By Zach Martin, Arts Editor
It often seems like a silly, tireless exercise to complain about the Oscar winners —the composition of the Academy voting body and the politics involved make for a victor’s list that will never be satisfying. However, rarely does a film come across that has the capacity to initiate sweeping geopolitical changes, and the failure to honor such an accomplishment is beyond reprehensible. The film at hand is “The Look of Silence”, a film directed by Joshua Oppenheimer nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category.
The doc is a follow-up and companion piece to Oppenheimer’s 2013 film “The Act of Killing”. From 2004 to 2013, he worked with an anonymous co-director and crew in Indonesia to create these two films about the massacre of suspected communists in Indonesia following the attempted military coup in 1965.
In the first film Oppenheimer got in contact with some of the perpetrators of the genocide. He asked them to construct and perform reenactments of their killings in order to get a glimpse into the psychology of someone who has persuaded himself that killing is morally justifiable. One of the subjects, Anwar Congo delightedly takes the filmmakers to the rooftop where he choked hundreds of people to death, demonstrates his technique, and then shows off his dance moves. It’s an appalling and disturbing demonstration of repression of guilt.
“The Look of Silence” offers an equally compelling look at the nature of remorse and memory, but this time from the perspective of the victims. The protagonist here is Adi, a middle-aged optometrist whose brother was killed during the communist purge. After being shown footage of the perpetrators gleefully describing their atrocities, he becomes intent on confronting them about their actions and attempting to extort an apology or acknowledgement of the severe wrongfulness of their activities. In total he has four confrontations with men who were either directly involved with killing his brother or indirectly responsible through their high position of power. Each man becomes stubborn and defensive. They refuse to come to terms with their guilt and either angrily defend their participation or refuse to discuss the matter further. One man keeps insisting that he doesn’t like to “talk politics”.
While “Silence” is less bombastic in its tactics, it becomes more powerful in its subtlety. It features a more potent discussion of collective memory, how the way a society shapes the recognition of its past will impact the formation of the future. Perhaps the reason the film missed out on an Oscar is for its examination and critique of American foreign policy and cultural exportation. The influence of American film is heavy on Anwar Congo’s social psyche. In the film, one of the perpetrators states that, “America taught us to hate communism.” This is true not only through the policies of the Cold War but also through action film that often featured a heroic American figure of masculinity overcoming an evil force of communism.
As globalization takes over and the world economy must be restructured to reflect the growing homogeneity of culture, intercultural texts and films like Oppenheimer’s two become increasingly more important. Oppenheimer intended to make these films for the people of Indonesia, rather than a standard Americanized documentary that presents a foreign country to an American audience as “the Other”. Oppenheimer’s cinematic and production techniques reflect this desire to allow the Indonesian people to claim the films as their own.
The film has had thousands of screening in Indonesia and had a double issue feature in Indonesia’s most popular magazine Tempo. This broke a 40 plus year silence by the Indonesian mainstream media about the genocide. The Indonesian president has acknowledged that the genocide was a “crime against humanity” and that the Indonesian people have not yet reached a point of reconciliation. In the United States, there is movement in Congress to create a law firmly acknowledging the crimes, condemning them, and taking responsibility for the United States’ role in creating the atmosphere of anti-Communist sentiment and directly aiding in the purge. These effects are revolutionary in terms of intercultural documentary filmmaking impacting the process of societal institutions.
“The Look of Silence” and Oppenheimer’s previous film “The Act of Killing” are monumental achievements in film and deserve to be rewarded as such. Give the man an Oscar.