Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 The Act of Killing earned dozens of international awards and an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, but the film defied all efforts at easy categorization. It examines the genocide of more than a million people in mid-1960s Indonesia by paying a 21st-century visit to the perpetrators, who remain in power in that country and boastfully portray themselves as national heroes. Oppenheimer asked the mass murderers to “create scenes” about the killings to explain their pride. Without benefit of much additional background, the result was a shocking and surreal work that illuminates the underlying psychology of terror but intentionally leaves burning questions unanswered - as regards both the historical context of depicted events and the process through which the film was made.
Oppenheimer returns to the scene of the crimes with The Look of Silence, a companion film to The Act of Killing that reexamines events from the perspective of victims’ surviving relatives. The director’s methods haven’t really changed - he again provides only a few sentences of background at the start of the film and allows his subjects to tell their stories mostly through their onscreen actions. But where The Act of Killing is disorienting for viewers, The Look of Silence is relatively straightforward in its meditations on memory, truth and reconciliation. Taken together, the two films leave the “documentary” descriptor far behind to generate a deeply personal yet socially activist work of art.
The Look of Silence focuses on 44-year-old optometrist Adi, whose older brother Ramli was murdered as part of the politically motivated Indonesian genocide. True to form, the film never fully explains that Adi and his surviving family were not chosen at random. Ramli’s name had become a code word for the 50-year-old atrocities in his village because his death was one of very few witnessed by others who managed to survive. This is crucial because those mass murderers now serve as local and national officials and successfully maintain a public fiction about their actions. The film follows the soft-spoken and introspective Adi after he does the unthinkable by mounting a series of self-directed confrontations with those responsible for his brothers’ death, even though they are fully capable of repeating that history today as regards Adi and his family.
Adi’s story is more about reclaiming historical truth than settling a score with his community’s oppressors, all in the hopes that he and his people can finally move on with their lives in whatever ways possible. The context absent in The Act of Killing arrives in the form of Adi’s family, from a still-grieving mother to a playful young daughter who will soon be taught official lies in school if nothing is done to change the culture of silence and fear. By resisting the urge to portray Adi as a crusading hero, Oppenheimer preserves the moral complexities of this tragic story and moves beyond the conventions of documentary filmmaking to a place enlivened by creative expression.
Oppenheimer shot The Look of Silence before the release of The Act of Killing to ensure the safety of his collaborators and limit the potential for official obstruction. (Both films list “anonymous” repeatedly in the credits, including that of a presumably Indonesian co-director.) Remarkably, the second film has largely deflected official censorship, inspired the first real public discourse on the genocide among the people of Indonesia and forced the government to begin a slow process of acknowledging past atrocities. There’s nothing like a little hard evidence for the power of art to affect meaningful social change.