If The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s acclaimed 2012 documentary about the men who killed a million Indonesians during a 1965 political genocide/coup, veers toward theatrics as a way of getting those men to talk about the horrific murders they committed, The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer’s follow-up documentary, veers in the opposite direction. The Look of Silence is a tragically frank film about what happens as one man, an optician named Adi, confronts the men who killed his brother during that genocide.
Documentaries don’t often get sequels, especially not documentaries like The Act of Killing, which while it does raise many questions, left me feeling like there was nothing that could be said about what I had seen. When documentaries are sequeled, it’s often either slight variations on the original film—as in Godfrey Reggio’s sublime Quatsi Trilogy—or further developments in the story since the original documentary was made—as in Michael Apted’s Up series, in which the sequeling is the point. The Look of Silence is remarkable in that it doesn’t do either of those things. Instead, Oppenheimer adopts an entirely different documentary approach to address many of the questions left hanging as the first film ended, such as:
What will Indonesians think when they see The Act of Killing?
Are the gangsters so boastful about their murders as a way of guarding themselves against whatever guilt they feel?
What would happen if someone very directly accused them of wrong-doing? Would they ever admit their guilt?
Why and how do the survivors of the genocide continue to live under these gangsters’ regime?
Can there be justice in this situation? What would it look like?
Oppenheimer chases answers to those questions by following the aforementioned Adi he as watches footage gathered during the making of The Act of Killing in which gangsters describe killing his brother, as he questions anyone old enough to have been around during the genocide about the genocide, and as he confronts some of the gangsters while he fits them for eyeglasses. As in The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer’s method here is troubling, because the film is not clear about how this arrangement came to be and how much the participants understand about what is going on. Oppenheimer has addressed some of these concerns in a recent interview with Vanity Fair. If you decide to see the film, I recommend reading that interview.
Adi’s search is heartbreaking, because it is quickly apparent that he’s not going to find the answers he wants. The gangsters may have been boastful when they were talking to and performing for Oppenheimer’s camera in the first film, but faced head-on with what they did, they are both prideful about their “untouchability” and cagey in what they’ll admit to. Survivors of the genocide have mostly assumed a “the past is the past” attitude about the killings and don’t want to talk about them. Many of them, Adi’s family included, are still terrified of the gangsters and are afraid Adi’s inquiries are going to get him or them hurt. Their fears are justified—one of the points of The Act of Killing was to show that these murders are still very much in control of Indonesia—but the more obstacles Adi encounters, the more it begins to feel like the truth—and the justice it would bring—stand little chance of ever being realized in Indonesia.
All of this is sprinkled throughout with scenes of Adi taking care of his hundred-year-old parents and his very young children. These scenes are touching, funny, and a welcome reprieve from the intensity of Adi’s confrontations. The scenes are also tinged with deep melancholy though. The parents have experienced so much heartache in their lives, and Adi’s questions are uncovering old wounds. Adi’s children, though playful and laughing now, are growing up in a society in which these murderous men are still in power, and there doesn’t seem to be any end to their reign.
If The Look of Silence sounds like a discouraging watch, that’s because it is. Where The Act of Killing was bewildering, The Look of Silence is depressing. In the first film, the only instances of hope are the assumed guilt that prompts the gangsters’ boasts and a scene near the end of the film that feels like an exorcism of sorts but is likely just a particularly bad case of coughing. In this film, hope looks like the pregnant pause on which Oppenheimer’s camera lingers once Adi’s questioning of the gangsters reaches an impasse and the two men simply sit staring at each other in silence. The silence is a mutual recognition that nothing more can be said without either Adi forfeiting his life or the gangster forfeiting his pride. This film is thick with those silences.
You might also find this review of The Look of Silence helpful: