Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing was one of 2013’s best films, so I was anxious to see his follow-up documentary The Look of Silence, which screened at the Boston Independent Film Festival this Sunday. While the two films beg to be seen side-by-side as a kind of cinematic diptych—both are reflections on the Indonesian genocide of the late 1960s, in which it is estimated that one million Indonesians were branded as Communists and massacred by government-appointed death squads—they are very different takes on the same subject, and they raise different sets of questions about trauma, memory, and history. In The Act of Killing Oppenheimer turned his gaze on the men who—proudly—claim responsibility for having executed countless numbers of people; more of these executioners turn up in The Look of Silence, cheerfully posing for pictures in a clearing by the river where they recall beheading hundreds of prisoners with machetes. (They also describe drinking the blood of their victims in an attempt to ward off guilt and madness.) But this time it’s personal: the central figure of The Look of Silence (and Oppenheimer’s surrogate) is Adi, an Indonesian optometrist whose older brother was tortured and killed by a local death squad. The film follows Adi as he confronts the men responsible for his brother’s death, quietly but forcefully pressing them to justify their actions and explain their motives.
The Look of Silence makes for slightly less harrowing viewing than its predecessor, partly because Adi provides a deeply sympathetic point of identification that the other film lacks. It’s also slightly more hopeful about the possibility of healing and reconciliation. But it also reveals the risks and dangers of exposing injustice: in the film’s most chilling moments, Adi’s interlocutors respond to his questions with hostility, resistance, and barely veiled threats. When the daughter of one of Adi’s brother’s executioners encourages Adi to embrace and forgive her father, it’s not clear whether Adi performs this gesture out of genuine humility, fear, or politeness. There are no clear answers here, and no promise of resolution. The brilliance of both films lies in Oppenheimer’s willingness to raise big questions as well as in his insistence on leaving them open.