Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Depth of Human Evil

Film: The Look of Silence
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on The Nook.

The Act of Killing was a documentary that I found extremely difficult to watch. That was certainly the intent of the filmmakers. Knowing that The Look of Silence covers much the same territory made this a film that I wasn’t excited to watch. This is not because the first film is bad or poorly made, but because it is a difficult film to watch. It’s hard to see men who conducted and orchestrated the murders of thousands and thousands of people not only discuss these crimes, but speak of them with pride. The Look of Silence goes further than the first film in that it’s far more confrontational and far more personal.

Essentially, we are visiting a lot of the same people who planned and executed the military coup in Indonesia, people who are still in power in many cases and continue to think of themselves as heroes routing out communists. As I say, this is much more personal, though, because here we’re going to follow the journey of one man (someone roughly my age) confronting the men who admit to having killed his brother.

The man in question is anonymous in the film to protect his identity, but the IMDB page lists him as Adi Rukun. He’s a brave man. During the course of the film, he gets close to the various perpetrators of the atrocities in Indonesia by giving eye exams to the men in question. While he checks their eyes, he asks them about the revolution in the mid-1960s and probes as much as he can for answers. That he is accused of being a communist (all of the killings were done under the pretense of the victims being communists) does not dissuade him from asking further. That the people he is question likely have the power to silence him doesn’t deter him, either. That one of the men responsible is his own uncle, and thus the uncle of his slaughtered brother Ramli makes all of these even more horrifying.

Now, I like horror movies as much or more than the next person, and probably more than the next person. Part of the reason for that is that I know it’s all staged and fake. Sure, some of it is truly horrifying, but it’s still movie magic and stagecraft. This isn’t. This is really people talking about hacking people apart with machetes, removing heads and carrying them around to frighten people, an slitting throats, catching the blood in glasses, and drinking it in the belief that doing so will keep them from going crazy.

Much of the power of The Look of Silence comes specifically from the fact that most of the families of the killers know nothing about what their fathers/husbands/uncles/grandfathers did during the mass slaughter of a million people. In many cases, these conversations are the first they knew of their relatives’ participation in the killings. Adi Rukun’s mother, for instance, was unaware that her brother oversaw the incarceration of her murdered son or that he was likely the person who loaded her son onto a truck to be killed.

What makes the film truly horrifying, though, is the complete lack of remorse. In virtually every case, the interviewee talks about the importance of what they did and how they have no regrets regarding the murder of an estimated one million people. The minute that Rukun tells them that his brother was one of those killed, and that his brother was specifically killed in a truly horrifying manner, they back off. They deny memory of the event even when they are shown literal footage of them talking about the events. It is as ive the thought of regret only really happens the moment they realize that the people they killed were actually people with lives and families who loved them.

The Look of Silence is clearly not an easy film to watch, and it’s not supposed to be one. There is a sense of seeing something along the lines of Shoah here, although the testimony that happens comes not from the survivors among the victims, but from those who did the actual killing. It is a look into the depths of depravity the human mind can descend into, and a reminder that those depths may in fact be bottomless.

As with The Act of Killing, this is not a film I’d want to watch again. I think it’s likely that the earlier film was removed from the book to make room for this one, and I’m not sure that’s the right choice, even if I understand it. On the other hand, watching this much footage of people boasting about their own atrocities is not an experience I’d like to have a second time.

Why to watch The Look of Silence: We need to be reminded of the evil that human beings are capable of.
Why not to watch: It's nightmare-inducing ugly.


  1. You may remember how I raved about The Act of Killing. When I heard there was a sequel (and it had been added to the 1001 List), I requested it from the library pretty quickly because I really waned to see it.

    As expected, it's another powerful examination of guilt and culpability and the banality of evil in Indonesia.

    I think I still prefer the first one, just for those moments where somebody among the killers has a moment where they realize what they have done. Like that moment where the one guy is saying "Should we be talking about this? It might make us look bad" and the others are looking at him like he's crazy. Or that moment at the end where the killer has a few tears in his eyes as he realizes that "they were communists" doesn't even begin to justify the slaughter even if it was true.

    One thing that would have helped The Look of Silence is a little more info on Ramli, the slaughtered brother. What was he like? Why was he picked up by the citizen murderers? Was he an activist? Did somebody have a personal grudge against him? Was he just swept up in the patriotic fervor by a bunch of murderers who wanted to brag about how patriotic they were because they killed a large number of atheist communists who had sex with each other's wives?

    It was something I was curious about that was never addressed. I think it would have added to the impact of the film.

    1. When I look back at the two films, I find that I'm a lot more affected by The Act of Killing than I am The Look of Silence. Your comments on the mystery that is Ramli are a big part of that. We don't really know who he is or was, and a part of that might well be that our protagonist here never knew him, either. There is much less of a connection here, and for me, the only way to really break down evil and show just how terrible it is is to show the personal side of it.

      The old saying is that one death is a tragedy and a million deaths is a statistic. That's true when you really know the one person who has died. Since we never really know Ramli, it's difficult to move his death high on the tragedy scale. It's terrible, certainly. It's monstrous, absolutely. But he's someone none of us get to know, and so the emotional connection beyond fear, horror, and disgust is missing.