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Reviews / Screenplay: ‘a film that keeps you awake at night’

The film was introduced by director Joshua Oppenheimer via Skype - Photo: Robin MacPherson./Shetland Arts

When The Look of Silence finished, and the soundless, plain credits began to roll, none of the audience got up and left, or said anything, or even moved. Just stony silence until the credits had run through, trying to process what they had just witnessed, Alex Garrick-Wright reports.

For a film advertised in the Screenplay programme as a documentary about an Indonesian optometrist confronting the perpetrators of the massacre in which his brother was killed, it was both surprising and refreshing how full Mareel’s Screen 1 was on Tuesday night.

Screenplay has always prided itself on showing a wide variety of films of different genres, and not shying away from difficult topics; The Look of Silence is a perfect example of that.

Screened in partnership with Amnesty International Shetland, the film was introduced by its Oscar-nominated director Joshua Oppenheimer via Skype, and has recently won a swathe of awards (including the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival).

Oppenheimer had previously received an Oscar nomination for The Act of Killing (shown at Screenplay two years ago, also with Skype interview), to which Silence is a sort of companion piece; while Act was about the events from the point of view of the killers, Silence is very much from the perspective of the survivors and relatives.

What are these events? The Indonesian Killings of 1965, where up to one million accused-communists were ‘purged’ by the military dictatorship, an atrocity for which there has been no real repercussion or justice, and not only do the killers live with impunity in the communities they decimated, but many have positions of power in these communities.

Oppenheimer compared the situation to “Nazi Germany, if they won the Second World War, and the Holocaust had been endorsed by the Allies”.

Indeed, in his acceptance speech for the BAFTA for Act of Killing, Oppenheimer accused both the UK and US governments of having roles in these massacres (comments which were removed from the footage of the BAFTAS shown online).

The film follows Adi, an optometrist, whose older brother was violently murdered in the aforementioned atrocities, as he confronts the people involved.

Piecing together his last moments is sickeningly easy- the killers not only described it in Act of Killing, but here they act it out, blow by faith-in-humanity-crushing-blow, laughing and joking. One of them even wrote a book, where he illustrated Adi’s brother’s death. Such is the impunity in Indonesia for these people that even today they boast and laugh about it. It’s truly chilling.

The confrontations themselves are bizarre, punctuated by the long, awkward silences of the title.

Every killer reacts differently to the situation of being faced with the brother of one of the men they had moments ago been joking about killing in their hundreds.

None accepted any responsibility for the crimes; one blamed the military, one accused Adi of being a communist agitator, and Adi’s own uncle pulled the classic ‘I was only following orders’ for his role as a guard at the prison where Adi’s brother was held prior to his killing.

It was hard to tell what, if any, regret these people felt – the only glimmer of hope for reconciliation was from the daughter of a now-senile killer, who said that her father had protected his country by killing communists. The look on her face when the old man volunteered the fact that he drank human blood to stop himself going crazy from all the killing was truly heartbreaking; she alone apologised and asked for forgiveness.

A horror film is defined as “a film that elicits negative emotions by playing on primal fears”. The Look of Silence definitely qualifies as a type of horror film. It is ‘existentialist horror’, where the very real monsters will chill you, and keep you awake at night; the kind of film that you won’t forget, even if you want to.

The kind of film you wish was fictional, because it’d be a slightly easier world to live in were that the case. The Look of Silence is, quite frankly, a harrowing masterpiece, and one of the most important films of the year.