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Look of Silence, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/17/15 05:33:29

"A bit more conventional, just as riveting."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2015: Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing" is one of the most stunning documentaries to see wide release (by the less extravagant standards of non-fiction films) in recent years, presenting the sort of true-life horror we are naturally inclined to look away from in a manner so unorthodox and daring as to make averting one's gaze difficult. Though few who saw it will say that the medium overpowered the message, it is still nice to see Oppenheimer make that film's complement, a laser-focused examination of the same people and events from the other perspective that feels no less original for disposing of the previous film's unusual methodology.

This one focuses on Adi, an optometrist in his forties whom we initially see watching The Act of Killing on television. He does so quietly, occasionally turning his attention to his children. Elsewhere, an old woman washes her ancient husband. They are his parents and they had another child, Ramli, who was killed during the purges of "communists" (in reality, anybody who spoke up about the Indonesian government) in the 1960s. Inspired, Adi visits some of the people who remain from that time, fitting them for eyeglasses and trying to learn just what happened to this brother murdered before he was born.

If The Look of Silence is one's first encounter with stories of the Indonesian death squads, it is certainly informative and interesting. As much as the film is about Adi's search for answers and learning more about the unsavory parts of his country's history, it is perhaps most interesting for observing how decades of the silence that gives the film its title has manifested itself, burying this part of history even while the people involved remain prominent. There's weird self-censorship and some terribly tortured doublespeak in Adi's son's history class.

It is as a companion piece to The Act of Killing that this movie really shines, though, in large part because Oppenheimer, Adi, and the crew (many of whom choose to remain anonymous) seem to invert a great deal of what made that movie memorable. There's a directness and focus here, with Adi seeking information about just one victim by asking straightforward questions in a level voice. Oppenheimer never tries to get far outside the victims' perspective, and never allows things to be fanciful in the same way the previous film was. The emotion on display is not confrontations, but the weight of having lived with something for generations.

And yet, the two movies are not as far apart as they may seem. Even while telling a more straightforward story, Oppenheimer still creates a feeling of unusual, unflinching rock-steadiness, holding shots long enough to get beyond uncomfortable to a place where the audience starts to think about whether the enfeebled nature of Adi's father is a sign of the unfairness of the world (in comparison to how comfortable the war criminals who took his son are) or an escape to be grateful for. There are the same sort of striking images and contrary moments, and in many cases the same end result - details being plainly related - is what will stay with the audience.

The two films are close enough that I imagine watching them back-to-back might be too much, but that's fine. Both films are exceptional enough to stick in one's mind for years afterwards, and watching one will only make the other more interesting.

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