Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Look of Silence

THE LOOK OF SILENCE                B+                  
Denmark  Indonesia  Finland  Norway  UK  Israel  France  US  Germany  Netherlands  
(103 mi)  2014  d:  Joshua Oppenheimer               Official site

Art doesn’t make a difference…until it does.
—Werner Herzog

You ask much deeper questions than Joshua ever asked.  I don’t like it.
—Inong Sungai Ular

Winner of a MacArthur Grant in 2015, Joshua Oppenheimer first visited Indonesia in 2001 to help workers from the palm oil plantations dying from a toxic chemical herbicide in their efforts to unionize, as the company hired members of the Pancasila Youth to harass and intimidate the workers, who immediately dropped their demands, becoming the subject of an earlier documentary film, THE GLOBALISATION TAPES (2003).  In the process, however, the director learned many of these workers lost family members from a series of ghastly murders carried out by this same paramilitary group decades earlier, discovering what was killing the workers “was not just poison, but fear.”  A surreal showcasing of the Indonesian Genocide of the mid 1960’s, as retold by aging members of the Pancasila Youth, led to The Act of Killing (2012).  Oppenheimer obviously felt that film was incomplete, suggesting it only told part of the story, and while winning near universal acclaim from critics, some (including myself) were aghast that it was ever released, largely told from the point of view of the murderers themselves who proudly re-enacted their bloody deeds literally fifty years later in front of the camera thinking they were noble heroes, continually boasting of their heroism, with the camera enabling them to jubilantly express their delusions in front of their grandchildren.  The moral question it raised was whether we’d ever accept a similar film from Nazi soldiers or concentration camp guards if they giddily reminded viewers of the efficiency of their killings, both carried out with a similar sadistic cruelty.  According to a Cineaste magazine interview (and many others that followed), when Oppenheimer arrived in Indonesia in 2001, “I had the feeling that I’d wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust only to find the Nazis still in power.”  Imagine if the Nazi’s had won the war and a filmmaker allowed them to bathe in their glory, much as the director does with the mass murderers in his earlier film, where more than a half million communist or ethnic Chinese were murdered by shooting, strangulation, dismembering, and beheadings, with the corpses thrown into rivers in the span of about 6 months.  While it is considered among the worst atrocities of the 20th century, with the American government at the time providing extensive lists of communist names to the Indonesian death squads, this idea that they should be congratulated for ridding the nation of communism remained thoroughly entrenched in the political state of mind for decades in Indonesia, leading to a controversial 31-year military rule dominated by President Suharto, as the same ruling party that inflicted the genocide continued to govern through intimidation and fear for the next half century.  Not until the recent presidential elections of 2014 had there been a change in power from the corrupt and authoritarian rule of the New Order, as newly elected Joko Widodo, the first from a lower-class background, is also the first Indonesian president not from the military or political elite.  To his credit, perhaps Oppenheimer’s film opened people’s eyes and contributed to a groundswell of opposition that helped bring about a new government.  Not many documentary films have that degree of influence in changing the political and social dynamic around the world.   

What’s immediately confusing when watching this film is the timeline with his earlier film The Act of Killing (2012), and while they are both connected, one following immediately after the other, it appears most all of the footage for this new film was shot sometime “prior to” the release of THE ACT OF KILLING.  According to the director, he began conducting interviews in Indonesia as early as 2003 to 2005 prior to meeting Anwar Congo, the central character of The Act of Killing, which was then filmed from 2005 to 2010, editing it as he was shooting, literally a ten-year project, returning to Indonesia in 2012 prior to the film’s release to shoot a companion film, not knowing at the time that Adi Rukun would be his main character.  While you can see Rukun studying old footage in THE LOOK OF SILENCE, this was material collected for his earlier film, shot before either film was released, during a time the director could still maintain his earlier contacts.  This time the story is told from the point of view of the victims who are profoundly isolated, living under very humble conditions, who are eventually seen confronting the very people who murdered their families.  It should be pointed out that due to the inherent dangers involved for Adi and his family, but also the filmmakers, they all had to remain on high alert, ready to flee at any moment, eventually moving Adi and his family to a different, more secure environment, as the perpetrators called in the police several times during the shoot, and much like the previous film, many in the credits are again listed as “Anonymous.”  Both films form a collective memory play, where the victors are the ones allowed to mold and shape history in the manner of their own recollections, which are stunted by selective amnesia, as they remember what they want to remember and forget events too painful to recall.  And while the first film engages in the hyperbole of anti-communist hysteria, allowing the explosive imagination of the vanquishing heroes to run wild with narcissistic self-deceptions, the second film is quieter and more intimate, living in the shadow of the first, reflecting the calm and contemplative demeanor of the featured subject, Adi Rukun (which is not his real name), and the results are even more devastating.  Opening on a man wearing optician’s glasses, he stares straight at the camera, where what follows is a readjustment of our recollections of history as we painstakingly try, often through trial and error, to find the clearest focus of vision. 

