Film Reviews

The Act of Forgiving: The Look of Silence Takes a Second Look at Genocide

In 2012, documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer made a splash with The Act of Killing, in which he sought out members of Indonesian killing squads, individuals who murdered thousands of innocent citizens accused of being communists after a military takeover in 1965, and invited them to re-enact their crimes in the style of Hollywood movies.

The thugs happily took the bait, relishing the chance to relive their glory days in front of Oppenheimer's camera. The picture was disturbing, but it also set up an unholy bargain with its audience: Were we supposed to be shocked that genocidal killers might feel no remorse for what they'd done? Oppenheimer handed these creeps their stage and then invited us to watch the charade; afterward, we could congratulate ourselves for being appalled — as if any sane, minimally moral person wouldn't be. The whole arrangement was gimmicky and, for the audience, a little too cushy.

Oppenheimer has now made a follow-up, and if it's a far less flashy film than The Act of Killing, it's also a better and possibly more honest one. In The Look of Silence, Adi Rukun, a middle-aged optometrist whose older brother was tortured and killed by the regime, seeks out each of the men who had a hand in the crime — some of them now powerful officials — and confronts them about the event.

Most of these people are practically his neighbors. Some of them, as in the earlier picture, happily re-create their most effective killing methods for the camera; one man has even written an illustrated book about what he and his cohorts did, asserting that his actions have historical importance. Adi's parents are still alive, elderly and frail; they speak of their dead son in a way that proves his memory lives on in them every day. Adi's hope is to begin some sort of healing, to find a way to forgive the men who killed his brother. That's about as easy as you might think: His face radiates mostly kindness and calm, but you can see that he's also searching for something elusive, a closure he may never find. Seen through his eyes, these killers — bragging, backpedaling and cracking jokes in response to his earnest questions — seem even more truly evil than they did when they were riffing, as they did in The Act of Killing, on scenes from Scarface. Watching The Look of Silence is more painful than it is cathartic, but it's an experience that burns clean.

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Stephanie Zacharek was the principal film critic at the Village Voice from 2013 to 2015. She is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and of the National Society of Film Critics. In 2015 Zacharek was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

Her work also appeared in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly.