Joshua Oppenheimer's 2012 documentary The Act of Killing was a radical, disquieting thing: a bizarre forum for Indonesia's genocidal leaders (still feared nearly 50 years after their anti-Communist purge) to recreate their murders as fantasy skits. Dressing up as gangsters, these happy butchers seemed to really enjoy themselves, and if Oppenheimer never quite challenged them on their self-described heroism, his film ended up being a quiet indictment, trembling in the presence of evil men.
The Look of Silence is Oppenheimer's staggering follow-up. It was made roughly in tandem with The Act of Killing (and sourced from the same research) and is the film for those who feel the director didn't go far enough. A superior work of confrontational boldness, it might be the movie Oppenheimer wanted to make in the first place. Again, we sit with the perpetrators, who speak of drinking their victims' blood or knifing hundreds of people down by a river. Shamelessly, a pair of ex-militia men make their way through the reeds and smile for photos at the site.
But this time, the provocative presence of Adi, an optician whose older brother was among those killed, makes everyone squirm. Efficiently examining their eyes for glasses, Adi is an unassuming interrogator, but his soft-spoken claims are explosive, drifting into dangerous territory that would have had him targeted not long ago (as with the earlier film, many crew members are anonymous in the credits). One excruciating exchange has a death-squad leader first bragging of his regional command, then guiltily walking back his statement in the glare of accusation, then rebounding with fury.
In moments that speak to the film's title, Adi watches footage of an interview with the killers where Ramli, his brother, is clearly being discussed, along with an explicit rundown of his stabbing, castration and drowning. Adi's ruined expression is almost unbearable to take in. The devastation of such a revelation, so often staged in movies, can't be matched for real-life potency; Adi's defiance fuels his quest for truth, turning the stare on men who aren't used to backchat. One of them swivels to Oppenheimer's camera, calling him a betrayer of their trust; another demands a "prize" from the Americans who taught them their anti-Communist dogma to begin with.
Some viewers will miss the director's surreal panache from The Act of Killing and lush, gauzy cinematography. But The Look of Silence has a spell of its own, largely supplied by the constant buzz of insects, a dreamlike platform for these conversations. Elsewhere, we go into a school classroom, where today's young Indonesians still submit to indoctrination. It's a scene out of a nightmare, but this time, there's a warrior cutting through the underbrush of fear. Essential.
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