The Limits of the Camera-Eye

Eyes gouged; eyes augmented; eyes blinded with old age; eyes guarded, darting, glassed-over; eyes squinting to check if the horizon has sharpened. A boy shuts his hard as he struggles to absorb his history lessons at school. His sister puts on their father’s glasses, giggling at how they warp her world. Eyes multiply, kaleidoscopic, as the structuring metaphor of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, a new documentary on the anti-Communist purges in Indonesia that, between 1965 and 1966, killed up to a million people.

On the sequel to The Act of Killing

The Look of Silence. Press photo.

Joshua Oppenheimer (director). The Look of Silence. 2015.

Eyes gouged; eyes augmented; eyes blinded with old age; eyes guarded, darting, glassed-over; eyes squinting to bring the horizon into focus. A boy shuts his hard as he struggles to absorb his history lessons at school. His sister puts on their father’s glasses, giggling at how they warp her world. Eyes multiply, kaleidoscopic, as the structuring metaphor of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, a new documentary on the anti-Communist purges in Indonesia that, between 1965 and 1966, killed up to a million people. None of the perpetrators of the purges have been punished, and many maintain active public lives in politics and the military. The Indonesian government’s denial of the violence is so total that it has repressed public memory of the events. Where Oppenheimer’s first documentary on this history, The Act of Killing (2012), valorized the power of the camera, this new companion film supplies a dictionary of gazes. Most of them belong to an optician named Adi, whose brother Ramli was murdered by paramilitary forces in 1965.

The Look of Silence, like its predecessor, devotes as much time to the everyday life of its protagonist as to his reckoning with history. Adi accompanies a survivor named Klemat to the banks of the river where the massacre in his village took place and watches as the older man mutters prayers to the spirits of some 10,500 dead. He watches his kids jump around and his father’s health decline. And in a room bare of anything but a television and a chair, he watches footage that Oppenheimer collected in 2003 of two death squad leaders reenacting how they mutilated Ramli.

On the pretext of dispensing glasses, Adi gains entry into the homes of those responsible for carrying out the purges. Administering vision exams, he draws them into conversations about a history that the killers boast about and the bereaved pretend to have forgotten. Adi watches, barely seeming to blink, as the killers dodge and prevaricate, withdraw, make counteraccusations. One visit begins with the killer jamming on a Yamaha synthesizer and singing a pop song and ends in his threatening Adi with murder. If the enterprise scares Adi, he doesn’t show it; he has a surgeon’s tactical calm. His expression is illegible, a screen on which no projection quite gains purchase. As much collaborator as subject, he improvises his side of the script, guiding the interviews onto fraught terrain. Oppenheimer stays out of view, letting scenes unfold.


The deft restraint that guides The Look of Silence—perhaps more influenced by Adi’s reserve than by Oppenheimer’s artistic instinct—contrasts sharply with the proudly lurid excesses of The Act of Killing. The earlier film centers on former paramilitary commander Anwar Congo and his account of the killings; Oppenheimer furnishes him and his friends with a camera, costumes, and props to stage their own reenactments. In a Hamlet-style mousetrap of their own making, the perpetrators dramatize their deeds for the screen. Yet the scenes capturing the daily reality beyond the project reveal Killing’s deeper sensibility. If we’re chilled that mass murderers see themselves as heroes, we’re also meant to laugh at how they style themselves as cowboys—hat, horse, and all; the film spends as much time in shopping malls as at election rallies. One scene lingers at the home of a politician who shows off his collection of crystal animals and Tinkerbells, declaring each tchotchke more precious than the last. For foreign moviegoers, these scenes flatten Indonesia’s past and present into their images. Comically bad taste stands as a signifier for evil; spectatorship and aesthetic judgment simulate witness. With its pink-skirted dancers and monkeys feasting on garnet flesh, The Act of Killing revels in its acid-trip beauty—yet the sequence that best captures its animating spirit is drab, a seemingly unexplained visit to a natural history museum whose specimens are swathed in plastic. The documentary feels like a kind of taxidermy, posing predators so that tourists might contemplate bloodthirst at a safe, abstracting distance.

