After making his monumental Holocaust documentary Shoah in 1985, Claude Lanzmann spent the rest of his career revisiting the same territory, sharing more of the stories that he collected while making that film and finding new angles on the horror. Joshua Oppenheimer has taken a similar approach to the issue of the anti-Communist massacres that took place in Indonesia in the 1960s. His 2012 film The Act of Killing was an extraordinary picture, in which those responsible for these murders were invited to share their stories and recreate their actions, an invitation they gleefully accepted. It was an audacious move that reaped powerful rewards, presenting us with an unforgettable portrait of evil, madness, denial and guilt.
Oppenheimer's latest film is called The Look of Silence, and instead of posing the questions himself, the director has given a man named Adi the opportunity to investigate his traumatic personal history. An optician and family man, Adi was born in 1968, two years after his elder brother Ramli was brutally murdered. Even if this event took place before his birth, it weighs heavily on Adi's shoulders, both through the knowledge that he was seen as a replacement for the dead son, and the fact that his 100 year-old parents – the mother still frank and sharp-witted, the father ailing in body and mind – never got over his death. Adi is quiet and impassive, but he proves to be a disarmingly effective interviewer as he confronts the men who lead the death squads a half-century earlier. “You ask much deeper questions than Joshua ever did,” one rattled veteran complains before telling Oppenheimer to stop filming.
Such fractious encounters are littered throughout a film that is more conventional and sober in its construction than The Act of Killing, but no less powerful for it. In fact, that silence is one of Oppenheimer's most potent weapons, as he lets the camera rest on the faces of his subjects while they size each other up. It's fascinating to watch the way these interviews unfold, with the killers freely discussing their role in the purge until they learn that Adi is asking these questions as the brother of a murdered man. Some of the men try to deflect responsibility and claim they were only following orders, some get angry and accuse him of unnecessarily opening old wounds, while another in a grimly amusing moment suggests “Can't we all just get along, like the military dictatorship taught us?” One Komando Aksi squad leader begins asking Adi where he lives and what his family name is when his realises that his brother was a victim, information that Adi refuses to divulge. The men responsible for the purge are still in power in Indonesia, a fact that emphasises just how courageous people like Adi are for daring to ask questions.
Many of the people Adi speaks to wonder if he is looking for revenge, but that's not the case. He is simply seeking some sense of understanding and closure, and he is even willing to offer forgiveness if those responsible for his brother's death show signs of remorse. As we have already seen in The Act of Killing, however, these men are more inclined to boast of their exploits than to regret them, and one piece of footage Oppenheimer frequently returns to shows two elderly death squad members, Inong and Amir, retracing their steps down to Snake River, where many murders were committed. They are happy to play-act and demonstrate how they dragged terrified victims through the woods and sliced off heads and penises, and they pose for photographs, smiling at the scene of their crimes. Amir even wrote a book telling his story, adorned with graphic illustrations “so our descendants will remember us.”
History is written by the victors, and the stories being passed down to the next generation in Indonesia are giving them a skewed sense of their nation's past. In a classroom we see Adi's son being told about the cruel behaviour of the communists and the heroic actions of the military that destroyed them, a perspective that Adi later tries to correct, and this is one reason why Oppenheimer's films are so vital. The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are attempts to fight back against propagandist rhetoric and engage with the past in a direct and honest manner, and taken together the two films represent a staggering achievement. I don't know if Joshua Oppenheimer will return to this story again or if he feels that his work here is now done, but one hopes his many brave collaborators – almost all of whom are credited here as 'Anonymous' – will succeed in their pursuit of truth, and will one day find peace.