I felt that The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s acclaimed 2013 documentary on the Indonesian death squads of the sixties lost some its power by the time I finally got a chance to see it as by the amount of material I’d read about it in advance. Upon hearing he’d quickly produced a follow-up called The Look of Silence, which is a companion-piece covering some of the same material, and it was getting just as many critical raves as The Act of Killing, I tried to do the opposite and avoid reading any reviews or articles on the film until I could see it for myself.
I have to say, now I’ve seen it that I’m very glad I made that decision. I feel that the film does perhaps require the context of having seen The Act of Killing, or rather knowledge of the real-life events which I shamefully was totally unaware of prior to that film’s release, but my immediate reaction to this film was considerably stronger, and I wouldn’t hesitate to call it the superior work of the two.
While the subject matter is the same, Oppenheimer’s focus for his follow-up is very different. The Act of Killing’s main players were the killers themselves, leaders of the death squads who were asked to describe and then re-enact the killings they committed in artistic mediums of their choosing. The Look of Silence doesn’t possess such an eye-catching set-up but one just as intriguing when played out.
Oppenheimer himself has less of a central part this time around too, with his voice being heard from behind the camera only a handful of times when interviewees address him directly. Instead the interviewer is a man called Adi (I’m not sure if that’s his actual name as he talks about the need to preserve his anonymity). Adi is an ophthalmologist in his forties who was born after the killings took place, his older brother Ramli was a victim of the death squads though. We learn some of Adi’s backstory though visits to his now very aged parents (both are said to be over 100). His father is now a tiny, frail, blind man who needs caring for but his mother offers first-hand accounts of the men taking his brother away. She speaks of her apparent need to have another child after the loss of her first, and seems to have been tormented by the tragedy the whole time since it happened. These family scenes, which include a few moments with Adi’s wife and children provide some necessary context to his life, where he came from and what he risks now, though also contain the film’s only real misstep in a lingering shot if his father struggling.
Adi is introduced watching footage similar to that seen in The Act of Killing; of former killers happily describing what they did and how they did it to the camera. It’s still incredibly shocking stuff, especially considering the gruesome details they often go into regarding the specifics of how they hacked up and mutilated the supposed “communists”, and the complete lack of remorse any of them possess.
The majority of the film concerns Adi visiting the killers in his region under the guise of performing eye exams and then asking them about the past. Adi is not confrontational, remaining calm and soft-spoken regardless of the responses he receives. Some interviewees recite the propaganda they were fed about communists from the sixties, and become angry when Adi tells them that it is untrue, others attempt to exempt themselves from guilt or justify their actions.
Some of the most powerful interviews involve family members, we witness the moment when a daughter learns that her father used to drink the blood of his victims, something several other killers mention doing too stating that they believed it helped them stay “strong” and “sane”. Most frustratingly, there’s the outright denialism on display from some relatives; a son refuses to watch the video in which his father happily describes his murderous actions, which we and Adi witnesses earlier.
Like The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence is much more than just a history lesson, it’s a stunning and vital piece of filmmaking examining what humans are capable of and how they look back if they’ve never had to face consequences. Most terrifyingly of all, Oppenheimer’s co-director, and many other member of his crew are by necessity, listed simply as “Anonymous” in the end credits.