A couple of years ago, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer made The Act of Killing, a disturbing look at the attitudes of former Indonesian death squad leaders towards their past crimes during their country’s genocidal communist cleansing of the mid-sixties. Now, Oppenheimer tells the other side of the story in the companion piece The Look of Silence.
Instead of focusing on the killers like he did in The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer tells the stories of the victims in The Look of Silence. The central figure in the film is an optometrist named Adi Rukun who travels around, talking to the old citizens of the country while he checks their eyesight. After being shown some of Oppenheimer’s footage from The Act of Killing, Adi recognizes the brutal description of a particular killing as that of his own brother, Ramli, and decides to confront the killers under the guise of testing their eyes. Of course, Oppenheimer and his camera are there for each and every awkward exchange.
Undoubtedly, Adi’s confrontations of the killers is risky; the regime that was responsible for Ramli’s death is still in power, and Adi puts himself in danger by challenging the murderers. Despite this, the killers are, without exception, placed on the defensive by Adi’s surprise questions, frequently passing the buck, saying things like “I didn’t do the killing” and “I was just a guard.” The sorrowful and apologetic attitudes of the killers in The Look of Silence stands in stark contrast to the laughing and joking that they do about their crimes in The Act of Killing. Apparently, that’s what happens when a man realizes that the person that he had killed many years before was just that, an actual person, with a real life and a family who loved them. Surprisingly, Adi approaches each killer with compassion and forgiveness instead of with anger and contempt – he just wants each man to take responsibility for his actions, something which, as is evidenced by The Act of Killing, none of them has done yet.
Like The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence is a tough film to watch, and not just because of the subject matter, but because of how it is presented. There’s a lot of wordy conversation about horrible acts and atrocities, and the brutal details of Ramli’s murder are not made any easier to swallow because they’re told in subtitles. The Look of Silence and The Act of Killing are very different films, but they are closely related. They’re about the same people, and even include some of the same scenes, but have very different effects. The Look of Silence is not a film for everyone, but it’s an important one. It provides closure, not just for Adi, but for viewers of The Act of Killing who may have been bothered by what they’d seen there.