Ethics Behind the Look of Silence

Originally published on 25 March 2015 at Cinema Poetica / Translated by Avin Kesuma


The Look of Silence (2014) is a sequel to the popular and acclaimed documentary The Act of Killing (2012). Joshua Oppenheimer, one of the directors, even received the MacArthur Genius Grant for his latest project. The approach used in the two films, which both circle around the events of 1965 communist purge, is considered new and bold in the documentary genre. In The Act of Killing, viewers were brought face-to-face with the executioners that took millions of lives believed to be linked with Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI/Indonesian Communist Party) back then. Anwar Congo, the main character of this film, is one of the executioners. Meanwhile, in The Look of Silence, the director cleverly uses Adi, a traveling optometrist, whose brother Ramli was one of the victims. However impressive the films might look, ethically, I actually was disturbed by such approach.

Watching The Act of Killing, I was not comfortable to witness how the director made friends with the butchers, and created a movie which blatantly depicted their glory in the 1965 massacre—for the sake of opening the eyes of the supposedly historically-blind Indonesian audience. The relations of the director with the interviewees gave the sense that it was of a wolf in sheep’s clothing as the director has his own agenda. It is common knowledge that access to the resource is one of the keys to the success of a documentary. Bargaining power is more interesting in the eyes of the producers or granter if the director had privileged access to the resource. While watching The Act of Killing, I could not help but wonder what kind of approach was used by the director so that he could make the speaker to divulge their darkest history with such ease. It is unlikely that all of it was obtained by simply pointing to their noses, blaming them as criminals against humanity, while the director claimed that he wanted to show the dark side to the international community.

As a documentary filmmaker, I believe that every director is responsible for manipulating the subject in the movie not just for the sake of its own. Although, in this case, the director says it is for the interest of justice. I believe documentary as a collaborative work. The subject has the right to know about what exactly the film is being made, what is the purpose of the filmmaker, the source of funds, and so on. The director is fully responsible for the impact that will emerge and be experienced by the subject when the movie was released, and therefore the subject entitled to watch and gave approval to the final outcome of the film. According to me, all those things have been violated by the movie director of The Act of Killing. In Indonesia, I hear too often how a documentary backfired to the subjects, simply because the director forgot that they have a real life. The speakers were forced to bear the adverse consequences after the public watch the film while the director was able to waltz away, back to their comfortable life in big cities. Or maybe the supporters of The Act of Killing will think, why bother thinking about the impact of the film to a vicious killer like Anwar Congo?


It is necessary to understand the power relations in documentary filmmaking. The director, who is supposedly educated and literate about media, holds the highest power. He or she (should have) known how movies are made, and what risks will emerge once the film is released to the public. At this point the director’s integrity is tested. Defenders of The Act of Killing could argue, that it is okay if the director is manipulating Anwar Congo and his friends, because all of the manipulations done by the filmmakers was nothing compared compare to what they did, taking lives of thousands. If so, does that mean bad people may be manipulated for the sake of a noble mission? That an eye for an eye is permitted? I think you do not have to be a Buddhist monk to feel disturbed by such logic.

Although, in The Act of Killing, there is a scene where Anwar Congo regretted and felt guilty after the director showed the reenactment footage of the murder scene that they had done, keep in mind that the this process happened without him knowing the agenda of the directors. Would it be the same if he knew he was being manipulated? Al Jazeera, in a broadcast, once interviewed Anwar Congo in Medan. They tried to bring Anwar with Joshua through Skype application. There was a brief dialogue in which Anwar said how The Act of Killing had put him in an awkward position. Please check the moments at 19:12 in this Al Jazeera video titled Indonesia’s Killing Fields.

This ethical problems would not have emerged if only the director confronted the subject honestly. The director should have pursued the opinions of his subjects, without having to manipulate them by pretending as a friend. It was even more unethical when the director chose to flee to first world countries, hailed as a hero, while his collaborators remained as anonymous directors, letting their subjects face the problems they have left behind.

If the director’s manipulation and exploitation in The Act of Killing was aimed the executioners, the director went one step ahead in The Look of Silence by targeting the families of the executioners. The director was directing Adi, as optometrists, to approach the executioners and their families, and asking questions that had nothing to do with eye health.

My discomfort as an audience instantly emerged when Adi visited the first executioner. Instead of receiving the prescriptions for his eyes health, he was instead being bombarded with pretentious and intimidating questions from Adi. In a family consisting of a seemingly dazed father and his daughter, see how Adi dramatized the scene with the story of how the father drank the blood of the murdered victims to retain his sanity.

