Fantastic Fest 2014: The Look of Silence

The devastating doc The Act of Killing has a follow-up act

Fantastic Fest 2014: The Look of Silence

“The past is past” is a refrain shared throughout Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence by both those proudly responsible for slaughtering half a million alleged Communists in Indonesia in the mid-Sixties and those who survived the genocide.

Oppenheimer’s previous film, last year’s Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing, invited the death-squad leaders to reenact their crimes and many enthusiastically volunteered, imagining themselves as movie stars and folk heroes with little apparent remorse for their actions.

Screened well in advance of its 2015 release for Fantastic Fest badgeholders who are also Drafthouse Alliance members, Look takes a critically personal tack by focusing on Adi Rukun, whose older brother was among those brutally murdered at Snake River before Adi had even been born. It would seem too on-the-nose in a narrative feature that Adi happens to be the village optometrist, using the pretense of eye exams to question the men responsible for his brother’s death in an effort to help them see more clearly the repercussions of their lockstep cruelty. Each time, he sits there with seemingly impossible restraint as these individuals deflect his level-headed pleas for regret, accountability, or anything resembling closure.

“The wound has healed,” some insist, while others claim that “it is not for us to punish,” leaving that retribution in the hands of some greater power. Even as Adi’s own children are being indoctrinated with propaganda in their schools, even as his uncle realizes his complicit participation as a prison guard all those years ago, even as multiple men assure the camera as much as themselves that drinking their victims’ blood was the only way to keep insanity at bay, few refuse to stand against a government still ruled by that same fearful mentality. (At one point, Adi and Joshua are accused of subversive activity themselves; it’s little wonder that many of the end credits simply read “Anonymous,” much as they had in Act of Killing.)

Look’s ultimate superiority to its predecessor stems from a more disciplined focus on a single family and an invitation to sympathize with the victims, which proves to be more heartbreaking by default than asking the viewer to empathize with boastful killers. We watch Adi ask one man after another why they did what they did and somehow refrain from letting loose with a righteous outrage, and just when it seems like he’s finally been offered the three little words he’s most longed to hear, the sentence is all but drowned out in a cacophony of protest from members of the following generation.

Crafted with no small amount of grace or gravity, The Look of Silence is the story of one individual staring repeatedly into the abyss, just waiting for it to flinch, and when taken together, both of Oppenheimer’s works should stand as a vital achievement in the annals of documentary filmmaking.

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The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer, The Act of Killing

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