By Bill Arceneaux
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, there is a moment where Cap is confronted about how Allied forces got “nasty” during WW2. “Yeah, we compromised.” Quickly, he asserts it was all done so people could be “free.” Did he mean the Americans in internment camps? No, I don’t think I’m harsh on good old Cap OR veterans of the greatest generation. Why can’t we get critical and ask questions? Yes, I was a little (or maybe a lot) sarcastic with my retort, but the fact remains that his answer doesn’t fully justify treating certain groups of people as less than others.
The Look of Silence changed me. I can safely say the experience of viewing this documentary/narrative hybrid represents a marker in my development and maturity. It may be about war and genocide from another time and place, but it’s just as relevant to America’s present and past.
To be clear, this film depicts an Indonesian optometrist confronting the men who killed his brother in the 1965 genocide there. I made mention of WW2 specifically because that was the war that, as I was taught, was a worthy fight – a reason to no longer remain neutral. In The Look of Silence, the interview subjects’ actions, the victors against communists, are treated as having been necessary and right. Never is there any doubt in this by political officials or teachers or the veterans themselves. Of course, it helps when all these people still have power and sway. In 5th grade, when I learned of the American internment camps and the Holocaust, my mind instantly drew comparisons. Just as instantly, I was shut down by my teacher reassuring us that we were, in fact, the good guys.
The framing device in Silence is that of a young optometrist who services many of the men who served way back when, in a similarly considered “just cause.” He’s kind, checking their eyes while asking directly about what happened. EVERY answer he gets is a variation of “We had to,” or “They were evil,” or my favorite “The past is the past.” If anything is clear, the past has most certainly not passed. Maybe you want to be done with it, but it’s not done with you. We hear ignorant and horrifying accounts of incidents, one after the other, told with victorious gesturing and zeal. No remorse whatsoever. And why not? To them, they were morally in the clear, given peace of mind by leaders. If someone higher up says it’s ok or right and needed, why should I feel bad?
I’ll never forget watching a History Channel documentary on the A-bomb drops over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The pilots and crewmen go over in detail how it all went down and, in response to any possible criticism directed their way, say, “It was necessary,” “This was the only way to end it,” and “You’ll never understand.” I’ll never know what it’s like to be a soldier, nor to be one in that particular situation, but I like to think I understand guilt and regret. Even if ordered to do something awful, even if responsibility technically lay elsewhere, I’d still naturally shoulder something awful for the rest of my life.
How about the men interviewed in Silence? Part of me has to believe that, just by their deflecting answers to pointed questions, they hurt inside. They feel inside. Some of them, at least. Either way, a lesson on humanity, on generational rifts and on how we view history is learned. And forever after, you’ll look at conflicts differently. I hope you will, anyways. If not, I may have some questions for you.
5 / 5 *s and my favorite film of the year (thus far).
The Look of Silence comes to The Manship on September 13th. For more from the author, follow him on Twitter @BillReviews.