When I first watched Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing I didn’t know how to process it. Repeat viewings haven’t helped. Although there is much to admire about his initial documentation of the remaining killers from the Indonesian genocide of the 1960s, I was left unsettled by the fantasy and surreal approach to a harrowing subject. Three years later Oppenheimer has returned with his companion piece. The Look of Silence is not only a haunting expression of grief but it is the missing piece which has allowed me to finally be at peace with The Act of Killing. Now we return to the same subject matter but this time from the position of the victims. The Look of Silence follows optometrist Adi as he confronts the men responsible for violently murdering his older brother. Here we spend time in the company of many men and women. We hear more perpetrators brag and perform for Joshua’s camera – a puzzling and disturbing affair which forces us to question their moral fibre and conscience. We meet Adi’s ageing parents; both over 100 years old but who both remain haunted by their son’s death. Most importantly we spend time with Adi, firstly in his working life and then on his personal quest to address those who murderer his sibling. Sometimes Adi does both at once – Adi provides a medical service for the men who not only killed his brother and thousands of other innocent people but still rule his town and go unpunished. The Look of Silence sheds new light on The Act of Killing. It develops this exploration into acts of evil; a masterpiece in its own right. The two films, whilst working as one, stand powerfully as individuals. I for one needed this compassionate work in order to come to terms with what I witnessed in The Act of Killing. More formulaic and less experimental than its predecessor, The Look of Silence courageously studies grief on its rawest of levels in the wake of man’s most evil of crimes.
A film this devastating is made more tragic by its beauty. The cinematography captures life for the people of Indonesia today, emphasising that the memories and presence of genocide still linger close by, due to the continual reign of evil. Humble, loving, family life for Adi is contrasted against blunt, painful chapters of boastful descriptions from the mass murder. Outside of Oppenheimer’s striking duet I have only ever witnessed film’s about moral atrocities from the perspective of a corrected state (be it political, social or historical). Imagine watching films about Nazi Germany knowing that the tyranny continues today – that is what Oppenheimer successfully explains about the modern reality for the citizens of Adi’s country. The Look of Silence follows in the footsteps of The Act of Killing; expanding into an exploration of grief, sorrow and injustice. Human compassion separates the two films. For me, it is impossible to fully fathom what is at the heart of The Act of Killing without experiencing this follow up. Oppenheimer has not so much outdone himself but has bravely continued to enhance and enlighten his audience’s understanding of such unfathomable acts of insanity, cruelty and horror. I was honoured to be a member of the Sheffield Doc/Fest audience who, after watching The Look of Silence, were graced by the presence of not just Oppenheimer but Adi. What followed was a deeply moving question and answer session which reiterated the harsh fact that Adi continues, like so many others, to live in fear under the rule of criminals, gangsters and murders. The most important thing to take away from The Look of Silence is that, however horrifying, this chaos and injustice roles on for the people of Indonesia. Joshua Oppenheimer with the help and bravery of Adi and many others has created a vital piece of documentary cinema which proves that it takes great risk, bravery and danger to make something this cinematically and politically meaningful. The Look of Silence is cinema at its bravest and most admirable.
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