THE ACT OF KILLING is one of the most chilling documentaries ever made. Director Joshua Oppenheimer invited a few surviving leaders of Indonesia's death squads to dramatize the atrocities they committed in 1964 and 1965, during the so-called "communist purge," when hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed. Then Oppenheimer filmed them. The Act of Killing's subjects are like kids at summer camp doing a particularly gory skit: Using styles borrowed from musicals and gangster films, they reenact the murders, torture, and rapes they committed. Most of the men were remorseless. Many were still in power.
The Look of Silence is a companion piece to The Act of Killing, and like its predecessor, it too boasts Werner Herzog and Errol Morris as executive producers. This time, Oppenheimer takes a more straightforward look at the profound moral confusion of a country whose power structure was propped up by the relatively recent murder and torture of a huge segment of its population. But while Silence lacks the ghoulish, campy reenactments that made The Act of Killing so horrifically fascinating, it does have something Killing didn't: A moral center.
That center is Adi Rukun, a cheerful optometrist whose brother, Ramli, was killed during the purge. Adi is even-keeled and thoughtful—playful as he reads and jokes around with his adorable daughter, more solemn as he explains to his son that the version of history being taught in school is a lie.
Throughout the film, Adi talks to the aging killers who were involved in his brother's gruesome murder. The men he interviews don't feel guilty about what they've done. When the bad guys win, they never have to second-guess being bad guys. Their culture, wealth, and power all reinforce the idea that what they did was right—the rewards they've received don't exactly encourage introspection. Even Adi's uncle, who worked as a prison guard for the military, is remorseless about the role he may have played in Ramli's death.
Adi's mother and wife, who also feature prominently, are frightened for him—and the audience is, too. The men Adi speaks to still have power. These men, his wife worries aloud, could harm him.
Often, Adi is interviewing these men as he simultaneously conducts an eye exam. So it is that one man is wearing cartoonish eye-exam goggles when he begins to describe the taste of human blood. The goggles make him almost ridiculous, but when he goes on to describe the way a woman's chest looks like after her breasts have been cut off, it's suddenly a relief that you can't see his eyes.
"Once I brought a woman's head to a Chinese coffee shop," one man says. "The Chinese screamed." He chuckles, slaps his knee. Adi, by now unsurprised by the horrific confessions of these unflappable old men, presses him calmly: "You brought a woman's head? Why was that useful for you?"
The litany of horrors recited calmly—or proudly—by old men is certainly riveting, but ultimately, The Look of Silence is more about Adi's attempt to find some sort of closure. He doesn't want revenge, necessarily—just a reckoning. Forgiveness seems possible, but only if the perpetrators of the crimes against his family and his country can admit their culpability. And over and over again, they can't.