Also, when Adi asked the girl about how she felt when she knew her father had killed people and drank their blood. Adi’s style reminds me of the style Indonesian TV reporters when covering a catastrophic event, which is always grilling victims with the questions like “How do you feel?”, while moving the camera in a zoom-in shoot, hoping the speaker shed a tear or two to get a dramatic effect a la cheesy soap operas. Many considered it was the most touching scenes in the film and served as examples of reconciliation efforts. I was indeed touched and sympathized, but not towards Adi, but the girl who were forced to get involved in bearing the sins of her father.

In another scene, The Look of Silence showed how Adi forced his own uncle to plead guilty for the death of Ramli. The reason, then, the uncle was in charge of guarding the cinema where the victims were detained before being killed. Furthermore, Adi still felt the need to complain about it to her mother to get another drama. All of it reminds me of the devide et impera (divide and rule) tactics employed by Indonesia’s former imperialists. I could see how clever the director constructed these situations for dramatic effects, in which the speaker looked more like a pawn in a chess game rather than a character who had pure motives.


The Look of Silence was the result of carefully measured and planned construction. Shot in only six days, most of the scenes in this film were not something that was organic and recorded, but results of acting and staging. The reaction of the butchers and their families was the most brilliant thing about this movie, but we have to remember that it was the director who created the scene, and has the full power over the scene. Adi’s motivation as the main character was made into the projection of the director’s vision. For me, what is important is whether a documentary can be believable. Agrarian Utopia, for example, in the process of making this 2009 Thailand film, director Uruphong Raksasad used fictional approach. However, it was convincing to me as reassuring as a documentary. Is The Look of Silence trustworthy enough as a historical document?

The Look of Silence‘s exploitation peaked when Adi visited the last family. As the executioner had died, Adi met his ailing wife and their child who apparently did not know anything. The family’s openness in accepting the director to his house and their willingness to be filmed was clearly tarnished by the unethical behavior of the director.

Notice how the scene was constructed—starting from Adi showing a video, which I guess was a research material taken when the father was still alive. Not only the father seemed proud when being interviewed, the butcher even showed a book containing a list of people whom he successfully slaughtered. In the video, the wife was also seen, who was standing cheerfully beside him. The scene is reminiscent of the behavior of ordinary people of Indonesia in front of camera: carefree, innocent, open—without the slightest idea about the agenda of the person behind the camera.

The scene then moved to the present, where the wife was interviewed intimidatingly by Adi—who visited the house with the capacity as God knows what. The earlier video was shown for the sake of dramatic effect, as if to say, “your husband is a killer, your father is a killer, and you shall bear his sin.” When the butcher’s family felt uncomfortable and plead for the interview to stop, one director said, in Indonesian with thick American accent, that he wanted show another video. It appeared that the director just wanted to add a dramatic atmosphere and, at the same time, cornered the family. For me, that was the defining moment of the film. The Look of Silence successfully transformed into a movie that stigmatized the executioners’ families—a kind of stamp that loudly yells that these people are the “spawn of murderers”, who have to bear the sin of their predecessors.

The Look of Silence and The Act of Killing were screened in the Master’s program at the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam in November 2014. In a Q&A session after the screening, an Indonesian audience who settled in Amsterdam asked if Joshua Oppenheimer as director did not felt disturbed with the scene, where he forced the family to watch the video the husband/father who admitted as the killer. Joshua replied that it was the truth.

Joshua’s answer, as a director who has been recognized as a Master, sounds unbelievable. Joshua’s statement sounded more like an answer from an amateur who is studying to make a documentary. His answer assumes that cinema is a true reflection of life—reality is served without any intervention from the filmmaker, without any manipulation by the camera and editing montage. You do not have to be a Harvard student to understand that film is a medium open to manipulation. This alone renders the integrity of the director questionable. Perhaps, it is time we recognize Joshua Oppenheimer (and his partner, the anonymous director) is indeed a ‘Master’ in exploitative documentary.


The Look of Silence is considered as a movie that promotes reconciliation on the tragedy of 1965. I doubt the film is suitable for it. Adi actually looked helpless and clueless coping with his own anger, and it is used cleverly by the director to create drama. If The Look of Silence is aimed for reconciliatiory purposes, we must certainly question: the reconciliation between who? What kind of reconciliation, and how? Is such reconciliation scene where the son of an executioner eventually apologizes for the sins of his father to the families of the victims as represented in this film by Adi? If so, has this film simplified the 1965 tragedy and reduced it to a tasteless family drama of killers and victims, failing to see the sociopolitical context of the era, where both of these families were small parts of of a larger thing that was exploited by the ruler? If yes, then how simplistic this film has been in looking at these tragedies—as if people are only good and bad. The Look of Silence fails to take into account that these killers were actually being used and were victims themselves—they were all ensnared in a complex web of power.

