The Look of Silence follows up on the disturbing documentary The Art of Killing — the latter Oscar-nominated, but viewed by some as morally queasy.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s original invited perpetrators of the mass genocide that occurred in 1960s Indonesia to reenact their crimes in front of cameras. Many did, with disturbing enthusiasm.
Detractors said Oppenheimer had turned a horrifying historic incident into an abstraction and an art project — fair points. In response, Oppenheimer said that by asking the killers to play to the camera instead of pretending it wasn’t there, he got them to reveal more than conventional journalistic questioning would have elicited.
Oppenheimer’s astonishing, bizarre, murderer’s-eye-view of the slaughter certainly offered an original approach to the subject of genocide.
Yet it provided the perpetrators in kind of refuge — the reenactment may have been a form of confession, but it came without moral accountability.
There is no such hiding place in Look of Silence. Here, Oppenheimer revisits the same men, but in the presence of a fellow named Adi, the brother of an Indonesian killed in the murder spree.
The film’s title may well refer to the blank or guilty or affronted or bewildered or (gulp) homicidal expressions on the faces of the killers, who are bluntly asked by Adi to explain how they now feel about their participation in the frenzy of slaughter.
There is some regret, a few genuine apologies, much denial, and some very sincere death threats. Adi’s central question — Why? — is never answered, but that doesn’t really feel like a flaw in Look of Silence.
It’s more like acknowledgment there is no sufficient explanation for the eruptions of bloodlust that grip Indonesia/Cambodia/ Rwanda or present-day Iraq and Syria.
What Silence shares with Act of Killing is a grim sense of resignation. These killers — most now retreated into “normal” lives as husbands, fathers, citizens — do not represent some aberration alien to the human experience.
They are part of it. They reveal our recurring capacity for self-inflicted horrors, for which there is no apparent cure or preventive remedy.
That said, The Look of Silence feels long in a way that The Act of Killing did not. You understand the languid pace — Oppenheimer lets the stony silences between killer and interrogator linger for valid dramatic reasons.
But too much of the movie is given over to shots that Oppenheimer likes for the sake of the images themselves (his use of light and color is remarkable for documentary film). Trucks on a dusty road at twilight, a man doing a handstand, bats in front of the moon. They're lovely, but not all of them are necessary.
On the other hand, you have the image of Adi’s mother bathing and caring for her senile husband. One can’t remember a murdered son, one can't forget. You wonder who has it worse.