The Look of Silence

PBS Premiere: June 27, 2016Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Statement

My previous film 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. There is a scene filmed in January 2004, which is the genesis of both films: Two former death squad leaders lead me along a road and down to the banks of North Sumatra's Snake River, reenacting with apparent glee how they helped the army kill 10,500 people at a single clearing on the riverbank. At the end, they pose for snapshots--souvenirs of what for them was a happy and memorable afternoon out. Experiencing one of the most traumatic days of my life, I knew I would make two companion films.

What chilled me was not the facts of the genocide, nor even the boasting--an obvious manifestation of the killers' impunity and ongoing power. Rather, what terrified me was the fact that the two men had never met before, yet seemed to be reading from a shared script. They both felt that boasting was the acceptable way of speaking about these events. I realized that the boasting was systemic.

So I decided that neither film would be a historical documentary about the events of 1965 per se. Instead, both would explore the present-day legacy of the genocide. One film -- what became The Act of Killing -- would explore the stories victorious perpetrators tell themselves so that they can live with themselves, and the consequences of these lies on their own humanity and on society. The other film would tackle an equally important question: what happens to a whole society and its people when they live in fear and silence for 50 years. That film would be The Look of Silence.

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 the 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 the experience of the survivors, 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 not only 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, and strain to listen to the silence that follows.

-- Joshua Oppenheimer, Director