A couple of years ago, American filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer burst onto the documentary scene with his chilling portrait of the proud perpetrators of Indonesia’s 1965 genocide, who, after a military coup, slaughtered one million of their fellow countrymen on the pretense that they were communists. The subject matter was shocking enough: Oppenheimer put those killers on camera to talk about what they had done, and they were delighted to relate their story, their “this is who we are,” because they are still in power. The Nazis won this war: these are the very bad villains who get to write history, who are crafting their nation’s modern mythology. But The Act of Killing was nothing like the talking-head history lesson cum news story we might expect when such a topic is brought to the screen as a documentary… and, in fact, some questioned whether Oppenheimer had crossed a line he shouldn’t have crossed when he invited those killers to make their own movies about their crimes-that-they-don’t-see-as-crimes. Oppenheimer was no longer merely documenting: he had injected himself into events and was actively directing them. Not in a cinematic sense: the killers themselves, who were fans of violent films, were doing that, indulging their Hollywood fantasies of being movie gangsters. It was a daring choice on Oppenheimer’s part, and it paid off tremendously: he appears to have been the first to confront these men about their unfathomably evil deeds. And as we watch them reenacting their murders, often in gruesome detail that they take delight in, we wonder if we are beginning to see hints of regrets and remorse amidst their happy pitiless pride and rationalization. Through its audacious and confrontational conceit, Killing offers piercing insights into the minds of murderers.
Then, with the companion piece The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer turns his camera around, in a sense, to examine how the Indonesian genocide impacted those who survived, via gentle optician Adi Rukun, whose brother, Ramli, was killed during the coup. Adi watches footage Oppenheimer shot years earlier, in the process of making The Act of Killing, in which two death squad members reenact their brutal murder of Ramli; we watch as they direct Oppenheimer to ensure that what he captures on film is as “authentic” as possible. (Killing features lots of simulated blood and gore — most of it quite badly simulated, in fact — but we don’t even get that here. Still, the mere spoken descriptions here are disturbing enough, not least because of the glee with which they are related.) Then Adi goes out to talk to his brother’s killers, survivors, and others who remember — or should remember — the era. (Adi was actually not even born until two years after his brother was killed.) And he encounters people who deny that anything special at all happened during the coup years and others who insist that “the wound has healed” when it clearly has not, as the pain Adi’s mother still carries makes plain. He talks to the family members of death squad killers who have wildly different reactions to being forced to acknowledge what men they love did; he talks to his own young son to correct the propaganda the kid is fed at school about the purge of the “communists.” And as he talks to frail old unrepentant monsters who are angry at being asked, if only indirectly, to empathize with someone who was affected by what they did, Adi remains astonishingly kind and generous. If Killing was deeply despairing, Silence restores a bit of hope in humanity, not least for Adi’s selflessness and bravery.