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Film / The Look of Silence

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The Look of Silence (Indonesian: Senyap, "Quiet") is a 2014 documentary directed by Joshua Oppenheimer as a companion piece to The Act of Killing.

When the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965, numerous paramilitary organisations around the country were mobilised as death squads to wipe out the communists and their political affiliates. One of the victims was a man named Ramli, a farmers' union member in the province of North Sumatra. Ramli's murderers and their ilks would allegedly kill over a million people all over the country, enjoying ties to the military-political elite to the present day while keeping their victims' relatives in terrified silence.

Born shortly after the violence, Adi Rukun never knew his older brother. He lives in the city as a travelling optometrist, alongside the aging men who had once murdered Ramli and thousands of others in cold blood. After decades of silence, he finally decides to look for Ramli's killers and confront them with their past deeds.


The documentary and its companion piece The Act of Killing can be viewed on YouTube, albeit only with Indonesian subtitles.note 

This film provides examples of:

  • Acceptable Targets:invoked The extermination campaign nominally targeted communists, which in practice came to include anyone with the slightest hint of left-wing affiliation, from union members to irreligious people and ethnic Chinese. The killers speak disparagingly of all these groups and treat them as subhuman.
  • Adult Fear: Adi's mom has experienced probably the worst nightmare for any parent. Not only was her son "disappeared" one night, but he actually escaped and came home covered in wounds. This is horrific enough, but it proved to be a cruel Hope Spot, because the next morning, the death squads managed to find him again and dragged him off, promising to take him to the hospital. That was the last time she ever saw him. After this, she is forced to live next to the men who did it for the rest of her life, powerless to do anything but wish for them and their children to burn in hell.
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  • Anger Born of Worry: Downplayed. Adi's wife expresses her concern that his quest will lead to an abduction or worse, but does not raise her voice.
  • Arc Words: "Past is past", repeated by both the survivors and the perpetrators of the genocide to avoid opening old wounds.
  • Black Shirt: The Komando Aksi militia who carried out the majority of the killings. Nominally a spontaneous civilian uprising against the communists, they were really proxies of the Army to avoid drawing international attention to the purges.
  • Blood Lust: Some of the death squad members would drink their victims' blood to keep themselves psyched up. One man even attributes mystical properties to blood-drinking, telling Adi that it kept him from becoming insane among the slaughter.
  • Book-Ends: The film begins and ends with similar scenes of Adi's dad singing, butterfly cocoons waiting to hatch, and a convoy of trucks driving down a country road at night.
  • Broken Pedestal: At one point, Adi visits an old, ailing death squad member, who is being taken care of by his middle-aged daughter. As the man recounts decapitating ethnic Chinese victims and drinking their blood, the woman's smile turns into a look of horrified realisation. By the end of the interview, she's on the verge of tears and begs Adi to forgive her senile old father.
    • The family of Ramli's killer are horrified to discover that he not only participated in the killings, but wrote and illustrated a tell-all book about it. His wife has to leave the room in shock and his sons tell Adi and Joshua to Get Out!.
  • Cool Old Lady: Adi's mother has long stopped giving a damn.
  • Conditioned to Accept Horror: Adi's family, as well those of the other victims, have spent decades living alongside the men who perpetrated the killings.
  • Corrupt Politician: One of the killers Adi confronts is a member of the provincial legislature. He makes a thinly-veiled threat to "repeat the events of 1965" when Adi reveals his family's background.
  • Crapsaccharine World: The survivors of the purge spent decades being forced to smile and fall into line as the killers who butchered their family and friends roam free around them. The perpetrators themselves are often surrounded by family members who have no idea what they did in the past, if they don't actively celebrate it.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Adi finally finds out how his brother died. He was disemboweled with a keris dagger, suspended by his limbs from a moving truck and castrated from behind before being finally hacked to pieces. Most of the purge's victims went through horrible torture as well.
  • Cute, but Cacophonic: Adi's daughter is very loud.
  • Delusions of Eloquence: In the end, the killers and their political allies are just provincial strongmen with limited education. In contrast to the soft-spoken Adi, they pepper their speech with pretensions of philosophy and appeals to patriotism in order to justify their deeds.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Though it was started as a reaction against a supposed communist insurgency, the genocide soon spilled over into a wide ranging purge of anyone even remotely left wing. At its height, the mere act of being in a union or being Chinese could get you raped, tortured, and killed.
  • Due to the Dead: While visiting the site where countless people were killed, almost including himself, Kemat prays out loud for God to lay the dead to rest and punish the men who murdered them.
