"I’ve been fixing watches in this chair for almost sixty years. It required a lot more skill in the old days. Now I pretty much just replace batteries."
The Look of Silence
Back in 2003, director Joshua Oppenheimer filmed a bunch of surreal interviews with some alumni of Indonesian death squads. The men talk about the shit they did in the mid-60s like the way Al Bundy talked about that one game he scored 4 touchdowns. They giggle as they recall how ‘communists’, an umbrella term that included non-Muslims, ethnic-Chinese, and other regular folk, would weep and shake when they realized they were minutes away from death. These interviewees are all sextegenarians, or even older, and they rock that grandpa uniform: printed silk shirt; khakis with a sharp pleat; silver hair held down with Brylcreem. In one interview, a couple of the killers walk the route down to ‘Snake River’, the site of thousands of murders. At the river’s edge, one man pretends to be the victim, the other, soldier. They play nice. They don’t haggle over who plays which role. Thoughtful enough, even, to supply props. “I brought a real knife to make it feel genuine,” says victim. From his knees, he hands the knife back to the man standing over him then grips at the palm leaves overhead, slumping to let the leaves take his weight. He’ll pretend to shiver at the stabbing motions to his side. He’ll get on all fours to help show the most popular way to finish a guy off, knife run between legs to sever penis, dude kicked into the river to bleed out. For a long time, no one would buy fish or crabs at the market, they say. No one trusted anything out that river.
This ten-year-old footage runs throughout Oppenheimer’s new documentary The Look of Silence. It’s shown to us on a tube TV that is itself in the middle of the movie-frame. There are cuts from the TV to our protagonist Adi, watching in present day, white TV-light bouncing off his cheeks and burrowing into the centre of his eyes. The camera lingers on him, some of the more horrible remembrances we hear on the soundtrack and read via the subtitles beneath Adi’s profile. The movie could have shown us this old camcorder footage unmediated, but it’s making us watch it being watched. In a way, we’re watching along with Adi. “Maybe they’re talking like this because they feel remorse,” Adi says. From off-frame, Oppenheimer replies but we’ll hear his voice much less than we had in the companion piece to The Look of Silence, The Act of Killing (that previous film had a killer named Anwar Congo as its main figure and, watching it, I asked the same question that Adi did: perhaps Anwar brags, and eventually dry-heaves, out of guilt). It seems pretty generous for Adi to start by assuming remorse especially considering that, for the rest of the movie, he’ll be tracking down the killers still living in his hometown, doors away from where his elderly parents live, doors away from where, 50 years ago, Adi’s own brother, Ramli, had been dragged to his death.
Perhaps the question of remorse isn’t a generous question, but more like the only question a normal man can ask while watching dudes pantomime genocide. Even though a lot of time has passed since I watched Joshua’s two films, my palms still sweat when I try, and fail, to conceive what might be working inside these guys’ heads if it’s not, in fact, remorse. It’s not my favorite thing, trying to send my mind to the place where a man could so matter of factly describe a woman’s cut-off breast as looking like a coconut milk filter. Or to the place where a dude chuckles about the time he brought a woman’s head to a Chinese tea shop. “Why?” Adi asks. Obviously: “To scare the Chinese there.” As Adi finds these men and – similar to how Josh did in 2003 – interviews them, he doesn’t find the remorse he’d assumed. I’m not even sure there’s a word for what he finds, for the energy and mood in these exchanges, a civilian victim questioning high-ranking government officials who have built entire lives on mass murdering guys just like Adi.
