The Best Documentary winner of Indiewire’s 2013 Critic’s Poll, with a solid A average across 80 reviews, Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” shook audiences to the core with its portrait of the Indonesian genocide as filtered through the memories of death squad member Anwar Congo. A small handful of dissenters, though, claimed that by focusing on killers rather than their victims, and allowing them to fancifully restage their own horrific acts, Oppenheimer had made what the BBC’s Nick Fraser called “a high-minded snuff film.”
Oppenheimer’s followup “The Look of Silence,” which premiered in Venice at hit Telluride on its way to the Toronto Film Festival, ought to answer those concerns as it follows the brother of a victim as he tracks down and interviews the murderers. With their expectations sky-high, critics are not quite as blown away, but few deny the inherent fascination in seeing a man try to understand how and why men could deny the value of so many lives, and David Wilson, the co-director of the True-False Film Festival, suggests that it “may just be the best nonfiction film ever made.”
Peter Bradshaw, Guardian
This new movie is far more conventional, and conventionally confrontational than the previous one, and the people involved seem at last to have grasped how horrendous they are appearing and so there is more of the familiar embattled-interviewee choreography: the demands to stop filming, the shrill addresses to the director “Josh” behind the camera, and the removal of the radio microphone. But this film is just as piercingly and authentically horrifying as before. It is filmed with exactly the same superb visual sense, the same passionate love of the Indonesian landscape, and dialogue exchanges are captured with the same chilling crispness.
Catharine Bray, HitFix
In one particularly uncomfortable section Adi civilly asks what would have happened to him during the military dictatorship. His interviewee, a death squad commander, is discomfited but determined to emerge triumphant from the exchange. “You can’t imagine…” he smiles, “so continue with this communist activity.” It’s a veiled threat, delivered with a smile, but his eyes aren’t smiling. Understandably, Adi’s mother is worried – “Be very careful. They’ll send thugs to rip you apart” – and it’s an anxiety viewers will share. The dozens of anonymous credits when the film ends are testament to the very real danger posed by plenty of the film’s subjects.
Robbie Collin, Telegraph
Throughout the film, Adi goes to confront various men, now frail and mostly toothless, who were involved in his brother’s killing: he’s an optometrist, and often interviews them during eye-tests while they wear a trial frame and lenses. The symbolism here is obvious and ingenious: by confronting these decrepit thugs with his brother’s story, Adi is trying to correct their self-perception; make them look clearly at their deeds for perhaps the first time.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer brought his eagerly-anticipated follow-up to “The Act of Killing” to Venice, but “The Look of Silence” feels more like an extended DVD extra to his genre-defying previous film than a stand-alone documentary. Once again exploring the perpetrators of the mass killings in 1960s Indonesia — in which millions of farmers, union members and intellectuals were all branded “communists” and thus subject to execution — Oppenheimer mostly retells the same story through a much more conventional focus.
Compared to “The Act of Killing,” Oppenheimer’s technique with “The Look of Silence” is deceptively simple, but it applies a more traditional style of documentary storytelling to extraordinary goals. Oppenheimer contextualizes Adi’s plight by fleshing out his family life: He regularly cares for his 103-year-old father, a wizened, senile shell of a man who thinks he’s still a teenager, while keeping his weak-willed mother at bay. While she tenderly recalls losing her other son, her reticence to discuss it strikes a notable contrast with Adi’s desire for confrontation.
So involving is the raw content of “The Look of Silence” that some might view its formal elegance as mere luxury, yet the film reveals Oppenheimer to be a documentary stylist of evolving grace and sophistication. Lars Skree’s luminescent lensing provides an invaluable assist to the range and depth of testimony on show here, the camera artfully placed so as to present each talking head in a sensitive and accommodating light, lingering as much on their reactions as on their words. “If you keep making an issue of the past, it will definitely happen again,” opines one wary interview subject, though Oppenheimer and his calmly rigorous approach are out to prove precisely the opposite.
Tommaso Tocci, The Film Stage
Structurally, though, it’s the audience that’s being tested with the application of multiple lenses – those of common sense, human emotion, and even doubt and skepticism. After all, everything in “The Act of Killing” was re-enacted, even those rare glimpses of self-awareness. Here, Adi’s role somehow mediates and re-contextualizes the issue through language, giving voice to impulses that were shut out from the pressure-cooker experience of the previous film. It’s a striking development, a subtle switch from the ritualistic to the dialectic that simultaneously justifies the film’s existence and renders it more dependent from the first one.
At the risk of raising expectations, The Look of Silence may be the best nonfiction film ever made.
— David Wilson (@davidkinofist) August 31, 2014