I didn’t see Joshua Oppenheimer’s original documentary, The Act of Killing, about the mass killings in Indonesia in the 1960s, but from everything I’ve heard it was fantastic. Brutal, but fantastic. I’m imagining this, a companion piece, will follow suit.
Writing about a film like The Look of Silence isn’t exactly easy. I can’t just write, this film was good, or this film was bad, or wow, I sure did/didn’t like this film because the film itself is such a heart-wrenching peek into the horrors that live in seemingly every human – it sort of belies criticism. Oppenheimer, calling this a companion piece, follows Adi Ruskan, the brother of a man murdered for being a Communist, as he speaks to the men who ordered the killings, enacted the killings, and their families. Spliced together with interviews with his family, and moments of him watching Oppenheimer’s original film, The Look of Silence creates a small, subtle portrait of the irrevocable damage this sort of mass trauma inflicts upon a populace, and the ways we as humans try to bury it. Ruskan speaks to men who talk, without remorse or disgust or apparent regret, about killing men and drinking their blood, about cutting off penises, and slaughtering hundreds. He speaks to their families who feign ignorance or try to convince him that their parents are good people, caught up in the tide of something terrible. Even Ruskan’s uncle, old and wasting away in a retirement community, admits to guarding the prisoners. There is no escape but, seemingly, forgetting, for the people affected by these terrible killings. Is the film good? It’s powerful. It’s beautifully shot. It skews away from the standard talking head interview/documentary footage structure of, well, every documentary these days. And, best of all, it isn’t specific about what’s it trying to show you. Yes, clearly, these men are bad, horrible even, but Oppenheimer doesn’t make this film about how awful they are, instead, he makes a film about the affects of how awful they were. On them, on Adi Ruskan, on the entire country. And it is a quietly brutal experience. Did I like this film? Who cares. Should you watch it? Yes.
Oppenheimer is two films in and already established as one of the great documentarians of our time. Not bad Joshie.