In The Act of Killing, his previous documentary, director Joshua Oppenheimer employed an innovative technique to explore the atrocities committed under Indonesia’s military dictatorship. The film followed several death squad leaders who were responsible for exterminating thousands of accused communists. Oppenheimer provided these men with financing and production crews, allowing them to recreate their appalling actions on film. It was his hope that by confronting their past in this manner, the men would experience some level of remorse or moral responsibility for their actions. The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer’s companion piece to The Act of Killing, is not nearly as experimental or original as its predecessor. This is not to say that the film is without power. On the contrary, in some ways Silence cuts even deeper than its companion.
For those who already have a low opinion of humanity, The Look of Silence will do little to alleviate your misanthropy. It’s a gorgeously-crafted documentary, and it will likely resonate with people of at least decent moral standing, but it depicts humanity at its worst and offers no hope at the end. A unnervingly tranquil depiction of men as monsters, Joshua Oppenheimer’s film attempts to confront the leaders of the 1960s Indonesian Genocide, a one-sided civil war that resulted in the deaths of over one million people. The killers admit to nothing, of course, and the elected officials (“elected”)write off the genocide as “politics.” Children are programmed to think that those who were murdered deserved it: they were communists, Godless heathens, sinners. Victims’ families don’t dare address the decades-long suppression of truth because subversives are still killed in Indonesia today. It’s 2014, and the populace has been lulled into a startling state of delusion. The film, beauteous and depressing in equal measure, feels like a slowly swelling minor chord sustained for 99 minutes, with no crescendo needed.
The worst, most oblivious parts of humanity are on display in the strange and striking new documentary The Act of Killing. Hyperbolic or not, it’s hard to imagine many other documentaries quite like this one, in which the director calls upon many of its participants to reenact, as they please, a number of harrowing and gruesome events from 40 years ago.