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Joshua Oppenheimer is a courageous filmmaker. He’s courageous for many reasons, beginning with his iron willed determinism for truth. It’s a cliche but he’s earned it–he goes where few filmmakers have gone before, putting himself in harm’s way in a double role as investigative journalist and artist. His bravery was the empowering asset behind 2012s The Act of Killing, the companion piece to his latest film, The Look of Silence, where they each act as both prequel and sequel to the other. He’s courageous because he spent years in Indonesia with psychopaths, tyrants, and killers, who he was scared at any moment might turn against him. They were the perpetrators of the 1965 Suharto Coup and genocide, where anywhere from 500,000-1,000,000 (or more) people were murdered after being branded communists by the corrupt military democracy.
Sadly that shockingly high number isn’t the most jarring, or heartbreaking, fact that The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence explores. It’s that, as Oppenheimer himself puts, the evil, perverse people that executed mass killings aren’t just still in power as city, state, and country officials, but they’re celebrated cultural icons. Specifically for their role in the killings themselves, which the country still sees as a necessary cog in the machine for the government’s need to protect itself. That’s the subject matter of Killing, following a group of famous killers, namely one named Anwar, and asking them to recreate their killings in their favorite Hollywood genres—crime picture, old style Western, musical, etc. The effect was a psychopathic dreamland and the interviews where the killers gleefully talk about grotesquely disembodying a person are as surreal as the weird movie scenes that the killers created.
For his followup to the acclaimed Killing (Like many critics, I awarded it my highest rating, for me an A+), Oppenheimer does away with elaborate formalism and to an emotionally intimate, direct approach. Our point of view is flipped, graduating from eerie perspective of killers to tragically following the victims. Adi Rukun is a 44 year old father of two, an eye doctor who specializes in glasses, and a survivor who, despite the institutional melancholia imposed on the victim’s families, is a gentle and strong soul. He’s the protagonist, and we meet him watching footage collected for The Act of Killing, specifically where two men excitedly discuss the disgusting manner they disposed of Adi’s brother. He’s filmed in a softly lit room, framed to emphasize how empty and isolated he is. The vacant space around him is nevertheless overridden with the deep hurt Adi experiences as he views the footage.
I won’t say that their method of killing was, but Adi’s deeply moved, horrified face says everything necessary about the permeating sadness that engulfs Indonesia today. Silence is largely a series of conversations between Adi and the killers, ranging from neighbors to powerful regional leaders, filmed by Oppenheimer and his crew. Adi’s hope isn’t for an argument or even an apology, but to mutually experience remorse and understanding, and find a path towards redemption. The interviewers are an attempted exorcism and Adi is the exorcist, trying to expel demons from the past and find a future less fraught with emotional and cultural turmoil.
The Look of Silence may be less stylistically bizarre, but the bared down style is the cinematic equivalent of an uncomfortable stare, making you squirm, feel uneasy, and self-reflect in the same suspended moment. Still, The Look of Silence is visually complete and doesn’t shy away from stylistic boldness. There are visual metaphors, like the poster image of a genocide perpetrator being asked to see the totality of his actions, and the tragic consequences they’ve wrought while he’s wearing a strange device to test the strength of his vision.
The behind the scenes story of how this documentary was made is almost as compelling as the documentary itself, and Oppenheimer, Adi, and the rest of the crew put themselves in harm’s way to capture the footage necessary to tell this story. When interviewing a powerful politician, Adi is given a thinly veiled threat: he’s asked where his family lives. When promoting The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer tells the interviewer they had a getaway car hidden around the area they could flee to if their lives were in that level of danger. Adding scenes illustrating the steps taken to protect themselves and to put more focus on the hazards of filming, almost like a height movie setup of planning and execution, would have given The Look of Silence a more commercial look. But the razor-focus exacted on the material to stay specific to Adi, his family, and the interviews themselves, invigorates this amazing documentary with an atmosphere of humanism that makes it all the more crushing.
As the director himself says, it would be as if surviving Jewish families interviewed Nazis if they were still in power. It’s a mind boggling idea to contemplate, and a depressing one. This is absolutely hard watching, and not recommended to the faint of heart. I would hesitate to show it to my own mother, whose warmth would feel under attack. Many might feel that way. It’s as black a look as there ever has been into the human soul, an atrocity that hasn’t been awarded international attention because it’s not political enough, or headline-friendly enough, and doesn’t have enough to do with America. But it is a vital, necessary examination of conscience, where the evil of these men is a gateway into the evil in humanity as a whole. It’s universal. There’s parallelism between what happened in Indonesia and the United States’ own history with exploitation with Native Americans and later slavery, and you wonder how many other places in the world have occurrences like this that are still recent history.
This isn’t a film about condemning evil men and their evil deeds, but to reflect on the evil in us and how to rise above it. And not once does it fall into a fatiguing session of armchair philosophy, never telling us what to think and why; instead, Oppenheimer artfully and delicately conveys wells of emotion through the mere construction of his documentary that’s made mostly of conversations.
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