Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence is a work of profound moral urgency expressed through tenderly devastating empathy. With it, he’s continuing his project of shining cinematic light into a shadowy corner of relatively recent history. It’s a companion piece to his startling, striking, and wholly original The Act of Killing, a documentary about the mass killings of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Indonesia between 1965 and 1966. This extensive and wide-ranging massacre targeted communists, ethnic Chinese, and other leftists in the country. Its perpetrators remain in power to this day. Oppenheimer used his first film to restage some of these murders, asking the murderers to do it themselves. In their own words, and under their own direction, surreally elaborate reenactments and harrowingly cavalier interviews show how happy these men are to remain in power, and how, in their eyes, their crimes are validated. Haunting and upsetting, it’s a piercing and unusual work, viewing a tragedy not from the perspective of its victims, but from those who got away with it.
That initial effort was raw enough in its impact, and powerfully uncomfortable enough in its conceit, that some objections to its approach were understandable. The BBC’s Nick Fraser wrote in Film Quarterly calling The Act of Killing “a high-minded snuff movie.” Seeing a tragedy and its victims from the perspective of those who committed the atrocities was so extreme and uncommon a point of view that it’s easy to get lost in the surface jaw-dropping details and overlook the dark, cynical, stunned outrage the film was expressing. But when it comes to The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer builds on that film’s impact, creating an even richer and more devastating picture of this tragedy’s impact. He follows a middle-aged Indonesian, a man whose brother had been murdered during the killings, as he confronts some of the people responsible. It’s unblinking in its confrontational aspects, but soft-spoken, even in tone, all the better to persuasively expose wrongdoings long excused.
We see this man – unidentified for his own safety – watching footage from the earlier film, then heading out to ask simple questions: whys and hows. The big questions – the “how could you?” and “how dare you?” – remain unspoken, but hang heavily over the proceedings. Each tableau is striking, as the man enters the homes of these powerful men, who presided over tremendous injustice and violence, as part of his job making house calls with an eye exam, literally adjusting their vision. Faces contained within optometric equipment – obscuring some expression, but amplifying eyes, which are, after all, the windows to the soul – men who wear their dark pasts lightly, and with varying degrees of denial and dismissal, are cautiously queried. There’s a real charge of danger to these confrontations. These men still hold power, carry potential for violence. It’s not for no reason the main subject is anonymous here, while daring to ask them about their decades-old acts, deaths for which they feel no remorse.
Oppenheimer, and his largely unnamed crew (again, for their safety), created an impeccably made film. Clean, sharp high definition photography captures every nuance of its subjects. Tightly controlled sound design moves choruses of crickets and pregnant pauses like score, amplifying stillness, drawing out tension. It’s almost unbearably close, and completely enveloping. Here is a movie with an intensely compassionate stare, concerned with how decades-old mass murder resonates through the generations, and through the emotional and psychological well being of this society. This past is at once secret and in the open, a palpable traumatic memory and an injustice met with silence. This film dares to look, to bridge the gap between these seemingly irreconcilable ideas, to expose long diminished or forgotten truths.
We spend time with the man between interviews as he tends to his elderly parents, lovely old folks who are showing signs of fuzzy memories, viewing their pasts through a layer of confusion. And yet the pain of their other son’s death hangs heavy. Life has moved on, but the killings of the past linger in the psyche long after the blood has dried. An even more powerful and impactful film than The Act of Killing’s provocative opening statement, The Look of Silence stands with and apart from its companion film, forming an essential and crushing look at deep emotional pain and lasting destruction both public and private. It gains its power through a capability to take in the humanity of everyone involved – the killers, the victims, and those left to deal with the unhealed wounds physical, psychological, spiritual – and try to understand. I can think of few works of art as intensely compassionate and serenely angry, as willing to frankly consider the evil that some do, and the amazing capacity for resilience others can show in the face of it.