More than a companion piece – it's more contemplative and focused than the film preceding it – Joshua Oppenheimer's quietly devastating documentary "The Look of Silence" wouldn't have been possible without the 2012 project that brought Oppenheimer international renown, "The Act of Killing." In that earlier project, various and thriving perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide of 1965-66 spoke to Oppenheimer on camera to talk about what happened. The filmmaker asked them to do more than merely talk. The men re-enacted their methods of killing and torture, in effect performing their memories in various genre styles, from westerns to gangster pictures.
The result was a stunt, to be sure, but a stunt claiming the highest possible moral ground. Oppenheimer revealed the complex, painfully human psychology of the state-sanctioned mass murderer, and the longevity of terrible memories that cannot be vanquished.
Somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million (or even more) Indonesian citizens, branded communists, were wiped out in those years. Their killers became the neighbors, in many instances, of the grieving families. "The Look of Silence" concerns the brother of one such victim of the genocide.
A 44-year-old father of two, Adi Rukun works today as an optometrist. He was born two years after the death of his parents' son, Ramli. When Adi saw Oppenheimer's "Act of Killing" footage, he heard agonizing references to his unknown brother's final hours. So he began a quest for the truth. With Oppenheimer, under various security measures, working alongside a small Danish camera crew, he interviewed a series of men indirectly and directly responsible for his brother's murder.
Adi's often shown in "The Look of Silence" watching a TV screen, absorbing Oppenheimer's own footage from the earlier project. His face betrays very little, yet shows us all we need to know. Adi's aging father has no apparent memory of the loss of his son; his mother, however, remembers a great deal. Both parents have lived to see a century come and go. The mother/son relationship we see in "The Look of Silence" is as richly observed as any on screen this year.
Like the Laura Poitras documentary "Citizenfour," "The Look of Silence" concerns both the subject (Adi) and the subject's chronicler (Oppenheimer). The sight of Adi fitting his targets for new glasses, while he casually prods them to recall what they'd rather not recall, amounts to a metaphor of unusual aptness. These people are blind; Adi wants them to see and reckon with the horrors they've caused.
One death squad leader recounts, in detail, how they drank the blood of their victims (per local legend and custom) to prevent themselves from going insane. "Human blood is salty and sweet," he says. "The Look of Silence" is painful and unforgettable – a serious and honorable form, perhaps the highest, of "gotcha" journalism imaginable.
'THE LOOK OF SILENCE'
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic material involving disturbing graphic descriptions of atrocities and inhumanity)
Running time: 1:43.
Where: The Roxy Theater, Friday, Sept. 18, to Thursday, Sept. 24.