4.5 / 5 stars
In the bizarre Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer met with some of the most vicious and infamous killers of the 1960s Indonesian genocide. In his second feature about those atrocities, it’s not Oppenheimer conducting the questioning, but someone with far more at stake. The result is a quiet marvel of storytelling, simple on the surface and remarkably complex beneath. You’d think Oppenheimer’s idea might come up light, having already been handled so well in 2012. But The Look of Silence is an exceptional look at how history is crafted in real time, a film that could certainly be studied for decades to come.
The director’s choice of interrogators – an ultimately accurate word – is a soft-spoken family man named Adi, a traveling optometrist who outfits the elderly throughout his village with eyeglasses. Here, Adi’s “customers” include the men who led thousands to slaughter during the killing of one million “dissenters” during the Indonesian military revolution.
Oppenheimer, fluent in Indonesian and never seen on camera, shows Adi video footage of local murderers flaunting memories of their tactics. The man sits speechless, motionless, his face nearly impossible to read while he watches. The victim the killers are discussing is Adi’s brother, who was disemboweled in the name of ridding Indonesia of communists.
With each subsequent visit to these men, Adi gains more confidence in asking about the death squads, getting more talkative to the point of flat-out accusation. In between, Oppenheimer includes scenes with Adi’s elderly parents, who lived through the terror and lost a son, and Adi’s young daughter, who delights in reading to her dad and joking about flatulence. It’s the older generation literally blinded by the past, and a carefree kid, connected by one man who has an increasing feeling of responsibility.
Throughout the many conversations, Oppenheimer creates a consistent tone that’s both tense and oddly satisfying. The volume is low and the mood is quiet, with big spaces in between sentences. Rather than address someone off-camera (a classic interview style that executive producer Errol Morris has skillfully avoided in his own films), the subjects talk to one another, Oppenheimer’s cameras capturing single shots that closely resemble what you’d find in fictional film. The off-tempo editing and lack of music add an uncomfortable layer of reality.
When those conversations that take place outdoors, the film is nothing short of gorgeous. Some say that cinematography is rarely recognized in documentaries (I disagree), but Lars Skree’s work is impossible to ignore. Rays of sun shimmer through rich, green trees while Adi and his mother sit in the foreground, contemplating whether Adi’s uncle was complicit in sending his own nephew to death. The contradiction is powerful without seeming the least bit staged.
As with The Act of Killing, the most revealing moments in The Look of Silence come from the murderers and their families. When confronted, their stories are always the same: They were either doing what was right for the nation, or they weren’t as involved as you’d think. Adi has moments of forgiveness, but he doesn’t let up. Neither does Oppenheimer, holding shots on killers’ faces until they start to crumble.
It becomes gradually apparent that Adi is going beyond what’s safe – the dozens of crew members who opted to remain anonymous in the credits are proof. Oppenheimer uses Adi’s vision-testing eyeglasses as a creepy metaphor, as those wearing them to improve their vision are not willing to look into their past. Adi’s wife fears for his safety. His mother urges him to carry a butterfly knife. His subjects insist that it’s rude to talk politics. But the conversation continues. And the art that frames it is superb.