In this cinema of moral intervention, the camera retroactively and publicly convenes the trial these men never stood—if not quite extracting a full admission of guilt, then at least provoking a punishing self-knowledge. Playing the tape back, Congo feels moved to ask, “Have I sinned? Is it all coming back to me? . . . Did the people I tortured feel the way I do here? I can feel what the people I tortured felt.” At this climactic moment, Oppenheimer corrects him from off screen: “Actually, the people you tortured felt far worse.” Being forced into a new perspective seems to trigger an intense vertigo. On the rooftop where he once garroted his victims, and where early in the movie he performed a little cha-cha, Congo dry heaves. If this isn’t catharsis, it seems close enough.

But this sort of filmmaking also reveals a kind of narcissism. Movies about the magic of movies reward themselves for being made and the moviegoer for being entertained; often they get rewarded publicly in turn. They are their own prestige genre, virtually their own Oscar category. The Act of Killing presents a narrative that is familiar and, in its way, self-flattering: it presents American cinema as the secret epicenter of Indonesian politics. We see Congo and an associate reminiscing about the political melodramas they watched as children and the cowboy movies they loved as teenagers, when they made extra cash as thuggish ticket scalpers. The coup gave them the chance to realize their celluloid dreams of living like “gangsters,” and after nights at the theater they would walk to a building across the street to execute more of their enemies. Hollywood inspired atrocities; the art-house would expose them. The totalizing neatness of this motif gave Oppenheimer’s project the patina of self-congratulation.

It’s strange that a film as quiet as The Look of Silence could depend on another so invested in spectacle. But fewer Western moviegoers would be drawn to this seemingly straightforward human rights pic without its genre-bending predecessor—and in Indonesia, the 2014 Academy Award nomination for the The Act of Killing, which had been allowed to screen in the country only clandestinely, paved the way for the sequel’s public distribution and advertising. Even prior to considerations of reception, the two productions were interdependent. Initially, footage of Ramli’s killers moved Oppenheimer to make a movie about the purge’s victims, but when the army threatened the group of survivors Oppenheimer was working with, effectively ending the project, he turned to the killers. The ties that he is reputed to have cultivated with national military and political figures during this first phase of filming, from 2005 to 2010, intimidated local leaders into sitting down with Adi for the second phase, which began in 2012. Even as their visions of the cinema, its uses and its abuses, diverge, the documentaries are inextricably nested.


That the revenue from the 2013 release of The Act of Killing was channeled into the sound editing and mix of The Look of Silence, accounts, at least materially, for the sequel’s deeper investment in spoken testimony. Braided into the other narrative threads, in which Adi reviews the tape and makes his house calls, is a third strand that’s spun from the recollections of his mother in voiceover. She memorializes the death of her son through prayers to the departed (“Your mom misses you, Ramli,” she keens), curses on the murderers and their descendants, and stories told to those unable to remember: to her living son, born two years after Ramli’s death, and to her husband, who shows the early signs of dementia. Lacing through scenes of daily life, her cutting fruit, bathing, caring for poultry, her voice pervades the film like the breezes that, in other shots, set the cobwebs to trembling. In a country sunk in willful amnesia, hers is a ritual recall.

With a turn toward recollection, rather than reenactment, as a mode of excavating the past, The Look of Silence demonstrates a more expansive view of the United States’ complicity in the massacres than The Act of Killing. At one point, Oppenheimer screens a 1967 NBC news report that presents the violence as necessary brutality in the fight against Communism: an American journalist nods along as he’s told by a local source that many Indonesians had committed suicide out of shame for their politics and, later, looks on in approval at the sight of others forced to labor at a Goodyear factory on Indonesian soil. This footage is incorporated into the film just as the killers’ testimonies are—it plays on a television screen. That Adi watches this seems less for his edification than for ours.

