The Look of Silence – Narrative, Aesthetics, and Cultural Legacy

Filmmaking is the process that transforms that latent image into a long-term memory experience, something that would affect those levels of awareness and acceptance in the target audience.

I. Introduction

One of the controversial rules in the film writing and directing is that one would never know the craft from just learning the craft courses. In many cases, talented people will have to take the responsibility for their own training and development both in the creative process and in personal style, so “each man or woman has to learn it through his or her own system of self-education” (Mackendrick, 2004).

Joshua Oppenheimer is an American film director and producer, born in 1974 in Texas, USA. He studied filmmaking at Harvard University and later embraced the experimental style approach of nonlinear narrative and produced a series of short film and documentary-style feature films.

Oppenheimer directed The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase (1997) and won a Gold Hugo for the Best Experimental Short Film at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1998 (, 1998). His two latest documentary films, The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014), involves facts exploration and identification of characters, the aim of which is to put emphasis on conscious inputs about the Indonesian genocide in a visual representation of the information that helps get a creative and interactive insight about those events.

The viewer observes an endless stream of images with the perpetrators which have created divisions throughout the society in the aftermath of these injustices. While these films have been controversial, most notably is that have been proved to be successful and have received a number of international awards which have brought Oppenheimer worldwide recognition (, 2016).

It appears that the crimes committed in 1965 – 1966 have never been placed under criminal investigation by the Indonesian authorities, or to have made those people accountable for their own choices in the killings and mass murder of innocent civilians. This must suggest that there are some reasons for the lack of motivation to speak about these issues and because the people accountable don’t really care about those reasons.

However, when the perpetrators were given the chance to speak about what they know or believe, even though they’re being sarcastic, they are straightforward and inspirational when they’re discussing something crude or ugly to spice up the conversation. They also show a great desire to act in these films.

Oppenheimer succeeds in turning the idea into reality, and together with a film crew and the killers themselves, many of whom were leaders of an Indonesian paramilitary force called Pancasila Youth, such as Amir Hasan and Inong, have agreed to be filmed. They work to explore the horror, and produce serious scares “with apparent relish, boasting about their exploits, acting out their gruesome deeds – victims despatched by machete or garrotting by wire – in elaborate detail and staging surreal fantasy interludes to symbolise their triumph over the evils of communism” (O’Hagan, 2015).

Narrative Experimentation in The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence

Both of these films are above average extremely powerful with its surreal style, a sense of intersection between feature film, documentary and serial that can generate strong emotions in the audience. Werner Herzog, the executive producer, admits that when he saw 8 minutes excerpts from Joshua Oppenheimer’s film, he immediately knew that he had “never seen anything like that, I have never seen anything as powerful, as frightening and as surreal of what was on the screen …” (Herzog, 2013).

In 2003 Oppenheimer started to work closely with the victims of Indonesia’s anti-communist regime change that took place in 1965 and 1966. According to the source, many Communists and suspected sympathizers were the victims of mass killings led by the military and controlled by President Suharto new regime “that resulted in one of the grizzliest genocides of the 20th century” (Zelenko, 2015).

After 50 years of silence the individuals involved in the large-scale killings of suspected Communists and their sympathisers are presented to show no remorse, affection, or willing to make an apology for their role in the genocide. The main characters in The Act of Killing are mostly negative personalities that committed acts of violence and genocide against Indonesian civilian population. Anwar Congo, formerly the head of a gang of killers, seems completely removed from reality, modified, who has become inaccessible as the result of a corrupt conduct and wrongdoings at the time it occurred.

Oppenheimer is able to track these people down and convince them to participate in a fiction film based on actual events, where they would recreate these awful crimes they have committed (Morris, 2013). Anwar Congo and his friends accepted the challenge, and while accidental or not, the perpetrators have great difficulty in understanding of the human nature, human society or human existence and may take any actions they deem appropriate to show us in the film how to become a mass murderer.

There is a sequence in The Act of Killing which shows the cruelty of Anwar, who used to bit many people to death, it shows that he also invented a new way to kill effectively with a wire that wraps around the victim’s neck, because there was too much blood and because of bad smell. In a sequence where Anwar is on the roof, “the monster who had caused misery for thousands” (Barnes, 2013), often complaints that he has nightmares about the past.

In other words, Anwar acknowledges that the nightmares come as a result of what he did, and subsequently he still lives in these environments and tries to forget about them with alcohol, marijuana, and ecstasy. Obviously, Anwar has his own version of interpretation, and because of that traumatic event, he clearly considers himself a victim of some sort as much a victim as the thousands of vulnerable victims that he had systematically killed during the military dictatorship in Indonesia.

