So singular a high-wire achievement is “The Act of Killing,” Joshua Oppenheimer’s blistering 2012 documentary about the Indonesian communist purge of the 1960s, that following it up so shortly with a second film on the subject might seem complacent on paper. There are as few safe moves as there are false notes, however, in “The Look of Silence,” an altogether stunning companion piece that shifts its emphasis from the perpetrators of the atrocity to their victims, all the while maintaining its predecessor’s ornate moral complexities, keen sociological shading and occasional, devastating jabs of humor. U.S. rights have again been snapped up by Drafthouse Films; it’s hard to imagine any distributor that successfully took a chance on Oppenheimer last time around passing on this equally formidable work, which will be accumulating festival berths and trophies well into 2015.
Evidently conceived as an accompanying project all along, “The Look of Silence” is nonetheless a freestanding work, its lyrical tone and measured rhythm entirely distinct from those of “The Act of Killing.” That said, its refined aesthetic does nothing to mollify its crushing emotional impact as the impact of history is brought home to guilty and innocent parties alike. Where “Killing” was preoccupied with firsthand experience, the follow-up is more concerned with the receiving of information — either as personal testimony or reformulated history — by those who don’t know the whole story, either because they weren’t alive or because they were sheltered from the truth at the time. Many of the most memorable shots in this pristinely composed film simply linger on the falling faces of those absorbing the facts — the look, presumably, to which the title refers. The screen serves as a mirror of sorts for audiences likely to feel similarly stricken.
Around this notion of personal investigation, Oppenheimer has constructed a more concentrated, character-oriented narrative than that of “Killing,” with mild-mannered 44-year-old optician Adi its effective protagonist. The son of impoverished centenarian parents who lost their elder son, Ramli, to the carnage in 1966, Adi was born shortly after the tragedy and has lived his life burdened by the responsibility of replacing a brother he never knew, stifled by his own incomplete knowledge of events that permanently altered the fate of his family. With Oppenheimer as his guide, Adi sets out to identify and confront Ramli’s murderers, as well as their own sheltered families.
Adi’s participation is motivated neither by revenge nor by a desire for public shaming, but by a simple, polite need for closure and detail; he cannot contain his curiosity as to how the perpetrators continue to justify their acts to themselves, but his tone is pressingly inquisitive rather than aggressively accusatory. That makes him not just a compelling subject, but an estimable interviewer to boot. “Your questions are too deep,” complains Inong, a former village death-squad leader, visibly disconcerted after Adi gently calls him out on conflicting statements regarding the ethics of enemy execution. “Joshua never asked questions this deep.” His presence in the new film even subtler than it was in the last, Oppenheimer accepts the unintended slight: For all his dedication to this slice of history, he’s tactful enough not to forge a spiritual connection to the tragedy equivalent to those directly affected.
Yet the outsider’s attention is still essential in a country where vast swathes of the population — including much of the government — have yet to admit a crime took place at all, much less come to terms with it. Some of the most shocking material in “The Look of Silence” is rooted in the present day, as Oppenheimer uncovers the level of misinformation and extreme-right rhetoric still being sowed in the population by the authorities: Adi listens, half-amused and half-aghast, as his young son cheerfully recites propaganda from a recent school history lesson, which concludes with the assertion that more than a million suspected communists were exterminated in the name of democracy. Elsewhere, more than one perpetrator relates the widely disseminated myth that drinking victims’ blood would stave off insanity. Oppenheimer cannily includes archive footage — including a 1967 NBC news report in which an interviewee opines with chilling breeziness that “Bali has become much more beautiful without communists” — to underline just how little the popular perspective on the matter has shifted in nearly half a century. (As evidence, one need only consider the number of anonymously billed crew members in the credits.)
It’s in counterpoint to this kind of social stagnation that the testimony of Adi’s mother (who estimates her age at “around 100”) is so powerful, given the fullness of her memory on either side of the killings: She’s among the few who can observe with authority the long-term effect on Indonesia of this unconscionable regime. But it’s the killing of her son that she can’t accept or interpret, however many times she relates the precise circumstances under which it occurred — which Oppenheimer and editor Niels Pagh Andersen permit her to do repeatedly onscreen, to progressively heart-searing effect.
Also profoundly moving are scenes of her briskly caring for her disabled, 103-year-old husband, whose descent into dementia has enabled him to forget the genocide altogether. That’s a sanctuary into which certain perpetrators are also shown to be retreating in the film’s closing section, which is also likely to be its most controversial: As Adi presents the hitherto oblivious loved ones of key killers with bald facts about their crimes, the baton of consciousness is passed. Not all are willing to receive the knowledge, but Oppenheimer’s first duty of care is toward the truth.
So involving is the raw content of “The Look of Silence” that some might view its formal elegance as mere luxury, yet the film reveals Oppenheimer to be a documentary stylist of evolving grace and sophistication. Lars Skree’s luminescent lensing provides an invaluable assist to the range and depth of testimony on show here, the camera artfully placed so as to present each talking head in a sensitive and accommodating light, lingering as much on their reactions as on their words. “If you keep making an issue of the past, it will definitely happen again,” opines one wary interview subject, though Oppenheimer and his calmly rigorous approach are out to prove precisely the opposite.