Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing—one of the darkest, toughest-to-watch, and most brilliant films I’ve seen in the past decade—wasn’t exactly a documentary, though it was nominated for a 2014 Oscar in that category. (The winner that year was the considerably lighter-spirited music-biz doc 20 Feet From Stardom.) The Act of Killing told a true story, a terrible one, about a period of state-sanctioned genocide in Indonesia in the mid-1960s. But Oppenheimer chose to tell that story from the point of view of the atrocities’ perpetrators. To be more precise, he got to know a few of the killers in rural North Sumatra—who, more than 50 years later, are still unpunished and living as local bigwigs in the communities where they once slaughtered hundreds of people—and he somehow got them to show him, through fictionalized playlets of their own devising, exactly how it had all gone down. The result was an oneiric, viscerally frightening combination of all-too-real historical horrors and Hollywood-enabled fantasy.
One of the highly theatricalized murder scenes staged by the men Oppenheimer interviewed resembled a classic Western, another a ’40s gangster movie, another a garishly colored MGM musical. But all these macabre scenarios shared certain elements. There was invariably a mythologized glorification of the murderer-turned-storyteller (as cowboy, tough guy, romantic hero), along with a denial, or scarier yet, a seeming unawareness, of the humanity of his victims. Often the scenes included a moment of reversal, either threatened or carried out, in which the perpetrator himself became the victim of violence, as if the executioners were retroactively pleading self-defense for their remorseless killings. And every movie-within-the-movie had this in common, too: It was conceived and undertaken in a mood of bluff, comradely good humor—even if, during the re-creation process itself, queasier emotions often began to arise. Oppenheimer’s subjects—who included an unsettlingly charismatic mass murderer named Anwar Congo—didn’t originally start telling him these tales by way of confession, to unburden their consciences of decades of unacknowledged guilt. They were just bragging, topping each others’ stories like old fishing buddies, pleased at the opportunity to revisit the power rush that killing with impunity once brought them.
If you haven’t seen The Act of Killing, remedy that situation. Yes, it’s a very upsetting viewing experience—a “hard sit,” as I once heard a critic say on the way out of a particularly stomach-churning screening. But it’s both beautiful and important, and will leave your brain buzzing for days with insights and questions about the origin and meaning of evil, the nature of moral responsibility, and the impossibility of telling the truth (whether about one’s own past or about a whole culture’s violent history) without, in Emily Dickinson’s words, “tell[ing] it slant.” That said, you absolutely don’t need to have seen The Act of Killing in order to see The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer’s equally but differently beautiful documentary about the same historical event seen from the other side: that of the survivors.
Like The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence has a title in which every word matters. The very first shot of the film—an image that will recur throughout—shows us a person in the act of looking, silently. In close-up, an old man’s face peers through the kind of device you look through at the eye doctor’s office, a sort of metal half-mask with interchangeable corrective lenses that’s used to measure the sharpness of a patient’s vision. After a single screen of text early on that provides some background on the “anti-Communist” purges of 1965–66 (principally waged against dissidents, intellectuals, or anyone who too publicly questioned the then-newly installed military dictatorship), Oppenheimer uses no narrative voice-over or other explanatory apparatus to situate the viewer in this lushly green, seemingly peaceful place.
But we soon gather from the scenes that follow that the optical equipment belongs to Adi Rukun, an optometrist in his 40s who was born two years after the wave of killings ended. In fact, Adi was born, in a way, because of the killings. As his mother tells him, conceiving a second child was her way of keeping from going mad with grief after his older brother, Ramli, was rounded up with a group of other young people and slaughtered by the local militia.
Now a family man with a good job and a happy home life, Adi could easily take his cue from the rest of the village, where no one wants to talk about the events of 1965–66, whether they and their relatives were implicated in the crimes or not. But instead, Adi does something unthinkably brave: Accompanied by a movie camera (operated, discreetly but not secretly, by DP Lars Skree), he visits the homes of the now-elderly men he knows to be his brother’s killers—usually on the pretext of offering them an eye exam—and begins, quietly but insistently, to probe them with questions about their past acts.
I won’t detail the awful things Adi learns in his investigations, if only because I can’t bear to revisit them right now myself. The killers in this movie, unlike Anwar Congo and his buddies, don’t restage their crimes as mini–genre movies complete with makeup, costumes, and props. But they do re-enact them, as if out of some inner compulsion. As the interview subjects address the camera (behind which Adi or the director can sometimes be heard asking questions), they can’t stop themselves from miming the gestures of violence they performed so long ago. One minute they impersonate the murderer (that is to say, themselves), the next the dying man, and once in a while a friend is enlisted to play a needed role. In one such spontaneous dramatization, the man in the part of the victim offers a helpful clarification as the other pretends to drag off his body: “But I’m not wearing clothes. Only underwear.” Moments after completing this gruesome little skit, the same two men pick some wildflowers growing by the side of the road and discuss their fragrance: “It smells lovely. But it’s subtle.”
That latter qualifier couldn’t exactly be applied to the work of Joshua Oppenheimer. He works in bold, bright strokes, both visually—shot on digital cameras and bursting with vivid color, The Look of Silence looks incongruously smashing—and thematically. A few key close-ups appear over and over, providing a sort of visual refrain that accrues meaning with each repetition: the eyes of various interview subjects blinking at us from behind those optometry-test “glasses.” A wooden table sprinkled with what appear to be tiny brown seeds that seem to move on their own—butterfly cocoons, we later learn, animated by the still-to-be-hatched insects inside them. And the silent, eloquent face of Adi as he sits before a TV screen, watching the testimony of the men who gleefully admit to killing his brother and countless others—to the extent they can even differentiate one individual victim from another at this many years’ remove.
Earlier this year, as The Look of Silence played its way through festivals around the world, garnering awards by the wheelbarrow, some audiences and critics objected strongly to a late sequence involving Adi’s father, a very old and frail man who grows increasingly demented as the film goes on. (The Look of Silence was shot over a period of years, both before and after the filming of The Act of Killing.) I won’t say anything more about why this scene aroused furor, so as not to send you into the film with a confirmation bias. But Joshua Oppenheimer talked at length about the origin of that controversial scene when I interviewed him last spring at the True/False documentary festival, and his account—like pretty much everything else he said, with rare pauses to breathe, in our 90-minute-long conversation—was both fascinating and moving. What he’s done in this remarkable pair of mirror-twin movies isn’t quite documentary filmmaking, but it certainly (and sickeningly) isn’t fiction either. For all their aesthetic beauty, both The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence occupy an unsure place on the continuum of cultural forms. Are they works of art? Taped confessions? Symbolic tribunals? Whatever it is that Oppenheimer and his anonymous co-director on both films—an Indonesian hiding his or her identity for fear of reprisals—have made, if it’s playing in a theater near you, go see it.