The main protagonists in The Act of Killing are mainly negative characters conveying anger or disgust. They are feeling more cheerful as they try to remember their dreadful scenes in detail, which were horrible. In The Look of Silence there is a tendency to keep the same experimental approaches as in the previous film, The Act of Killing, but more likely to change the quality moving from the negative to positive perceptions, moving beyond the stereotypes and beliefs about past events and experiences.

In The Look of Silence, towards the beginning of the film there is a sequence which shows western media propaganda to cover the crisis surrounding the Indonesian conflict. Joshua Oppenheimer uses these digital archives in the production process to express their opinions on a subject and showing that Western media deliberately supported the military regime that brought Suharto to power in 1966.

Aesthetic Strategies in The Look of Silence

The main protagonist in The Look of Silence, Adi Rukun, whose brother was killed in the genocide, uses a slightly different psychological approach to dealing with criminals. The film shows how Adi is able to regulate and cope with his emotional reactions such as hate or anger and take lead to a rational way of thinking, where the conflict is under some kind of control.

In an attempt to understand and explain events from the past, but also those of the present, the narrative structure varies from sequence to sequence. This film contains the element of surprise in the construction of the narration of events. The spectator is encouraged to embrace the unpredictable and to deal with unexpected situations considering their past actions and underlying tension of the present conditions, because the story has the same problem that relates to adversity and conflict which can be seen throughout the film.

It’s a hard task to penetrate into the killers mind and to find what are the reasons and motivation to hurt other people, and to be an adept of prejudice-motivated crimes. Consequently, Adi takes a different view on the perpetrators thoughts and actions, and when raising the tone of the ethical approach he uses reason to focus on actual deeds rather than on each of them as individuals. He tries hard to separate the person from his bad deeds, and to have respect for the dignity of human beings.

“I think it was from Adi that I first heard this sense that one ought to be able to separate the human being from the crime and forgive the human being, at least as an ideal. That probably influenced how I approached the whole making of Act Of Killing. I’d also say that if you understand what Adi is trying to do — to find peace with his neighbors — you have to recognize that these are not interviews. It’s not Adi interviewing them — it’s Adi confronting them, trying to break a silence borne of mutual fear that’s been dividing them and imprisoning everybody for half a century” (Zelenko, 2015).

Through different creative narratives that Oppenheimer used in The Look of Silence, there is a point of view that some strategies regarding the issue of reconciliation can be helpful and may seem like beneficial to those who were previously repressed and now struggle to find peace with their neighbours, and also for those target audiences that directly or indirectly committed serious crimes against humanity.

Summary Sequence Analysis

This essay will focus on analysing a sequence and finding what is relevant in terms of the technique, originality and the delivery of the message. To see how the director, Joshua Oppenheimer, is able to reconstruct the historic realities and connect with the past and how they shape this narrative in an effort to make something different. This experimental approach enables the director to deal with important issues of reality and the possibility of representing reality as a challenge to own existence not to forget the past as a result of suppressed memories and unfairness in the justice system.

The film seeks to provide new insights into how history was used to cover the truth about the 1965 genocide in Indonesia. Joshua Oppenheimer has the courage to speak, acknowledge the wrongdoing, and with a serious attempt to correct these factual errors, and as such:

“the aim of art is to give people a space to see what they already know so that they can talk about it, so that the narrative can start to change. So much of the way we talk, and cope with the world, is founded on silence, on not saying things that we know” (Zelenko, 2015).

Director Joshua Oppenheimer has taken a Hollywood style approach in these films, in an attempt to find out and provide an answer to why killers rule and have an amazing life, but survivors who feared for their own lives in the past might feel marginalised, neglected and brought to silence.

For it seems possible that the moral obligation as motivation and the artist’s intention to reflect on the legacy involvement from an artistic perspective could be the reasons to make these films. But what are the factors that affect how people view something and how they build their culture? What impact has the cultural and historical factors on the social development of the country?

The Look of Silence Movie clip – Amir Siahaan, the subdistrict Komando Aksi commander (2015).

This obviously creates a new heritage that reflects on a cultural legacy which is closely tied to the beliefs, values, and principles that might affect the way people speak and behave towards each other.

II. Narrative, Set Design and Drama in The Look of Silence

The desire for entertainment is what often brings people to watch fiction movies. To keep the excitement whether being taken by the fantasy of events and facts that really reflect actual events, or curiosity, what really counts is the emotional and dramatic content of any scene. When a completely unreal drama comes with imagination, if taken with the story either by curiosity, and some kind of suspense the listener will signal his or her affective engagement (Mackendrick, 2004).