When a critic complained, after watching The Act of Killing, that he knew less about the genocide than he had going in, Errol Morris, Oppenheimer’s executive producer and mentor, replied, “Whatever documentary is, it’s not adult education.” That Morris defends the genre as art by rejecting the duty to inform reveals the films’ internal economy—trading breadth of fact for depth of concept. But through this paring away of context, Oppenheimer conveys an entire repressed history with startling concision. In both movies, he keeps the explanatory copy light, down to the barest and broadest historical facts: mass murder happened, in these numbers, in this year— none of the crimes were redressed. These summaries do not explain that the CIA backed General Suharto’s overthrow of the Communist-allied, nationalist President Sukarno, that the Pentagon supplied weapons, field radios, and lists of leftists, or that the American embassy received regular progress reports. Nor do they recount how the bloodshed spiraled, with the military training religious students to massacre entire villages, Dayak tribes murdering ethnic Chinese, landowners in Bali killing landless peasants, and gangster organizations executing Communists trying to organize Sumatra plantation workers. The documentaries, like the perpetrators, refuse to “talk politics.” Distilling violence and memory into gestures—a compact and seemingly universal vocabulary of looks and acts—these films examine morality and psychology. The inhumanity of self-interested governments and policies exceeds their vision.


In The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer speaks from outside the frame more often than he does in The Look of Silence, making crucial interruptions that cast him as an audience surrogate, and also expose him as an actor. That offscreen presence retained a demigodlike aspect, all-seeing and intervening from beyond. The Look of Silence revises this role, distributing power differently between the people on screen and those behind the scenes: tandem-balanced, tense. On set, Oppenheimer had to pretend to have more, and more traditional, directorial authority—in interviews he has recounted how he played the role of an auteur taking an even hand with his cast, conferring with Adi about strategy and then giving made-up performance notes to the perpetrator, requesting that he adjust his posture or the way he folded his hands. As the film’s protagonist takes on the greater agency of authorship, the director recedes to become a more bounded, if still invisible, character: he has his own history and relationships, he miscalculates, he does not always say the right thing at the right time. As an outsider, he arouses and allays suspicions by turns. Though some perpetrators argue that Oppenheimer is part of some political plot, others count him as a friend. He can play good cop, which is to say naive cop, thereby enabling Adi’s inquiries. Like the camera he wields, his presence both protects and endangers. During one visit, Adi protests, “If I wanted revenge, I wouldn’t have come like this.” “Maybe that’s why Joshua is here,” his interlocutor retorts, cannily.

Whereas in the earlier film the camera faced its subjects head-on, The Look of Silence records its subjects at three-quarter angles, and they retain an essential opacity. In Adi’s appointments with the perpetrators, the setup is always the same. The killer speaks before his face appears on screen, identified by name and position in small type; then comes a reverse shot of Adi’s face. This repeated composition encourages a mode of deep attention in the audience, drawing its notice to slight variances in tone and tics between the scenes. The documentary offers a view into a closed system composed of survivor, perpetrator, and camera—a circuit of gazes whose electricity doesn’t depend on the shock of a foreign viewer. Other scenes, like the ones showing Adi’s children at play, seemingly oblivious of their father’s mission, imply a life larger than what the camera can arrange into digestible meaning. The Look of Silence enacts an alternative model of cinematic power, one in which the outsider’s gaze is rendered incidental to the film’s work of confrontation and acknowledgment. The documentary decenters the camera from the story, replacing it with an Argus’s worth of present human sight.

In the film’s final interview, we learn that the man who killed Ramli has died, leaving his family, a graphic novel he’d written about his life and given to Oppenheimer, and the video footage to speak for him. Whereas preceding encounters produced threats, tears, reconciliation, and remorse, this last one is barraged by furious denials. Even as they’re shown the tape of his boasting of Ramli’s murder, the man’s family refuses the recounted history flickering across the laptop. “Just one more clip,” Oppenheimer attempts, and as he’s shouted down, Adi looks at the camera directly for the first and only time, and he doesn’t need to speak to us: film meets its limit in eyes wide shut.

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