When I interviewed Oppenheimer last year for Flixist at SXSW, he concluded the interview by noting that The Act of Killing "is not a story about a strange place where killers have won. Killers usually win, and they usually build their normality on the basis of terror and lies."
Looking back at the interview, Oppenheimer also described one of the chilling scenes that would appear in his follow-up film, The Look of Silence. While hearing him describe this moment shocked me, actually seeing it has a different effect: it deflates the heart and dims one's view of humanity.
The Look of Silence is at least as good as The Act of Killing, if not better. Rather than treading the same ground, The Look of Silence deepens the exploration of the Indonesian genocide from an emotional and generational standpoint, and does it with such haunting attention to what is said by the film's subjects and what is left unsaid. It's another stunning achievement by Oppenheimer, who was recently (and justly) awarded a MacArthur genius grant. Just two films in--and in back to back years, no less (though the wider release of The Look of Silence won't be until next summer)--Oppenheimer is a filmmaker whose assuredness in cinematic craft is matched by the importance of his subject matter and his passion for it.
The Look of Silence focuses more on the victims of the genocide rather than the perpetrators of it, and yet the perpetrators are still given a voice in the film. This is unavoidable. The parents of victims live alongside the men who murdered their children. The ruling party, which is sympathetic to the murderers since they were hired by the government, indoctrinates the children of today. In school, kids learn that the communists were incestuous atheist bastards who had to be weeded out. As a counterpoint to the propaganda, we learn more about the nauseating practices that the killers adopted as mass murder was normalized. Anwar's tales of rape and torture in The Act of Killing were painful already, but the confessions of the killers in The Look of Silence are more shocking and more deranged, and they're delivered in the casual way one would describe a day at work.
With Adi asking questions in The Look of Silence rather than Oppenheimer, the responses and the conversations differ compared to those in The Act of Killing. Adi's questions are more pointed and pained given his personal ties to the killings, whereas Oppenheimer's outsider status allowed him to be more detached. Tensions run higher in The Look of Silence since Adi's questions put the killers on edge--it's as if the act of asking questions is Adi's own form of seeking understanding as well as seeking a kind of revenge. Oppenheimer's line of questioning was "What happened?”, Adi's is more like "Why did you do this?" and "How could you do this?" (Maybe there's also an unspoken "How dare you?" and "How could you let this happen?") The tension in these confrontations also reveals the power dynamics within Indonesian society that still exist today. Oppenheimer had a sort of luxury to ask what's since he was never in danger of repercussions. Simply by asking why's and how's, though, Adi is putting himself and his family at risk again.
Or maybe not. There are two famous quotations about history that go unspoken in Oppenheimer's films: George Santayana's "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," and James Joyce's "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." There's another quotation throughout The Look of Silence, however, that the killers and those sympathetic to the killers keep repeating: "The past is past." It's as if the fact of mass murder is a given, that the propaganda of the killers is history, and that truth (ecstatic or otherwise) is whatever those in power tell people to believe.
In addition to the refrain that the past is past, The Look of Silence offers a chilling rejoinder to the Santayana and Joyce quotations. When Adi meets with an Indonesian politician, the man becomes defensive and then sinister. He tells Adi that he needs to stop asking questions and then makes a not-so-veiled threat about what could happen if people continue to ask questions. To Santayana, those in power might reply, "If you keep bringing up the past, we will make sure that history repeats itself." And to Joyce, "Be quiet, and go back to sleep."