an elaborate gown. Anwar has little to say. He only remarks, “You’ve cut off my head. You must feel furious, but also sad. You have to be angry, sad. Sadistic.” The moral trajectory here mapped through the transformation of the word ‘sadistic’—from what began as an adjective of aspiration, only to become a descriptor of one’s own physical and emotional devastation—is nicely mirrored in Anwar’s first and final scenes. In the same courtyard where we first saw him gleefully showing us how he murdered, the film’s closing sequence leaves him there violently retching, trying to expel physically a past that he cannot, and should not, escape.

There is another side of this story to be told, however, and Oppenheimer’s first film about the perpetrators would have been incomplete without the story of those they affected. A companion piece to The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence (2015) is a more conventional documentary in many ways, a quieter, more subtle film, though no less moving or important than its predecessor. It centres around the story of Adi Rakun, whose brother Ramli was murdered in 1965. Adi met Oppenheimer when he was making The Act of Killing, and he asked the filmmaker to help him find and interview the people who had been behind his brother’s killing. Each person he finds and interviews evades responsibility in their own circuitous way. But these interviews reveal much more once Adi and these men, having reached an impasse, fall silent. Adi’s gaze, somehow both accusatory and empathetic, refuses to waver. Yet their eyes rove, searching, sometimes smiling, confused, maniacal, or looking down, deeply ashamed– anywhere but at him. In this exchange of glances, we recognize the incipient signs of Anwar’s eventual moral awareness. It is these painful silences that lend the film its poignancy, far more than anything that is actually said.

The most stunning footage, however, comes from a 1967 NBC broadcast by American journalist Ted Yates. “A largely unnoticed victory over the communist has been decisively won in southeast Asia,” he begins his report proudly. This is a real find. We hear Yates describe the violence of the past year, in which entire families were sometimes “liquidated,” a term whose resonance with the Holocaust falls on his apparently deaf ears. He listens, straight-faced, to an official who tells him that the communists “realized they were wrong” and wanted—indeed, even asked—to be killed. Yates goes on to describe Goodyear’s Sumatran rubber empire, which fought against the unionization of its ‘communist’ workers before the massacre began. Now, in its aftermath, these workers have been pressed into slave labor, and shots unfold of labourers working at gun point, while a water tank emblazoned ‘Goodyear’ looms overhead. This is truly terrifying stuff: documentary evidence that shows a major American company using slave labor from death camps, evidence which has already been broadcast by a major American news network. This is not even to mention the covert intelligence and billions of dollars in clandestine aid the US government supplied during the massacres. It boggles the mind, and speaks to a particular political context in the United States of the 1960s that feels utterly foreign today. How could any American have seen this on TV and think it acceptable? Yet millions must have.

And maybe, then, it is a context not so foreign after all. We needed more on this, and here is my one criticism of the film: the focus on Adi’s personal tragedy distracts from the larger involvement of Western governments in these crimes, and what that complicity means for us today. There is a balance between both to be found, and Oppenheimer doesn’t quite achieve it. It is still a bit too easy to walk away from the film thinking, “What monsters,” rather than, “In what ways, and why, did the West contribute to this? What might they be contributing to now?”

As The Look of Silence draws to a close, we see Adi’s elderly father, crab-legged, wandering about his house. For a character whose playfulness has provided the film’s few moments of comic relief, this final scene is jarring. “How did I get here? Help me!” he yells, “I’ve wandered into a stranger’s house.” Some of the film’s reviewers have wondered why Oppenheimer chose to include this scene, finding its intimate portrait of elderly confusion and vulnerability disturbing, unnecessary even. But this—this is the look of silence. Adi shot this scene himself, before Oppenheimer had agreed to do a second film, and it was what finally convinced him to film it. The sight of Adi’s father crawling senselessly, blind, frightened, unable to recognise either himself or his home, is the film’s last and most stunning visual metaphor for the gaps in historical memory that threaten us with moral oblivion. It is a silence inevitably filled with screams and confusion. It stands in for an Indonesia still coming to grips with an ineffably dark past, but just as much so for an America that forgets its own complicity in it.

Alexis Brown is a DPhil student in English at Wolfson College, Oxford.