Adi is a 44-year old optometrist living with his elderly parents, both over 100 years old, his mother Rohani and father Rukun, in a small village in North Sumatra while wandering the countryside examining the eyes of his patients, a practice that allows him to enter their homes, often engaging in small talk as he changes the lenses in the glasses, where he inquires about their lives and listens to the stories they have to tell.   In this manner, he speaks with former death squad members and commanders, including his own uncle, under the pretense of giving them an eye exam.  The director returns to the 1965 purge of the communists, focusing his attention upon a massacre of 10,500 near the Snake River, opening with previously filmed footage of two former death squad members nonchalantly describing how they either beheaded or bled out prisoners before throwing them in the river, which is followed by footage inside a contemporary elementary school classroom where a teacher repeats that age-old rationalization for killing communists, characterizing them as godless villains intent on overthrowing the government, where many Indonesian civilians took part in the killings.  What’s particularly surprising about this particular massacre is that the killings were all done hand-to-hand and face-to-face, leaving entire sections of villages empty afterwards, where the houses were looted and handed over to the military.  Among the dead is Adi’s older brother Ramli Rukun, the village head of a farmer’s cooperative, perceived as an opponent of the new dictatorship, where he was arrested and stabbed repeatedly, but escaped back to his parent’s home, where two men, Amir Hasan, a former village schoolteacher and commander of a local paramilitary group along with his accomplice Inong Sungai Ular, recaptured him, telling his mother they would take him to a hospital in nearby Medan, but he was thrown in the back of a truck with other prisoners and dragged to the river, mutilated with machetes, cutting off his penis before being dumped in the river.  Unlike the thousands of families who were never told what happened, his murder was one of the few that had witnesses, where among the surviving families, Ramli’s name has become synonymous with the killings, where his death literally haunts this picture, reflective of the scars left behind that still linger in the thoughts of the survivors who must continue coping with the pain, still living in the same village where a half century later the murderers of their son are treated as heroes, where Aki’s mother Rohani reminds us, “They destroyed so many people, but now they enjoy life.”  Two years after his death Adi was born, where Rohani recalls, “I was going crazy after Ramli was murdered.  And because I had Adi, I was able to somehow continue to live.”  Adi grew up hearing stories of his brother’s murder, which continued to reverberate throughout his young life, first meeting Oppenheimer in 2003, where he latched onto the opportunity to confront his brother’s killers, fascinated with the director’s footage of Amir Hasan and Inong actually reenacting his brother’s killing before the cameras.

The first person Adi visits is Inong, an old man who has no inkling whatsoever that he murdered and mutilated with his own hands the brother of the man examining his eyes, instead he speaks freely about his crimes, describing how he once cut off the breast of a woman turned in by her own brother, recalling how the killers routinely drank the blood of their victims, supposedly to protect them from going mad amidst the relentless slaughter, describing the taste of blood as “both salty and sweet.”  Probing ever deeper into the past, Adi couldn’t be more polite while expressing bluntly, “I don’t mean to offend you, but I think you’re trying to avoid moral responsibility.”  Stunned, and a bit dumbfounded, all that Inong can muster is, “You ask much deeper questions than Joshua ever asked.  I don’t like it,” as the information pipeline immediately shuts down and the men sit in a prolonged, awkwardly uncomfortable silence.  Later he confronts his 82-year old uncle, living in a gigantic estate surrounded by lush trees, a man who has done well for himself and his family, who at the time was ordered to guard the prisoners, including Ramli, who bought into the government propaganda that these were bad people who “never prayed,” claiming he was only doing his job, becoming deeply offended by the line of questioning.  When he meets Amir Hasan, the politeness of the exchange turns on a dime when he mentions the man killed his brother, that he was the commander who signed the death report.  Immediately he is looked upon with suspicion, as if he were a “subversive.”  Unfazed, Adi asks “If I came to you like this during the dictatorship, what would have happened?” He is told assuredly, “You can’t imagine what would have happened…so continue with this communist activity”  Hasan died not long after being filmed, where Adi confronts his family, showing the reenactment of Ramli’s death, even a grotesque book of Hasan’s that lists the names of the dead alongside the date, time and location of each killing, which includes Ramli, but they only react with disgust and outrage, instantly calling the police.  While these men rationalize and threaten, Adi is repeatedly told he is asking too many questions, reminded that “if you make an issue of the past, it will happen again.”  While this may seem to some like ambush reporting, taking someone completely by surprise, but it’s important to note that members of the death squads were under the impression that the director was their ”friend,” as Oppenheimer freely encouraged them to describe their exploits in heroic terms (extending the rope only to hang them later), so early on a certain amount of trust was established where word got out among them as they all freely participated in recalling their experiences on camera.  This, however, is turning the tables, like an FBI sting operation, where the desired intent is to get the stunned reaction on camera, as if this, somehow, stands for the truth.  Despite the calm and resolute nature of Adi, who acts with unfathomable restraint, the moral center of the picture showing wisdom beyond his years, serving as his own truth and reconciliation committee all by himself, there is still something discomforting and altogether offputting about pulling the rug out from beneath these senile guys, who are hardly sympathetic figures, but it nonetheless feels tainted, like Michael Moore’s misguided ambush in BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE (2002) on gun ethics at the home of an aging Charlton Heston, five-term president of the National Rifle Association, after Heston was already suffering the effects of dementia from Alzheimer’s disease.  Unlike the best documentaries that reserve judgment about the subject matter, this is a film designed to fit a premise that was already decided upon before shooting even began.  While the results often feel revelatory, they’re not altogether surprising, as these aging men want the acclaim associated with their actions, but not the responsibility that comes with committing horrendous crimes. 

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