I commented on Joshua Oppenheimer‘s film about the Indonesian genocide in 1965, The Act of Killing, here and here. There his focus was, unwaveringly, upon the killers.
But his new film, The Look of Silence, takes up the story of the victims. Oppenheimer explains:
The Act of Killing exposed the consequences for all of us when we build our everyday reality on terror and lies. The Look of Silence explores what it is like to be a survivor in such a reality. Making any film about survivors of genocide is to walk into a minefield of clichés, most of which serve to create a heroic (if not saintly) protagonist with whom we can identify, thereby offering the false reassurance that, in the moral catastrophe of atrocity, we are nothing like perpetrators. But presenting survivors as saintly in order to reassure ourselves that we are good is to use survivors to deceive ourselves. It is an insult to survivors’ experience, and does nothing to help us understand what it means to survive atrocity, what it means to live a life shattered by mass violence, and to be silenced by terror. To navigate this minefield of clichés, we have had to explore silence itself.
The result, The Look of Silence, is, I hope, a poem about a silence borne of terror – a poem about the necessity of breaking that silence, but also about the trauma that comes when silence is broken. Maybe the film is a monument to silence – a reminder that although we want to move on, look away and think of other things, nothing will make whole what has been broken. Nothing will wake the dead. We must stop, acknowledge the lives destroyed, strain to listen to the silence that follows.
You can find out more about the production here, and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro interviews Oppenheimer about his general project and The Look of Silence in particular at Harper’s blog here. He describes his focus on interior space in the new film – in contrast to The Act of Killing – like this:
‘I think one of the things that I realized very early on, with The Look of Silence, was that the best way to make the viewer feel what it means to have to build a life in a place that feels wrecked by endless fear, is to feel that in the most intimate way. Because those are very subtle personal things. And to understand something of what that’s really like, I thought, I would need to be incredibly microscopic. You’re entering a space where people are not putting words to what they experienced, where they’re too afraid to talk about it. I felt that I should try to create a kind of poem to a silence borne of fear, a poem to the necessity and trauma that comes with breaking that silence. The idea was to home in on the smallest details—the wrinkles in the ancient skin of Adi’s father, a crease in the brow of Adi’s mother—and to really focus on the silence, listen to that silence, and hear what it has to say.’
And he also glosses the image that appears on the poster above:
In The Look of Silence, we see an optometrist who probes the silence that his family has lived under, and then confronts the killers. If we made that a fiction story, it wouldn’t have at all the same interest. In fact the metaphor of the optometrist would be all too neat. Similarly, a death squad that makes a musical about their killings would be ridiculous as a fiction. But when it’s real, what we’re watching is the transformative effect of the process on the people. And I think that’s why I make film. It’s why I make nonfiction film. And it’s also why, in all of my films, I don’t hide the apparatus of filmmaking by pretending to be a fly on the wall, or by being a transparent interviewer eliciting testimony from the subject. Because I believe that if one is honest, then the genesis of the drama, and the genesis of the transformation, is also the filmmaking process itself.
Not only Openheimer, then, but Heisenberg too.