Adi comes to each of these interviews armed with his optometry equipment. The metered frames, like clocks, around the old men’s eyes. Adi slips in disc after plastic disc, each marked by blue or red, and asks, does this one make you see better? He’ll make glasses for them. It’s almost too theatrical, a metaphor holding a dozen clear meanings: Adi’s mission to look back into the past; these men with their impaired views of history; Adi’s attempt to correct and cure them; etc. The glasses even point at the age-dynamics at play. Adi, a village eye-doctor, is at a disadvantage when it comes to political power and ruthlessness. But in these exchanges, where it’s just him and some senior citizen killer, Adi’s got youth. He’s 44-years-old, just about the same age as these men were when they’d committed atrocities. During the first interview, I couldn’t help but notice Adi’s heat as he tested the old guy’s vision. Adi did things I do when I want to work guys’ faces at clubs. He flicks at nothing underneath his nose. The backs of his jaw, the points underneath his ears, throb. He holds his chest high as obvious thoughts of violence cross his mind. The movie making, the presence of cameras and cameramen, on the one hand, is the only reason the old man had agreed to sit with Adi. But the presence of cameras might have been the only thing keeping Adi from tearing this motherfucker to shreds. There’s this Nabokov short story I like where this Jewish barber reveals to the man he’s shaving, blade scraping against the rough skin on his neck, that he recognizes him as a guard, back from the good old days at the concentration camp.
Adi can only ask his questions to a certain point. Each time, he starts by asking things like did you buy your wonderful house with money made during the war? He asks, how many men did you kill? Do you feel like you did a good service for your country? The old men get agitated as Adi’s questions become more and more accusatory, as he points out their propaganda and inconsistencies. The first interviewee says, for example, how he’d always killed humanely and with only one cut. “But you just said you cut off a woman’s breast. That’s not a fatal wound so you admit to doing two cuts.” The old man, his eye twitching and his tongue flicking, replies: “You’re asking too many deep questions.” These guys don’t like this shit. Adi tries to prove his remorse-hypothesis, by explaining that he’s not looking for revenge, just the truth. Here’s your chance! Tell it! But when he reveals that he’s the brother of one of the men killed, each interview hits a terminus, and Adi’s hypothesis gets refuted. Another interviewee, who’d begun the interview quite personably, belting out a love-song over a beat from his tinny Yamaha keyboard, asks where Adi’s brother, Ramli was killed, exactly, and in which district do your parents live? Intimidation, not remorse. One thread throughout was how each killer claimed that the secret to not going insane because of the horrible murders, the flayed penises and breasts: “we drank the blood of our victims.” Oh. They made this claim with the matter-of-factness of science. Being professorial about mass murder is an even more insidious thing than insanity. Remorse might be mixed deep in these guys somewhere, but there’s something much more complex and grotesque and warped going on. Remorse makes sense to Adi and to me, but to expect it and link it somehow to mass murder is somewhat naive.
Adi was present at the screening I attended at TIFF so he was watching himself watch footage of men describing and joking about murdering his brother. He had to watch sequences where he’d asked his mother for her memories about the genocide. It’s a hard thing to do to an old woman, but a vital and humane necessity so they can share this stuff with the world. At first, she denies remembering anything from 1965 and cautions her son about opening old wounds. Adi, a few rows down from me in the darkened cinema, had to watch the time he’d gotten his mom to bare her sadness and recall how when had made it home to her after being attacked, crawled through the bush with his intestines hanging out. Ramli’d cried and asked for tea. At the moment the water boiled, the men returned and took him away. To the hospital, they lied. She begged them to let her come, too, but they refused and she never saw Ramli again. Her anger, a half-century later, that shit makes sense and thank God for a recognizable, human emotion to ground this movie. We don’t get remorse, but this anger ain’t nothing. “Be careful,” she tells Adi when he reveals he’s interviewing the killers. “Take a butterfly knife or a baton wrapped in newspaper.” She points at a spot at the back of the neck. “If you hit them here, they won’t get up.”
Mark Rothko, No. 1, 1962
Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini
The translator of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s brutal “A Sentimental Novel” tells Elisabeth Zerofsky:
"As far as the book itself and the material, a few times I had to walk away and return in a steelier frame of mind to take up a particularly hair-raising passage. … At best, you might…
A Sentimental Novel