The Look of Silence

Joshua Oppenheimer’s new documentary thrives on the kind of stuff you can’t make up. That is, the awful kind. Adi, a calmly watchful optometrist, makes house calls to a few old men with failing eyesight. These happen to include some unpunished perpetrators of Indonesia’s 1965 genocide, in which Adi’s brother was killed. He has a few questions. This is a companion piece to Oppenheimer’s jaw-dropping 2012 film, The Act of Killing, in which aging former Indonesian death squad leaders pantomime re-enactments of mass murder in the styles of their favorite movies. But The Look of Silence is more directly confrontational, in its eerily measured way, and also evokes the earlier precedent of the arresting 1987 Japanese documentary The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, about an unhinged World War II veteran who barges into the homes of his former commanding officers and accuses them of war crimes. Adi is a more stoic interrogator, with the sometimes unnervingly steady presence of an unbeatable prosecutor. But he’s up against the same absurd and horrible (and, alas, familiar) nonsense: a handful of complacent toads who rationalize their militaristic atrocities, including the brutal details of his brother’s murder, with hollow past-is-past platitudes. Or else they push back against his inquiries with threats. As if the original event itself — a psychopathic army coup reframed as a heroic purge of communists — weren’t terrible enough, now there’s also half a century’s worth of impunity and revisionism. We see schoolchildren regaled with gruesomely detailed nightmare-fuel propaganda, affirming again the quagmire of the sadistic imagination. And we see Adi persist: “I’m not here to harm you,” he quietly tells one man, “but to reveal true history.”