A stretch of placid water in rural Indonesia known as Snake River has borne witness to many unspeakable acts of killing. One such brutal butchering was of a young man called Ramli, caught on the wrong side of the country’s 1965 "communist purges" and messily executed, his remains thrown, along with those of countless others, into the water. “No one would buy fish,” chuckles one of the perpetrators —because everyone around knew the fish were feeding on human remains. If Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” was a full-throated scream, his follow-up “The Look of Silence” is an ululating lament, a drawn-out wail of grief that sounds almost like a song, albeit a harrowing one. And it may feel like the aftershock following the seismic event that was its Oscar-nominated precursor, but it’s an aftershock whose power is not diminished, merely transformed. While the shock-of-the-new impact of his previous film is of course lesser in this return to the same territory, Oppenheimer has found new tones and textures that make the spellbinding “The Look of Silence” equal to "The Act of Killing" in almost every other way.
44-year-old Adi is central to the film: born two years after his brother Ramli was murdered, he’s now a village optician with children of his own and remains close to his aged parents. His father, near-blind, near-deaf and crippled, is cared for by his mother, who herself gradually emerges as one of the most unforgettable characters in a film lousy with them. Adi and his mother have a kind of understanding between them that no one else quite shares: he may never have known his brother, but the fact of his death seems like an open wound that this quiet, thoughtful, watchful man has felt all his life, just as his mother still feels Ramli’s absence. Spurred, it is implied, by Oppenheimer showing Adi some of the footage of the killers that was shot during the 8-year gestation period of the “The Act of Killing,” Adi sets out, often through the white-lie subterfuge of an eye exam, to interview the men he knows were responsible for Ramli’s death.
Watching Adi view the scenes on television is an essay in itself, and Oppenheimer finds a hypnotic variation of poetry in his calm, telegenic, impassive face as he absorbs the gruesome but gleefully told details of his brother’s death. Indeed, Adi possesses almost superhuman restraint, which tempers the interviews with these monstrous men whom he has just cause to despise and to fear. Several of them threaten him —as in ‘Killing,’ these men are respected, often wealthy members of the community, sometimes even serving in the local legislature. Thus Adi’s respectful assurances that “I don’t mean to insult you” are not always enough to quell a sudden, cornered-dog-style lashing when they realize they’re being politely but resolutely confronted. “Do you mean to continue with this Communist activity?” asks one subject, referring to the filming. And later when his mother chides him to “be careful,” it’s because what Adi is doing is truly dangerous. And therefore, deeply courageous.
But before the interviews go off the rails, as they do on several occasions, new revelations deliver the same disturbing, solar-plexus kick that “The Act of Killing” specialized in. Chief among them is the casually mentioned fact that at least two of these men believed that drinking their victims’ blood was the only thing that kept them from going crazy. There is a morbid hilarity to anyone blithely asserting such a thing and not realizing that if you’re drinking human blood (“both salty and sweet,” apparently) by any reasonable measure of the word crazy, you’re already totally batshit.
Shifting his focus from the attackers to the victims, Oppenheimer undoubtedly manipulates the narrative, and occasionally allows digressions that in not being strictly relevant to the documentary’s intent could almost be read as prurient. The scene of Adi’s enfeebled father crawling around a room he does not recognize and in vocal distress at being so helpless is brilliant as a metaphor but borderline exploitative as an observed moment. As is the lingering shots of his naked, skeletal form as his wife washes him down, or the closeups of his gurning, toothless mouth. Yet it is in these moments and others like them that it becomes clear just what a visionary filmmaker Oppenheimer is and how much he has matured in the last few years. They illustrate an audacious desire to overtly mould and shape his film to the degree that it strains at the leash of the traditional documentary format, if it doesn’t entirely redefine it. It’s as compellingly crafted, in its use of imagery and especially in its soundtrack, marked by the almost perpetual whine of crickets that makes the titular silence audible, as any narrative film.
We can’t be absolutely sure that the film, executive produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, would be as evocative to anyone who had not already seen “The Act of Killing,” as that film made such a permanent, lasting impression on us that we felt well acquainted with background that here is rendered in a few terse lines of text —it is definitely best approached as a companion piece. This film possesses a narrower remit, and perhaps a more familiar premise, in that its concerned with the victims of a grotesquely tragic injustice and their search for some kind of catharsis. But it’s also the story of the remarkable effort of will it takes to stare straight into the dark heart of a mass murder that everyone else (even other victims) wants forgotten. And Oppenheimer’s skill as a storyteller seems boundless, especially enhanced by having such an extraordinarily sympathetic on-camera interviewer as Adi.
The film does not stab as deeply at the schizoid moral hypocrisy of the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide as its peerless predecessor, but instead offers an extraordinarily poignant, desperately upsetting meditation on the legacy of those killings, and on the bravery required to seek any kind of truth about them. This is a society in which two mass murderers can revisit the scene of their crimes decades later, recount the stomach-churning mutilation of a man who was someone’s son and someone’s brother, then pose for a photo and flick a peace sign. But “The Look of Silence” tells us it’s also a place where amidst the moral degradation and abject horror you can find astounding people, like Adi, determined to reclaim the buried, scuffed-over past and to meet it with unending compassion and grace. [A]