Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” was nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar and received a raft of astonished reviews. There were skeptics, however, who questioned the film’s nausea-inducing strategy of encouraging the mass murderers of Indonesia’s mid-1960s genocide to proudly re-enact their atrocities for the camera.
That’s a point worth raising, but with the release of “The Look of Silence,” we glimpse Oppenheimer’s larger canvas. This film — not a sequel, but a complementary project — has an interrogator.
Instead of the neutral camera-eye of “The Act of Killing,” we see the new film from the perspective of Adi Rukun, an optometrist (born in 1968, after the slaughter) whose older brother was tortured and killed during the purge.
He and Oppenheimer visit the homes of the now-aged murderers, most of whom have been lavishly compensated for their actions (in the midst of political and military instability, an estimated half-to-one million people — on the pretext of being communists — were wiped out in 1965-66).
Adi sits calmly while he asks uncomfortable questions; occasionally, he measures the eyesight of the former murderers, thus providing a “seeing” metaphor that Oppenheimer is not about to understate. As in the first film, the atrocities described are appalling, including casual beheadings and the drinking of blood.
Just as troubling is the vision of a society that, 50 years on, shelters the criminals and operates under a system of forgetting. A classroom scene depicts children being taught a distorted history of the massacres, with tales of evil communists who deserved and invited their fate.
I admired “The Act of Killing,” but “The Look of Silence” (officially co-directed by “Anonymous,” an Indonesian filmmaker) is the more penetrating work. It’s transformed by the presence of Adi Rukun, who is not only uncommonly courageous but also a compelling onscreen presence — a dogged questioner and soulful listener.
We see him with his elderly parents, a father who can no longer remember and a mother who is doomed to. We also see him speaking with his wife, who is concerned about the wisdom of stirring up trouble with people who have killed before. (One wishes Oppenheimer would provide just a little information about how this project happened and what’s become of Rukun — according to the New York Times, the Rukun family has moved to a different part of Indonesia and will live there in semi-secrecy.)
Whether the events of 1965 will ever entirely bend toward justice is hard to predict, but these films, with their bold and unsettling tactics, will have played a role in that process.
“The Look of Silence” (4 stars)
A companion piece to Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar-winning documentary “The Act of Killing.” The subject is the same — the genocide in Indonesia in 1965 — but this time we follow a man whose brother was killed in the slaughter as he interrogates the murderers. This stunning film is actually more penetrating than its predecessor. In Indonesian and English, with English subtitles.
Rating: PG-13, for language, subject matter
Showing: Northwest Film Forum