It seems that the history is a reality not measurable with anything else in terms of objectivity. Each stage of the history has its own development processes, where everyone else’s role and everyone else’s expected contribution is not something reduced to standard organic and mechanical concepts.

Inevitably, the historical aspects or events are part of a physical reality that has continuity in time and space. Even if sometimes the human mind cannot grasp the most universal truths about human experience, the chains of human reasoning can still have a form of realism, and must be determined to penetrate its truth. Not that type of photographic realism, but rather to provide clear insight into the subject matter with acting tones or character development in the screenplay that can influence how the audience absorbs the reality in areas of self-awareness, self-expression, and self-adaptation.

Bazin and Kracauer are of the opinion that “reality differs from its photographic image to the extent that our way of seeing reality differs from our way of seeing films” which gives the cinema a unique status and see what is a break “through the barrier of convention, ideology and prejudice which constricts our view of reality” (Perkins, 1972, p.30).


Although film genres may be fictional and non-fictional the new approach in writing combines the use of fictional with factually accurate narratives about real people and real events. Therefore, it appears that sometimes the convention between different film genres is broken, which allows the filmmakers to create documentary elements in fiction films and, of course, vice versa as if the aim is to absorb something into a brilliant and meaningful story that makes sense for the audience.

In an attempt to understand and explain events from the past, but also those of the present, the narrative structure varies from sequence to sequence. The spectator is encouraged to embrace the unpredictable and unexpected outcomes to underlying tension of the present conditions, because the story has the same problem that relates to adversity and conflict finally “brought into a more immediate, dynamic and revealing relationship” with the contemporary narrative, “a world more concentrated and more shaped than that of our usual experience” (Perkins, 1972, p.69).

In each moment of the film there is a dense network of meanings, which makes it more special in the way they’re combined in terms of a non-linear narrative, and the continuity of their interaction with other sequences. The director uses symbolic meanings in The Look of Silence to represent something in his story that often relates to the continuity of life, like those tiny little butterfly eggs which are moving continuously and the children are being amused by their reaction but still closely observing the undoubtedly mysterious elements while lying down on the living room floor.

Set Design

In the The Look of Silence (2014) the set design is constantly changing, as the dialog is often taken place in the house of perpetrators. Adi Rukun, the main character in the story, attempts to uncover the real, the authentic history, and is passionate about his role to allow the audience an outer journey to different intellectual and ethical levels of the subject.

As part of the set, monochromatic tones are used to create a solemn and rather sad atmosphere, taken into an environment that reflects strong agonising emotions filled with tension, anxiety of the past, and anticipation of violence when working with this type of scenarios and novice type actors.


If people can’t take the responsibility for something they did in the past, there is obviously no reason for them to apologise. Oppenheimer agrees that in all his efforts to adjust their behavior to each other throughout the interaction, consciously apologising is something that will definitely make the perpetrators feel very guilty. The film also shows how Adi wants to have an understanding of moral responsibility that we have for our actions, in hope of reconciliation with opposites.

Oppenheimer affirms that he is not filming Adi interviewing on his behalf, but “filming a scene where Adi is desperately trying to find reconciliation with his neighbor, having been warned by me that I don’t think they’ll be able to apologize; that none of the perpetrators will have the courage to apologize” (Zelenko, 2015).

Sean O’Hagan (2015) observes that there is a different approach to their appearance in the The Look of Silence, and that:

“Aside from a protracted scene in which Amir and Inong act out the torture and killing of Ramli in a similarly grotesque and gleeful manner, The Look of Silence is, a more restrained, quietly haunting film, a meditation on the lingering and pervasive psychological fallout of the genocide. The horror, though it underlies every frame of the film, is subsumed into the intimate story of a grieving, traumatised family: two elderly parents, Rohani and Rukun, and their youngest son, who, 50 years after the genocide, are still living in a village where the murderers of their son and countless other victims are either feared or treated as heroes”.

III. Sequence with Adi and Amir Siahaan, Komando Aksi commander

From an editing perspective the sequence has clear cuts, the flow of the narrative has a symmetrical balance used in camera movement to change the angles from left to right. There is a set of two cameras that can show the main protagonists in close up postures filmed separately. The main camera which is focused on Amir Siahaan, the subdistrict Komando Aksi commander, moves from right to left as the narrative intensifies in a variety of discursive tensions. It is interesting to notice that the primary colors for the decor where the action takes place is constructed of reddish colors, and this can be easily associated with the colors of the uniforms of the Komando Aksi group members. The colors of the surrounding landscape, which are predominately green, perfectly complement with the overall red colors of the living room decor design of Amir Siahaan’s house.

