In 2012's Oscar-nominated "The Act of Killing," documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer gave audiences a troubling, indelible glimpse into the depths of man's capacity for evil. In 1965 Indonesia, a military coup led to genocide, as anyone opposed to the new regime was accused of being a communist and immediately put to death. All told, more than one million people were slaughtered.
Shockingly, many of those who participated in these massacres still hold power today. In his 2012 film, Oppenheimer allowed a few of the leaders of these death squads to re-enact their crimes, watching as they staged their recollections as horrific funhouse reflections of the Hollywood films that inspired them as young men: classic westerns, gangster films, and musicals. Ostensibly the idea was that, by allowing the men to step into the shoes of their victims, the experience might trigger a sense of compassion in them -- though anyone who's seen that film knows that that's not what happened. The men still see themselves as the glorious heroes of their stories.
When it was released, "The Act of Killing" received some criticism for giving a voice to the perpetrators of those atrocities while inadvertently sidelining the victims. Once again produced by the titans of the documentary form, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, "The Look of Silence" (which isn't a sequel, but rather a companion to that earlier film) rectifies some of those critiques by narrowing its focus to the family of one of the victims. We meet AdiRukun, whose older brother Ramli was one of those killed. With Oppenheimer's help, Adi sets out to confront the men who murdered his brother. Born two years after Ramli's death, Adi seeks to understand and -- we sense -- attain some form of closure to the horrors his family endured.
With no repercussions to the massacre, the perpetrators were free to go back to their lives; as we are repeatedly reminded, the families of the victims are literally neighbors with the men who brutally murdered their loved ones. So they're not exactly hard to find. Oppenheimer follows along, accompanied by cinematographer Lars Skree, as Adi conducts his interviews. An ophthalmologist by trade, Adi questions the men while he administers their eye exams. Though some occasionally grow defensive -- "your questions are too deep!" one angrily scolds -- for the most part they're all too happy to talk.
A quiet man, Adi presents an implacable front, and his stony silence when listening to these stories tells us more than any words ever could. Adi's calm exterior makes any nearly imperceptible hint at his inner state all the more moving. The courage it takes to not only calmly sit across from his brother's killers but refrain from seeking any sort of revenge seems impossibly heroic.
Adi's eye exams provide a potent visual metaphor that Oppenheimer thankfully doesn't push too hard throughout the film (though it is used as the image on the film's poster). Adi helps the men see, and we cannot look away. Though many of the leaders of those death squads are now feeble old men, they still talk freely and openly about the horrific things they did all those years ago. You might assume that their talk might arise from a buried urge to unburden themselves, but the smile they wear while regaling anyone who'll listen tells us that that's not how they see it. The disconnect between their openness and the general public's denial that these events ever took place can be baffling to witness. The narrative of the brave souls who fought to eradicate the communist scourge from the country is still put forth today, as we see in one schoolroom lesson being taught to the impressionable youth, including Adi's son, who afterward parrots the information back to his father.
Nevertheless, these atrocities were swept under the rug by everyone else, and Oppenheimer ruffles more than a few feathers for the way in which his persistent questioning churns up the past. Like "Act," much of his Indonesian crew is credited anonymously, to protect them from possible retribution. Oppenheimer spent years conducting interviews with the leaders of the death squads, local gangsters hired by the state to carry out its dirty work. Throughout "The Look of Silence" we observe as Adi impassively watches video from several of these interviews, hearing the subjects bragging about the slaughters they performed, often in graphic detail.
While "The Act of Killing" was largely a work of sustained horror, "Look" burrows into deeper emotional terrain. This film isn't as immediately dramatic, but is no less powerful. The film builds to a pair of devastating conversations: one between Adi, one of the local gangsters, and the man's daughter, the other with the family of the man physically responsible for killing Ramli. Combined, these scenes provide a painful sort of catharsis. This isn't just great filmmaking, it's essential viewing.