Joshua Oppenheimer’s Act of Killing (2012) paints a haunting recreation of the Indonesian mass killings during the late 1960s, allowing the perpetrators of the actual murders to speak about their previous doings in their preferred fashion.
The documentary was a bizarre way to present such a terrible period – interpreting the entire thing through a genre hybrid movie (combining Western, musical, and gangster noir conventions) as per the subject’s request – but it managed to get a compelling hook that allowed itself to expand in shockingly cathartic ways.
Oppenheimer’s sequel to that documentary, The Look of Silence (2014), is a great companion viewing that also longs to create an honest picture of one of Indonesia’s biggest tragedies. It is equally brave and meditative as Act of Killing, although the stakes might be higher for this one.
Joining Oppenheimer is Adi Rukun, an optometrist who sets interviews with the different people involved with his brother’s killing during the Indonesian 1965-1966 mass killing. Rukun’s brother was one of the millions of identified communists that were brutally murdered at the time by the government’s paramilitary and gangster groups.
For most of his subjects, Rukun’s interviews begin with a usual eye check-up due to their old age. It’s as if he is secretly sending a message, asking them to go through a clearer explanation to a blurry part of themselves. While checking the best lens for them, Rukun proceeds with his interrogation.
The people who Rukun has interviewed cannot respond to his questions straight. At times, it’s hard to specify what he wants out of it – forgiveness or to elicit guilt. When Rukun asked one of the suspects if he was dismissing his moral responsibility, he was questioned in return if the entire interview was a communist activity.
The Look of Silence is best described as a series of prolonged and enraged confrontations. While this documentary is Rukun’s best shot to receive justice from his brother, he was forced to accept that there’s no way he is getting the things he wants out of his brother’s tragic end. Haunting.