THE ACT OF KILLING is a tough act to follow, let alone surpass, but director Joshua Oppenheimer does just that with THE LOOK OF SILENCE. Billed as a sequel, it’s actually more of a companion piece: whereas the first film profiled surviving death squad leaders of Indonesia’s 1965 genocide of over two million Communist citizens by the military-controlled government, the second examines that massacre from the point of view of the victims’ families.

In the earlier film, Oppenheimer not only interviewed the killers but encouraged them to re-create the various ways in which they committed the acts as if they were scenes in a Hollywood movie. The results were not only jaw-dropping and absurd, they also illustrated how disturbingly wide the chasm between action and perception remained for the killers, none of whom were willingly remorseful for their deeds. THE LOOK OF SILENCE does not boast as attention-getting or entertainingly surreal a stylistic hook, but it’s soon apparent that it doesn’t really need one. Instead of profiling multiple subjects affected by the killings, Oppenheimer limits his focus to one: Adi Rukun, whose older brother was one of the genocide’s casualties. Born a few years after his brother’s death, he doesn’t have first-hand experience or memories of the killings, but we see their lingering, traumatic influence on his family, particularly his ancient, senile father and aged (but still mostly lucid) mother—even decades later, they’re still shattered by the loss of their son. Throughout the film, they each sing hymns to him, sometimes consciously, occasionally not.

In one sense, the title refers to numerous scenes where we view Rukun quietly, pensively watching footage Oppenheimer shot of the men who murdered his brother (who shamelessly describe the killing in brutally graphic detail). In another, the title is a play on Rukun’s profession as an ophthalmologist, which he uses as an “in”, gaining access to the killers in the guise of an eye exam. In a culture where the killings aren’t talked about because the killers still hold political power, Rukun’s interviews are astonishing for his bravery and even-handed composure. Once each eye-exam is finished, he almost seamlessly finesses the conversation to shift towards the hot-button topic of the genocide and his personal relation to it. As with the earlier film, not a single killer Rukun talks to is apologetic, and most rapidly become irritated with him (many even mechanically reciting decades-old propaganda about how the so-called Communists “took multiple wives” and such). However, there is one exception regarding a killer’s daughter: the conversation between her and Rukun is as riveting as the final scene in THE ACT OF KILLING, even suggesting a teeny tiny measure of hope for Indonesia’s future generations.

As with the earlier film, there is some speculation that, as an act of journalism, THE LOOK OF SILENCE is slanted and subjective with Oppenheimer staging its interviews. Perhaps that’s not an entirely made-up claim, but it’s ultimately dwarfed by the film’s two major achievements: not only does the filmmaker continue to reveal just how disparate both reality and society are for Indonesian citizens on either side of the conflict, he also enables Rukun to initiate a necessary dialogue. The enduring tragedy of the genocide is that, even nearly a half-century later, such a dialogue can only extend so far. This conflict makes for a powerful, cathartic watch—maybe even more so than THE ACT OF KILLING because there are no flashy distractions. In hopes to reveal more about its participants, the earlier film puts up smokescreens, while this one makes an emphatic effort to eradicate any mirage.  Grade: A

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: