Joshua Oppenheimer’s film, The Look of Silence, seems to argue that the kind of speech capable of social change shares much with silence. The film provides a companion reflection to how post-conflict or transitional justice is often conceived of as official speech. In transitional justice, the power of change is envisioned as working its way down from gavel to street. Pronouncements and reports, a changing of the guard, and a re-crafting of official narratives. Such change may well be necessary for societies to chart new paths in the wake of violence or mass injustice–and it is not a form of speech that Indonesia has yet uttered–but this is not the only kind of transformative speech. There is also everyday language, the paths of normality that get timeworn into relations between people. It is a more rough-hewn, story-based speech, composed of those tiny hierarchies people learn often as unreflectively as they learn to breath: who can speak and who will be heard.

This speech marks the location where sustainable change takes its first steps. The work of changing official speech and everyday speech is not synonymous, both are necessary. Adjustments in official speech clothe themselves in ostentatious proclamations that are highly visible and crave the spotlight, but this tendency should make one wary: new forms of official speech can provide mere cover for a continued enforcement of the hierarchies.  It is much harder to see and hear the changes in everyday speech that slowly transform a dominant narrative into the possibility for a real conversation about the past.

This film captures the brave effort of one man to try to start such a conversation without the safety net of any adjustments to official speech. It tracks what happens when he refuses to abide by the hierarchy that protects unreformed official speech. What results is a beat of silence; an intrusion. It is an opening for a conversation that, for the most part, does not find an interlocutor.

The film, which is a pair to Oppenheimer’s  2012 film, The Act of Killing, follows Adi, a man of stunning dignity, an Indonesian optometrist in his forties, as he seeks out the men who killed his brother during the 1965-1966 massacres in Indonesia that targeted people suspected of being Communists. From the men who perpetrated the killing, to the commanders, and even a family member who was a low-level participant in the assaults, Adi listens as they describe their actions. He listens to them with enormous stillness; and quietly reveals that his brother was one of the men they killed.

TLOS_ADISource: The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer 2015).

Then the silence interrupts. The fact of having engaged in this murder—a fact accepted and even celebrated within a certain framework of Indonesian history—suddenly confronts a human framework of loss. There is no clash of facts here; everything has already been admitted. Nor is there is a demand for retribution, reparation or criminal justice—Adi’s quiet composure throughout the film seems to only make one request of his brother’s assailants. He has heard their stories, lived amongst their version of history; he seems only to ask that they acknowledge his story exists in the same world as their bravado-filled memories of killing. He approaches them as humans and simply asks the same in return.

Source: The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer 2015).

Even this is too much, in most cases. There is a beat of silence. Then they reply with anything–rationalizations, threats or just refusal–except recognition of the harm their action caused.

Source: The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer 2015).

What happens in the silence must be seen—this is not a story told on film, it is storytelling through the medium of film. The camera captures the silence that rushes into the void of refusal; and it becomes a character in the telling of the story. The camera lingers much longer than is comfortable for the natural flow of whatever the characters want to say. After two old men recount, and yes, even act out, their murder of Adi’s brother, they pose, smiling for the camera. But the scene continues as they stand there, uncertain of their next step. One of them mumbles something like, “that is life.” In another scene, the camera is welcomed into a house, changing the posture and glances of those it encounters, finally landing on one of Adi’s uncles. When the uncle’s part in the massacre is revealed, he holds his same facial expression, still aware of the camera, but now his smile hides an absolute refusal beneath the no-longer welcoming expression.

We are also asked repeatedly to train our eyes on Adi’s face, particularly his eyes, as he views footage of perpetrators discussing their acts of murder. We are asked to witness his commitment to seeing men brag about how they killed brother, and just to be silent with him.There will be no redemption, it is gruelingly painful exposure to the indecency of violence.

TLOS_TVSource: The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer 2015).

The film rejects sentiment. We never hear much at all about the murdered brother, Ramli. There is the story of his death, retold over and over from various perspectives, but no attempt to present his life to us. We learn of events and see conversations, entered into with ease and abruptly stopped after Adi reveals his familial connection to the victim.

But there is fear. Uncertain glances down the street as they visit a mass killing site; a sharp inhalation of breath when Adi’s mother learns what he is doing; and a threat from a local leader who has no interest in Adi’s project. It is decades past, but the power relations that enabled murder to benefit some at the price of loss for others remain intact. (Watch director Joshua Oppenheimer explain the precautions they took in making the film).

Source: The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer 2015).

There is also tenderness and the sound of giggles within Adi’s family. In a film that needs no metaphors, Adi’s father, who claims to be 16 or 17 yet whose wife posits that he is 140, is blind and has lost much of his memory. His ancient frail body is cared for with love and light humor, even as his forgetting infuses a question into the film. He does not seem to remember the son who was murdered. Is the reclaimed innocence of forgetting, the passing of a generation, a preferable future than one arrived at by re-examining this horrible past?

No, the film, argues back, such forgetting is chimerical. It represents confusion. This subtle argument with memory and forgetting is the only way to make sense of the one scene where the camera lingered too long in silence. Adi’s father, portrayed with gentleness and love in every other scene, this time is presented in a room that he doesn’t recognize. He panics. He calls for help and shuffles his ancient body across the floor. His forgetting suddenly loses its sweet innocence and reveals a frightened and confused man. Forgetting may provide some illusion of comfort, the film argues, but it culminates in isolation.

Elsewhere in the film, forgetting isn’t even offered; the killing lives with ease, at home in the perpetrator’s memory and lives. Adi’s effort to interrupt this ease by asking for recognition of the human loss seems impossible, except for one moment. Adi talks with yet another participant in the murders, an old man who sits alongside his adult daughter. The daughter knows the story, apparently treats it as one of her elderly father’s anecdotes long since heard multiple times. Now a new detail emerges—he was among those who drank the blood of some of their victims, a ploy to ward off the insanity of committing murder. Her faces changes only slightly as she hears this; it is not part of the story she knew. And when she learns that Adi’s brother was among those killed, she, too, is quiet.

Then she offers an apology, undemonstrative yet powerfully moving. Her father sitting next to her wants the conversation to end, but she insists on engaging Adi, who responds with monumental humanity. Her father is her father, deserving of the love and respect as any father would. Her apology does not cancel her relation to him, Adi seems to say, even while it recognizes the profound loss that Adi’s family has suffered.

The moment does not repeat, but it leaves open possibility. In this possibility, with the resolute patience and insistence of the film and its brave central character, resides the glimmer of radical speech, the kind that can change everything. It is not borne out of the power to impose new paradigms, punish or draw on the toolhouse of official speech, but by risking the moment of silence that offers the only chance for beginning a new conversation.

Just one last note, if you see this film playing in your town, go immediately. At least in Boston, it didn’t stay as long as it should have.

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