Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is one of the finest pieces of documentary filmmaking you’ll ever witness. It’s ineffably emotional, dark, disturbing, and at times, even somewhat comical. The American truly took his audiences through the paces, and he’s now back, tasked with emulating his preceding endeavour, with his companion piece, The Look of Silence. This humanist, exposé of the murders that took place in Indonesia during the military dictatorship in the 1960s comes from the contrasting angle of the director’s preceding endeavour, focusing on the victim, rather than the perpetrator.
We delve into the life of Adi – a devoted father and husband, whose brother was one of many suspected communists who were savagely killed by the death squads, a murder which has been described by the killers as one they evidently took a lot of pleasure in committing. His story is emblematic of all of the remaining family members left, mourning their loved ones, and he’s the perfect entry point for the viewer. Using his vocation as an optician, as a means of being allowed into the homes of those who were connected to his brother’s murder – along with many others – he then takes the opportunity to confront them in a remarkably dignified fashion.
The Look of Silence is a more emotional turn for Oppenheimer, as the perfect counterpart to what came before. Though while this tackles the issue from the other perspective, remorse – or the distinct lack of – remains a prevalent theme. We’ve seen a shift for the filmmaker too, as the first was distinctly impartial, allowing the killers a platform to gloat about their former actions, and reenact their crimes – but now, we’ve seen a more empathetic approach, because now we have an agenda, taking the rightful side of the victims. It may not make for such intriguing territory, but it’s equally as engaging.
But Oppenheimer once again displays an aptitude for humanising such nefarious, barbaric murderers too – and given the former members of the death squad are old now, and in some cases frail, he plays on that vulnerability. The very fact eye-testing is used as a means of gaining access to them, again enhances this notion – as it revels in a physical deficiency that in some cases has derived from their old age. It’s an imperfection, a flaw, and instantly portrays them as human beings first, and killers second. Meanwhile, we also take a candid, barbed looked into contemporary Indonesian society, where the next generation are taught at school about the killings as though it’s something to take pride in – that killing the communists was a rightful deed which had to be done to clean the nation. But the picturesque environment makes for a stark juxtaposition, as the breathtaking landscapes conflict greatly with the stories of the crimes.
It’s also incredible just how brave this piece of filmmaking is, and as such, Oppenheimer has since gone on record to say that he won’t go back to Indonesia, as he fears for his safety. So while that news is disappointing, as it means we won’t witness a third endeavour on this subject – it also goes to show that he’s obviously been doing something right.