Adi, who is located on the left side of the camera and the interviewee on the right side, talks about multiple ethical issues that concerns moral judgment, reasoning and the development of human rights in Indonesia. In this sequence, Adi speaks to Amir Siahaan, saying that “You were leader of Komando Aksi in this region.”

“Yes”, the commander confirms, calmly in the cast. Adi, the interviewer, continues to dominate the conversation and to communicate his thoughts, “so you were responsible for the mass killings here.” If so, and if the answer is “yes”, the interviewer on the left side can ask something in a particular way, “Do people around here know that?“, and the Komando Aksi commander answers “Yes, they do.”

Adi Rukun left confronts Amir Siahaan
Photo: Adi located on left side of the camera and Amir Siahaan, the subdistrict Komando Aksi commander, on the right side.

The leader of Komando Aksi accepts the fact that he was in charge and by his own command many people were killed in that particular region. Even when Adi goes further by asking him if people around the area know about these mass-killings and who was responsible for them, the general apparently admits that without much inconvenience.

One can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for criminals to experience the fact that someone else might look at them and see murderers who have killed many families. Though often, people like Amir Siahaan, the leader of Komando Aksi, or Anwar, the leader of a gangster group, don’t really care about what others think about them from a public opinion standpoint, because they probably believe that the public opinion it is and it should continue to be the expression of a silenced opinion in Indonesia.

Adi was speaking about his family, particularly about his brother, to the general and saying that, “The thing is … I … My older brother … He was killed.” Adi went on a quietly meditative tone, such as “Because you commanded the killings …” to bring the point about the personal responsibility for own actions. The leader of Komando Aksi suddenly seemed awkward and answered, “It wasn’t really me …”

What seems to be important for people like the leader of Komando Aksi is that they were and are supported by the government, and therefore in terms of rights and responsibilities this shouldn’t be a personal concern. The leader of Komando Aksi seemed unconcerned and that he could not be bothered until confronted with these facts by taking his own thoughts and readjusting them to fit in this context of the story.

When Adi confesses, that his brother Ramli was killed too, there is a moment that the general can understand or acknowledge part of the facts. However, when he was told specifically that what happened was because he commanded the killings, and this immediately obscured the general’s mind.

There was a sudden obstacle in front of him, and suddenly the commander affirms that “There are many Komando Aksi groups… Komando Aksi were the people united with the army,” revealing the extraordinary support involved, “And we had commanders above us… And we were protected by the government,” the general said. In this context expressing a sense of legitimacy and morality, the general enforces some particular political ideology, that it can’t be wrong if the government was involved in this program, “So, you can’t say I’m responsible,” the commander later concluded.

In the last section of the sequence with the leader of Komando Aksi, the main protagonist Adi Rukun, makes an effort to summarise everything that was discussed about the past, with a remarkable ability to compare the common approach to freedom of speech in the past with the present time. Adi goes further to challenge Amir Siahaan, by asking him what the commander would do to him if he, Adi, would come to him with these questions he has now about the past. In short, Adi asks: “If I came to you like this during the dictatorship, what would have happened?” The leader of Komando Aksi stares at him and answers quietly: “You can’t imagine what would have happened.”

When that happens, Oppenheimer thinks that would be sufficient if he can film and assemble the value of this reality, and also the necessity “to document the panic, the shame, the guilt, the fear of guilt, the fear of one’s own guilt, and of course the anger and the threats — then I can make visible through the reactions of the perpetrators and through Adi, this abyss of fear and guilt that divides everybody” (Zelenko, 2015).

The film encourages the possibility for honest self-expression, where the perpetrators take account of their past and present deeds, and give a clear response that consists of some portion of reality, in order to help us to understand these complex processes of democratic transformation.

IV. Conclusions

The central character in The Look of Silence, Adi Rukun, invites us to challenge injustice, discrimination and indifference. In fact, he is willing to confront the leadership and common lies that have penetrated into present day society. This essay has tried to highlight how Joshua Oppenheimer used archive footage in the making of a narrative that is relevant to the plot, which adds meaning and value to his films. In this case like in many others that were involved in the genocide, the perpetrators have a set of moral “rules”, which are determined by the particular set of principles. These principles are, however, firmly rejected by current society and have also produced confusion over the normative role of western civilisation in the global democracy.

