When the 11th edition of the list came out, which added Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing, it seemed like just another documentary the editors keep trying to add to the pantheon of the Book, even after I watched and reviewed it. So when this newest edition deemed fit to add Oppenheimer’s follow-up, The Look of Silence, and replace the original with it, it seemed a slightly incoherent decision, much akin to the swapping of the two Aileen Wuornos documentaries; what more could Oppenheimer’s follow-up add to the list that the original had missed? Eerily, now that I’ve seen it, that question already had an answer from my review of Oppenheimer’s original, which (aside from the conclusion) I had found purposeful but largely unaffective; the emotional impact to Oppenheimer’s investigation on the topic had been largely benign until the end. Not so here. The Look of Silence, for me, succeeded where The Act of Killing didn’t; it made me feel what these people were going through, these people whose relatives had been killed, and the impact of their confrontation with those responsible was absolutely there.
A man, left largely identity-less save for a brief few moments where he is called by the name Adi, was born two years after his brother was killed in the Indonesian purge of suspected communists covered in Oppenheimer’s first film. Here, instead of following the people who carried out the killings, we follow the other side; the victims, or rather their families, in the form of Adi, who meets with the people directly and indirectly responsible for his brother’s killing under the pretense of an eye exam. These people, which disturbingly includes his uncle, as well as a man whose interview also includes his daughter, show no remorse for the killings or their participation, offering only excuses and reasonings behind their actions, though the daughter of the one man is visibly shaken when she hears her father describe some of the killings in detail. Throughout, we also see Adi care for his elderly mother and father, whom he recounts his meetings with the killers periodically, and we also see him watch footage from presumably the first film that directly recounts from the killers’ own mouths the murder of his brother. The Look of Silence shares much in common with its predecessor, as almost anyone will easily infer. Both films meander a great deal, not seeming like a documentary at all, but more of a fictional account that happens to be shot with real-life footage. Both films offer a very frank look at their subject matter, mostly through merely presenting the footage and letting the events happening on the screen be all the power that need be there. But where the impact had been largely missing or relegated to superficial layers in The Act of Killing, here the power of Adi’s actions in meeting with these people palpably washes off the screen, mostly through Adi himself, who remains mostly stoic during his interviewing the men responsible for his brother’s death, save one interview near the end when he visibly tears up during his questioning. There were also a few sections of film shot of what appeared to be some interesting twitching stones or seeds, which I wasn’t entirely certain what the purpose was or why they were included, but was worth mentioning.
The Look of Silence is a documentary, by definition, but at the same time, it is not. This is not merely the documenting of something that happened; this is the exploration of something that happened, and the lasting effects of what did happen, as well as a portent of potential things that may happen again. It doesn’t twist its viewpoint or try and make you think a certain way about what it covers, like most documentaries nowadays end up doing. Rather, it does what a documentary should do: it fills your head with thoughts, and then leaves your brain to try and make some sense of them. I felt a great deal during this viewing, and considering how aloof and removed I tend to be from documentaries, that is saying a lot. I’m not objectively sure which of Oppenheimer’s documentaries is more deserving of a spot on the list, but emotionally, I can certainly cast my vote for this one.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10