The act of witnessing: cinematic ethics in The Look of Silence

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The Look of Silence (2014), Joshua Oppenheimer’s remarkable sequel to his confronting documentary, The Act of Killing (2012), is a powerful and moving work of cinematic ethics. Indeed, the two films compose a documentary diptych, The Look of Silence providing the absent victim perspective and reckoning with historical responsibility that was lacking in The Act of Killing’s focus on the perpetrators of the 1965-66 massacres in Indonesia after Suharto’s military coup. In this article, I explore this documentary dialogue, showing how these films can be understood as contrasting cases of what I call ‘cinematic ethics’: film understood as a medium of ethical experience enacted through emotional engagement and cognitive reflection. The one film is a ‘perpetrator documentary’ that invites the killers to film bizarre movie-style re-enactments of their crimes, the other a case of ‘ethical witnessing’ in which a descendant of one of the victims questions and confronts his brother’s killer. Together these films stage a cinematic dialogue that contrasts the ethical exposure of the perpetrators (of their culpability as well as their society’s complicity) with the ethical witnessing of the victims (who continue to seek recognition for the suffering they experienced as they contend with the traumatic effects of this history of violence). In this sense, The Look of Silence expresses the ethical force of the victim’s gaze, and the power of their voice to seek acknowledgment of injustice, enacting a critical questioning of the past and demand for recognition in the present that together define an ethics of witnessing.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)31-45
Number of pages15
JournalPost Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities
Issue number2-3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2017

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