To wash their hands clean from blood, the masterminds of the 1965 tragedy cleverly pitted communities horizontally—where anti-communist people were being used to kill his own relatives who were alleged communists. Then how is it any different with the filmmakers of The Look of Silence who re-confronted the two parties? Were not all parties equally victims of the larger game while the great puppeteer(s) who should be responsible for was not revealed or was not even touched at all? Audience is invited to look at this issue only from a small scope, without being able to see the larger projection. Joshua Oppenheimer and the anonymous director cleverly utilized Adi’s rage to confront many other parties, who are actually as weak as he was. Like The Act of Killing, the issue of power relations re-appears in The Look of Silence. It is even more imbalanced at this time. Have the directors considered the consequences of what would happen to the people who met Adi after the screening of the film?

If Adi was trying to open the door of forgiveness in The Look of Silence, then why did he felt the need to move from Medan to save himself and his family, as told by Joshua during the film discussion in Amsterdam? If he wanted reconciliation, he was supposed to remain in his village and continue to work as optometrists—while visiting people he considered to be involved in killing his brother in the hopes of reconciliation. Isn’t his sudden departure contradictory with his reconciliatory mission, as well as the mission of this movie? If the reconciliation intended in this film was the reconciliation between the executioners’ families and their victims, then how about the involvement of the Suharto’s regime and the foreign policy of the United States?

A Japanese director who recently watched The Look of Silence in Amsterdam asked me, “Whether the victims have received compensation?” I asked in return, “Compensation from whom?” He then said, from the killers. Then I asked him that why the murderer obliged to pay compensation to the victims and whether he understood the sociopolitical situation at that time. He looked confused.


I concluded he simply did not know. My friend’s confusion proves that The Look of Silence has reduced the 1965 tragedy into a family drama with black-and-white characters. The film has failed to contextualize the 1965 tragedy. It failed to present the context of the Cold War, decolonization, and anti non-aligned movement. You can see how Adi forced his uncle to confess that he was indirectly involved in the killing of Ramli, also how Adi sued her uncle for not saving Ramli. The staging of the film actually toned down the severity of the 1965 tragedy, when everyone faced life-and-death choices on daily basis. It was a time when a brother could betray his siblings, a wife could betray her husband, and so on. Survival was all that matter back then.

Audience who are well-informed about the complexities of the 1965 communist purge in Indonesia could easily understand this film, but what about people who do not have enough references? I doubt The Look of Silence successfully presents the history clearly. And what can we learn from the film about history that fails to provide context? I agree on what is written by Robert Cribb, a researcher who has published a book about the 1965 mass murder. In his writings on The Act of Killing, he wrote that in the end, the film only described Indonesian people loved to kill because they had no human values.

Regarding the US involvement in the massacre, Joshua, in the Amsterdam discussion, said that he had difficulty getting the data and facts. Even though there is already an existing applicable disclosure laws, he still found difficulties to obtain the data. Double standards were spotted here. If Oppenheimer wanted to reveal this history, he should also be able to do just like what he did on Anwar Congo, befriends with Americans who were involved, as he is manipulating Anwar Congo to get the story from the other side.

The Look of Silence was celebrated, adored, and supported by human rights activists. Komisi Nasional Hak Asasi Manusia (Komnas HAM/National Commission on Human Rights) even provided a letter of support for the film screenings in Indonesia. The questions are, how could they support a film which exploited its subjects, a film that creates a new stigma against the powerless, a film which has questionable ethics in its making? Is it true that we do not need ethics in our fights for human rights? As a layman, I am wondering. Is the person who were manipulated to commit crimes are not entitled to their rights as human beings? And whether the family of the person who violated human rights is not entitled to human rights itself?

I am not defending the butchers involved in the 1965 mass killings. I believe that we should continue to discuss the issue in film, literature, or any means available. However, I believe that we need to talk about it in a more elegant and humane, so we can distinguish ourselves from those whom we accuse as human rights criminals. As a documentary filmmaker, I am disturbed by the ethics behind The Look of Silence—how the ends justify the means, how such a noble aim was carried out through manipulative, intimidating, and exploitative methods. Can’t we find another way to tell the story so we will not forget it? As a viewer, I do not want to watch films produced on principles that borders on human rights violation—one of the many things I disagree in life, and I believe I am not the only one. As a human being, what else do we have besides ethics and conscience?