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Reality Checks: Is ‘The Look of Silence’ the Best Documentary of the Year?

Reality Checks: Is 'The Look of Silence' the Best Documentary of the Year?

READ MORE: Review: ‘The Look of Silence’ is Joshua Oppenheimer’s First-Rate Followup to ‘The Act of Killing’ 

It may be too early to predict this year’s Oscars race, but the
documentary category already has a frontrunner, Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Look
of Silence.”

A riveting and far more precise follow-up to the filmmaker’s controversial Oscar-nominated stunner “The Act of Killing,” “The Look of Silence” has ratcheted up an unprecedented number of film festival awards since premiering at last year’s Venice Film Festival, where it received the Grand Jury Prize. Since then, the Indonesian film has won over 40 top documentary prizes around the world, from Busan to CPH:DOX to Gothenburg, and surprisingly, given the film’s somber subject matter, audience awards at SXSW, Sheffield and Docs Barcelona.

“The Look of Silence” is Oppenheimer’s sequel, of sorts, to “The Act of Killing.” While the first film recounted, through testimony and surreal
reenactments, the actions of Indonesian death-squad leaders who boastfully
participated in the killing of millions of people 50 years ago, “The Look of
Silence” focuses on the victims — specifically, one man, Adi, an optometrist
whose brother was brutally murdered and still remains haunted by his death and
the killers’ flagrant lack of repentance.

If “The Act of Killing” was grandly lurid and experimental,
mixing fiction and documentary into a nightmarish vision of historical
atrocities, “The Look of Silence” is elegant and refined, hitting piercing
notes of personal loss and emotional catharsis with razor-sharp intimacy. If “The Act of Killing” was criticized for its manipulations and boldness of form, “The Look of Silence” offers a far more direct and unwavering gaze into its
subject matter. And because of this more straightforward approach, “The Look of
Silence” is poised to win over a broader audience of moviegoers and Oscar

“I think its scale and the intimacy of its focus is
deceptive,” explained Oppenheimer. “Paradoxically, I think that’s what makes it
bigger for viewers. Because we immerse the viewer in one family, you feel Adi’s
brother is your brother and Adi’s parents are your parents, and you feel this
almost physical, sensory immersion in their haunted silence. So I think the small
focus actually grows and becomes universal.”

But Oppenheimer never set out to become a “public” filmmaker, being nominated for awards and celebrated (or condemned) by the
press. He called the process of releasing and marketing his films — both through
Drafthouse Films — “surreal and strange.” And he had to overcome what he calls “terrible stage-fright” at public presentations. He still remains committed to
such events, because, as he said, “It’s about helping people to see the film
and talk about the film, and access it.”

He also welcomed the film’s international embrace, because
as he explained, “Every accolade that ‘Look of Silence’ receives would put the
film on the front pages of the newspapers in Indonesia, so there’s really no
distinction between bringing the film outside of Indonesia, and making an
impact back there.”

There is another consequence to the success of “The Look of
Silence,” and that is the effect on its central subject, Adi Rukun. When the
lights came up on Adi after the film’s world premiere in Venice, according to
Oppenheimer, Adi completely broke down and his legs gave out in a profound
moment of catharsis. “I had to hold him up,” said the filmmaker. “It was the
most intense experience I’ve ever had in a cinema.”

Such emotional weight may point to the power of the movie,
but is it fair to Adi? Oppenheimer explained that it was Adi who instigated
the projects. It was Adi who suggested Oppenheimer gather stories from
survivors of the Indonesian genocide; it was Adi who encouraged him to record
the perpetrators (and what would become “The Act of Killing”); and it was also
Adi who urged Oppenheimer to follow him as he confronted the perpetrators
(which would become “The Look of Silence”).

Oppenheimer also said that they’ve taken special precautions
when it comes to Adi’s safety. When traveling to festivals abroad, they have
not announced that Adi would be appearing or what airlines they would be
taking, because, as Oppenheimer explained, there are real dangers that have
persisted in Indonesia. In 2004, for example, Indonesian human rights activist
Munir Said Thalib was poisoned to death on an Indonesia airline headed to

“He has not been threatened and his family has been able to
live safely and well in a new location with better schools,” said Oppenheimer.
Thanks to the film’s acclaim, Adi and his family also received the True/False
Film Festival’s True Life Fund award, amounting to a $35,000 grant, which Adi
has put to opening an optometry store in Indonesia. In a statement released by
True/False, Adi responded in thanks, stating, “I believe change begins when
people share their stories.”

Still, Oppenheimer acknowledged the emotional toll and
impact the film has taken on Adi, who has had never set foot outside of
Southeast Asia before the release of “The Look of Silence.” This fall, Adi is
scheduled to return to the U.S. to promote the film, which will inevitably
shine a spotlight on the humble optometrist once again. But such attention cuts
two ways.

As Oppenheimer admitted, “After screenings, strangers
frequently come up to him and want to hug him. It’s kind of a burden,” he said. “He’s holding a lot emotionally for his family, and for his country, and for
the audience, and we just try to talk through those feelings.”

READ MORE: Reality Checks: Do Celebrity Supporters like Brad Pitt and Eva Longoria Actually Help Documentaries?

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