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Every bit as frank and shocking as last year’s The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking documentary about the men behind the brutal murder of some one million Indonesians in the mid-sixties in the name of a Communist purge, The Look of Silence is perhaps even more riveting for focusing on one man’s personal search for answers as he bravely confronts his brother’s killers. All the material was shot while the first film was being made and, though it takes its predecessor a step further, it works fine as a standalone because it recapitulates the relevant information. It is also stunningly beautiful to look at, filmed by Lars Skree in the Disney-like colors of a tropical paradise. Errol Morris and Werner Herzog are again on board as producers and given the first film’s wide release, multiple festival awards and Oscar nomination in the best documentary category, Silence should find the path ahead already paved for theatrical and TV niches as well as guaranteed festival mileage.
Which is not to suggest it is in any way an easy film to watch. Oppenheimer refuses to spare the audience any gruesome detail, and there’s no denying that the film’s element of morbid fascination leaves a guilty-pleasure trail. Delicacy and restraint are certainly not the dominant qualities here, and the accusations of insensitivity that were leveled at the first film fully apply. In addition to repeated, macabre first-person accounts of how the butchers slaughtered their victims, Oppenheimer’s camera mercilessly explores the helpless, crippled body of the main character’s father, a man around 104 years old who can no longer see or hear. While his extreme frailty provides a sort of visual equivalent for the victims of genocide who are the subject of the film, there is just no excuse for filming him in delusional moments in which he is obviously terrified.
Perhaps this nonchalant approach is part of the film’s fascination and a secret behind its originality, because another documentarian would have moral qualms about digging so deeply into the past and opening old wounds. The mass murders took place in 1965 and 1966 and one thing clear from the interviews is that time has in some way smoothed out this terrible rent in the social fabric. Leaders of the death squads live side by side with the families of their victims, and each knows exactly who the other is. But the filmmakers’ contention is that this apparent truce, this reigning silence, is a result of sheer terror and must be broken at whatever the cost.
The unassuming hero of the story (and presumably the co-director credited as “Anonymous”) is Adi, a 44-year-old village optometrist born two years after his brother Ramli was cut to pieces and thrown into Snake River by the death squads. When his young son is fed hate-mongering lies by an anti-Communist teacher in school, Adi decides to confront his murderers. Those who have seen The Act of Killing will not be surprised to find that these old-timers have a creepy willingness not only to talk about their crimes, but to brag about them and gleefully reenact the horrors they perpetrated, which include evisceration, amputations and drinking the blood of their victims. The latter practice is justified as a folksy remedy against “going crazy” from their own bloodlust. Also horrifying is the fact that these men have never been punished — on the contrary, they have grown rich and powerful because of their crimes; one is a long-standing member of the legislature and many regard them as heroes for what they have done. As Adi talks to them on camera he is the nervous one, not them. It is clear he is putting himself in serious danger by speaking out, yet he bravely persists in asking them how they feel about what they have done. None shows the least remorse. Their wives and children pretend they know nothing about these things, but Adi’s patient questioning brings things out into the open while it creates a lot of tense moments onscreen. By the end of the film, long-stifled emotions are visible on the close-up faces of Adi, his friends and family.
There is much here for the viewer to react to positively and negatively. In the end the real value of these two films is the anguishing new light they cast on the darkest reaches of human evil.
Production companies: Final Cut for Real Films, Piraya Film, Making Movies, Spring Films
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Screenwriter: Joshua Oppenheimer
Producers: Signe Byrge Sorensen, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Andre Singer
Director of photography: Lars Skree
Editor: Niels Pagh Anderson
Music: Seri Banang (traditional)
No rating, 100 minutes