Overview: Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion film to The Act of Killing follows the family of one of the victims of the genocide explored in that film. Drafthouse Films; 2015; Unrated; 103 Minutes
Puzzle Pieces: Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2013 film The Act of Killing is a towering cinematic achievement, its calm demeanor belying a power and immediacy that almost demands to be labeled “important”. His follow-up, The Look of Silence, made me wonder how I ever appreciated Act of Killing alone. As its title suggests, the first film focused on killers, specifically a group of former thugs in Indonesia whose genocide of supposed Communists was not-so-secretly sanctioned by the Indonesian government. Look of Silence turns its gaze to the victims, or to be more precise a single family whose son was brutally murdered as part of the same purge. I had the privilege of seeing the film at South by Southwest this year, and it was far and away the best feature I saw at the festival.
The two films certainly work well on their own, but it’s remarkable how well they work together. Each fills in gaps in the other, the two films forming together so coherently that it’s a wonder they’re separate to begin with. Act of Killing was as formally daring a documentary as they come; Oppenheimer tasked the murderers with recreating their murders on film, with the hope that it would lead them to a revelation about their wrongdoings. Look of Silence takes a comparatively conventional approach, with much more time spent on interviews than anything else. But by taking control away from the killers, the film is free to openly attack them for their lies and hypocrisies. It’s somewhat cathartic to see these men openly confronted, and the design of Act of Killing prevented anything like that from happening. Oppenheimer was criticized for implicitly glorifying the killers in Act of Killing by spending so much time letting them talk about (and recreate) the murders they committed. Look of Silence feels first and foremost like an answer to those complaints, and not just because the focus is on the victims.
Gotcha Journalism: Oppenheimer takes a backseat here, handing control of the film over to a man named Adi whose brother was killed in the aforementioned massacre. Adi’s brother was killed before he was born, leaving Adi unable to escape the shadow of his death. His personal connection to the killings makes him an ideal instigator of guilt trips in conversations with the killers, but Oppenheimer takes care to note that this isn’t the only way the killings rule his life. As explored in Act of Killing, the death squad leaders are well-respected and powerful members of their communities all these decades later, and not because their actions are a secret. We see Adi’s son in class, where he is taught of the filthy Communists who were rightfully executed. Some of them, his teacher says, even offered themselves up to be killed because of how guilty they felt for their misdeeds, a disturbing lie as well as an eerie parallel to the final scenes of Act of Killing. Later, Adi must tell his son the truth of the matter, knowing full well how dangerous this dissent could be.
Oppenheimer shows Adi footage of the two men who killed his brother reenacting the event, gleefully recapping every gruesome detail. He cuts back to this several times, showing more and more of the footage as well as Adi’s stony reaction. The relationship between film and film-watchers is vital to Act of Killing‘s thesis about human nature, but Oppenheimer reduces it to these moments for Look of Silence, using it more as a function of memory and perspective. The only memory of his brother’s death belongs to two men who revel in having caused it, forcing Adi to empathize with them in order to understand what took place. These scenes are fascinating, but they might as well have “For more, check out The Act of Killing!” stamped on them. They are the least subtle line drawn by Oppenheimer between the two films.
Surveillance: Oppenheimer doesn’t abandon his theories about the innate power of cinema in Look of Silence, though, far from it. His thesis here is far less direct or outwardly experimental in its explication, but its simplicity packs a punch of its own. The subject switches from film itself to the camera, displaying the power of its presence. See, Adi could never get away with talking to these people the way he does under normal circumstances. Refusing to entertain any pretense of innocence in their interactions, Adi tries to force them to admit their guilt. He puts them on trial, relentlessly demanding that they come clean about their actions. “You ask deeper questions than even Joshua did!” exclaims one, referring to the soft prodding approach that Oppenheimer took and infuriated at Adi’s piercing accusations. As mentioned above, these men still hold tremendous political and social power in Indonesia. Some of them could very well have Adi dragged out and shot for his insolence. And why don’t they? Because they’re on camera. None of them would kill someone if they thought there would be consequences, and that’s what the camera represents. Once it’s on film, it’s out of their control, and it could be seen by people with the power to do something about it. The camera protects Adi from harm, acting as a neutral witness whose very existence is a threat to immoral behavior. This shouldn’t diminish Adi’s courage in standing up to these men, of course. He’s still taking an immense personal risk in doing so, and knowing that makes those scenes punishingly intense to watch.
(If you’re curious about a more meta-textual explanation, Oppenheimer stated in a post-screening Q&A that his presence was as much a deterrent as the camera’s. At the time of filming, Act of Killing had been shot but not released, so he was well-known among Indonesian elite as having close ties to some very powerful and dangerous men. He said it was likely that some of the interviewees in Look of Silence thought those connections made him a threat, not knowing how harshly critical his film was of those people. Still, Oppenheimer is barely a presence in the film itself, so an analysis of the text points more towards the camera as a force than him.)
After the screening, I got the chance to briefly talk to Oppenheimer. I asked him if his future work would return to the conceit of Act of Killing — persuading killers to understand their own evils by having them see those evils as a film and tricking them into empathizing with their victims as characters — or if he thought that the idea was specific to that film. At the time, I was struck by Look of Silence‘s sharp departure from its companion’s structure. He told me that no, it was not specific to Act of Killing, and that his next project did indeed reuse the concept. The idea that we tell ourselves stories to assuage our guilt is fundamental to understanding evil, he said. If Act of Killing is concerned with stories, Look of Silence is concerned with truth. The victims and their families deserve memories of their deaths untainted by government propaganda or desperate moral justification. Adi deserves a memory of his brother’s murder that isn’t filtered through the perspective of the murderer. It’s unlikely that justice will ever be served, so the most they can hope for is an admission of guilt, a story closer to the truth of the matter. This is the motivating crisis that now exists between the lines of Act of Killing, and the inner turmoil of the killers in that film exists as a more concrete answer to the questions Adi poses. It’s almost futile to discuss these films individually, because once you’ve seen them both it’s clear that they are two sides of the same coin. Together, they represent a cinematic achievement that will easily eclipse the effusive praise that Act of Killing garnered. Look of Silence is a phenomenal work in its own right, but it also unlocks hidden depths in Act of Killing. Flip the films around, and that sentiment is just as accurate.
Wrap-Up: The Look of Silence is essential cinema, both for its own merits and as half of a true masterpiece of the medium.