The term “democracy” has been in use for a very long time. Its meaning and philosophy can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. However, “until now has not been any text adopted at the world-wide level by politicians which defined its parameters or established its scope” (Cornillon, 1998, p.5). Many of the perpetrators have high public positions in the current society and are personally involved in the making of history, so it would be particularly worth the effort to find out views on this matter. Both parties, the victims and the perpetrators are likely to play a uniquely important role in the film. This suggests that both offenders and victims have shaped the political culture by their social experience and the disproportionate intervention of factors that motivated a clear contemplation of violent events.

Something even more detestable is to discover that many of the perpetrators are still in power and 50 years after the genocide in Indonesia they are still extremely dangerous. In my chosen sequence Amir Siahaan, the leader of Komando Aksi, wants to justify his own behaviour in an attempt to overshadow his actions, apparently, with the belief that these actions were unavoidable, necessary and proper. These moral principles exercised equality regardless of all human beings, social and political equality, freedom, transparency and responsibility, could be easily misinterpreted by Amir and others like him.

Adi has the courage to stand up for what he believes, and in this context of legitimacy, the question of morality is something that he wants to identify in these individuals. After Amir concludes that he is not responsible for his actions because they had commanders above them, Adi confronts him again so calmly and rationally, “Every killer I meet”, he argues, ”none of them feel responsible”.

The killers often claim that to open up the past now, as before the wound has healed up, will not help. But how to facilitate healing those painful emotional wounds and to confront the denial of the actual violence if not through “reopening the wound” and fighting for truth and justice for these horrific crimes?

In the film it has been highlighted that all of these sources of power can influence, manipulate and change what is taught in schools. This is demonstrated with clearly presented information in the film sequence where a teacher of teenagers asks the scholars different questions about their culture and history. Jess Melvin (2014) is of the opinion that the perpetrators of the Indonesian killings won:

“Indonesia is a country in which the killers have won. Their continued protection is being actively facilitated by Indonesia’s Attorney General”, and goes further into discussion to explain that “The regime came to power on the back of the genocide and many hoped that an investigation into the killings, believed to have claimed at least half a million lives, would bring the perpetrators to justice and allow Indonesia to move forward”.

Ultimately, the offenders and the victims have to live together in a country that they want to build, but to build it on lies may not be morally justified. To live in a country where the criminals and victims know about these crimes, and see each other in their day to day activities, can be a rather difficult task, in part because there isn’t a conventional line that transcends the world of lies about what has happened to “up to a million PKI supporters” (McDonald, 2015) during the military dictatorship in Indonesia. Given the lack of coherence of information related to the genocide and the propaganda machine of manipulation of public opinion, Jess Melvin correctly notes that, “perpetrators such as those in the above films are perhaps doing the most damage to this official version of events. Self-assured of their own impunity, they have not realized that the propaganda is only able to function through the denial of the actual violence. Having exposed themselves as murderers they dig the hole deeper by attempting to transfer responsibility for their actions to their military commanders.”

To live the truth over there, along with fake heroics, and to try understand how it happened, why something like this happened, and, according to Joshua Oppenheimer, “to recognise it as collective insanity” (Zelenko, 2015) was undoubtedly a complex and challenging task for the director.

Bibliography:, Inc. 1998. Chicago International Film Festival. [online] available via [accessed 08/12/2016]., Inc. 2016. Joshua Oppenheimer. Awards. [online] available via [accessed 08/12/2016].

Inter-Parliamentary Union. 1998. DEMOCRACY: ITS PRINCIPLES AND ACHIEVEMENT. Geneva, Switzerland. [online] available via 04/01/2016].

Mackendrick, A. 2004. On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press.

McDonald H. 2015. Indonesia’s coup remains a mystery 50 years on. [online] available via [accessed 29/10/2016].

Melvin, J. 2014. Film exposes wounds of denial of 1965 violence. The Jakarta Post. [online] available via [accessed 21/11/2016].

O’Hagan, S. 2015. Joshua Oppenheimer: why I returned to Indonesia’s killing fields. [online] available via [accessed 24/12/2017].

Perkins, F. 1972. Film As Film: Understanding And Judging Movies. Minority Reports, 30, Form and Discipline, 69-70. Penguin Group. England.

The Act of Killing, 2012. [film, DVD]. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. UK, Dogwoof Pictures.

The Look of Silence, 2014. [film, DVD]. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. UK, Dogwoof Pictures.

YouTube, 2013. Werner Herzog and Errol Morris talk about “The Act of Killing”. Drafthouse Films.[online] available via [accessed 27/12/2016].

Zelenko, M. 2015. Talking to Joshua Oppenheimer about his devastating follow-up to The Act of Killing. [online] available via [accessed 26/10/2016].


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