  • Eagle Land: Discussed. One of the interviewees tells the crew that "America taught us to hate the communists". Three years after the movie's release, a set of declassified papers from US Embassy Jakarta indeed revealed the extent of American cooperation with the Indonesian Army in spreading anti-communist black propaganda.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: Adi learns that his own uncle was a guard at the prison where Ramli was held before he was carted off to be murdered. Earlier in the film, the retired death squad commander Inong recalls that one of his victims was sold out to him by her own brother.
  • The Everyman: Adi is a meek, humble family man who is nonetheless determined to bring his brother's murderers to wide attention.
  • Evil Old Folks: The massacres mainly took place in 1965-1966 and continued sporadically until the end of the decade. The perpetrators have grown old and frail since then.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Amir Hasan, regional commander of the Komando Aksi, has a noticeably deeper voice than the other interviewees.
  • Evil Uncle: Adi's elderly mother comes to realise that her own brother was a death squad member, and was possibly involved in Ramli's killing. Adi later confronts said uncle, who defends his role in guarding the imprisoned Ramli before the slaughter as Just Following Orders from the coordinating Army personnel.
  • Former Regime Personnel: The paramilitaries acted as the street enforcers of the New Order regime, and still enjoy the support and patronage of many high-ranking Former Regime Personnel in the Indonesian government and military.
  • For the Evulz: One killer recounts taking a woman's severed head to a corner shop owned by local Chinese-Indonesians just to intimidate them.
  • The Fundamentalist: When justifying his actions, one reason Inong gives for killing communists was that all of them were atheists.
  • Giggling Villain: Adi's uncle gives a creepy little titter after he goes on a rant justifying his involvement with the killings, though it seems to be more out of discomfort than malice.
  • Good Cannot Comprehend Evil: While reviewing Oppenheimer's interview tapes with some of the killers, Adi tries to rationalize their boastful recollections as a reaction to their own guilt.
  • Groin Attack: After being stabbed god knows how many times, Ramli was finally killed by being castrated from behind.
  • He Who Must Not Be Seen: As in The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer is heard interviewing the perpetrators in some scenes but never actually appears in the frame.
  • Just Following Orders: Amir Hasan and Adi's uncle justify their actions this way.
  • Leave the Camera Running: Most of the cinematography is quite static, focusing on still shots of the landscape and people's faces.
  • Lecture as Exposition: The camera follows Adi's son into his elementary classroom, where a teacher explains the "official" New Order version of the 1965 unrest (which is still upheld by the Islamic organisation running the school) and the repression meted out to their family in the following decades. When his son comes home, Adi dismisses the narrative as Blatant Lies.
  • Lost in Translation: While preserving the broad meaning, the official English subtitles use a less visceral language than the original Indonesian. It also downplays some of the linguistic nuances, such as Adi and his parents being ethnic Javanese migrants who speak the Javanese language to one another (his native Bataknese wife uses a markedly different diction when they converse in Indonesian).
  • Never My Fault: For how proud they are of their actions, almost none of those involved with the killings are willing to actually take responsibility for what they did. At most, they will claim they were Just Following Orders.
  • Open Secret: Everybody knows about the massacres and their perpetrators. Unlike The Act of Killing, whose subjects live in the provincial capital of Medan and are constantly paraded as heroes by their younger successors in the paramilitary gangs, the killers portrayed here live out in the plantation belt and kept a lower profile after the killings.
  • Perspective Flip: Of The Act of Killing, showing the perspective of the genocide's victims rather than its perpetrators.
  • Red Scare: Fifty years after the leftists were wiped out, the killers and their political clients are still using anti-communist rhetorics to paint themselves as heroes. One of the killers interviewed even accuses the filmmakers of being communist agents at one point.
  • Scatterbrained Senior: Adi's dad is roughly 109 years old, almost completely blind and deaf, and very senile. He repeatedly claims to be only 17 years old and at one point thinks he's gotten lost in a stranger's house while crawling around his own living room.
  • Scenery Porn: Even though many of the towns shown are quite run down, the camera goes to great lengths to show the natural beauty of Indonesia.
  • Screw Politeness, I'm a Senior!: Adi's mother. For the killers, it comes with a dose of Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!!
  • Silence Is Golden: There's no non-diegetic music at all.
  • Smug Snake: Prominent politician M.Y. Basrun, who presided over the death squads, comes across as one in the present day.
  • Sole Survivor: Kemat, an old man who survived the massacre that killed Ramli and points Adi to the location.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: Adi's expression while watching the interview footage with Ramli's killer.
  • Tranquil Fury: Adi's mother has lived in a perpetual state of this since Ramli's death. Some of the killers also display it while making veiled threats to Adi and the crew.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Many of the senior citizens in the movie don't keep track of their ages.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: The killers are still roaming free, propped up by a Cold War political mythology that props them up as heroes who saved the nation from communism.
  • You Don't Want to Know: Invoked when Adi interviews an elderly death squad member.
    Adi: If I were asking you this during the New Order era, what would you do?
    Amir: You couldn't even imagine it.


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