In 2012 Joshua Oppenheimer showed the world the almost unheard of tragedies of the Indonesian genocide of communists in his film The Act of Killing. A mere two years later Oppenheimer released a follow up to his Oscar nominated film, and grabbing another nomination from the Academy in the process, with The Look of Silence. Despite sharing the same overarching story, both films couldn’t be more different in their storytelling. In The Act of Killing Oppenheimer directly communicates with the perpetrators of the genocide, asking them to recreate their methods of killings and having them face their own depravity head on. But as one watches the film, you begin to understand that while performing their acts of death these men, these gangsters, hold themselves above guilt and responsibility. That’s what makes The Look of Silence so intriguing to the audience; it tackles this responsibility that the killers should own up to head on. In The Look of Silence Oppenheimer follows one of the victims brothers as he goes about his work, as an optometrist, around the area he lives in. Through his work he comes into contact with many of the men in charge of ordering the killings and even those few directly related to the murder of his own brother. By shifting focus from the killers to the victims Oppenheimer essentially shifts in his own role as a documentarian.
In changing the subject of the film Oppenheimer changes the way we as the audience relate to it. In The Act of Killing we as the audience were appalled by the gusto with which these murderers recounted their tales. By forcing us to watch how they saw themselves as heroes against the evil communists we gain a perspective that is completely unique in nature. Unlike most retellings of tragedies, we get a glimpse right into the mind of those accused of doing wrong. In contrast, The Look of Silence offers a traditional victim story arch. But when we press play on the remote with The Act of Killing in mind we start on an entirely different level of understanding. For the first time for many of us we come in to this story with the knowledge of why these things were done. This allows us to view these killings through an entirely new lens. In the first film we as the audience had hope that the killers would come to see that they had committed vile acts but most of them never came to that realization. While in The Look of Silence we journey with Oppenheimer and Adi (the brother) as they force the killers to come to this realization.
The true weight of the tragedy comes not in the confrontation but in what happens behind the scenes for Adi. Periodically throughout the film we are watching Adi as he views the killers talking in detail, on camera, about how mutilated and killed his brother. These scenes carry the true weight of the tragedy as we watch Adi’s impassive face with the light from the television screen reflecting off it. Despite the almost petrified expression the somber tone underlying the scene couldn’t be more clear. And this becomes important in how we are to view the genocide from here on out. Even though we as an audience have always known that violence to this extent and on this scale is a truly terrible thing we are never really shown the cost of the lives lost until we see it carved onto Adi’s face as he watches the killers boast about their acts.
In giving true meaning to the horrors presented before us Oppenheimer shifts his focus as a witness. He now has the ability to directly confront the killers with the weight of their actions through the use of Adi as an interviewer. By doing this Oppenheimer has changed from a witness merely documenting tragedy to a witness actively opposing it. But Oppenheimer cannot do this alone. Only through Adi can we actually come into contact with this process of opposition and only because Adi holds all these men accountable for their actions. In one of the interview Adi conducts he is questioning his uncle about his position during the genocide. His uncle was apparently a prison guard who kept watch over the prisoners before they were led to slaughter. While his uncle claims to have not known where the prisoners were being taken once they left his watch, Adi asserts that his uncle was a crucial part in the genocide process. This claim truly comes to power when Adi insinuates that his uncle had a direct effect in the murder of Adi’s brother. The interview ends on this realization but its effect continues elsewhere. When Adi reaches his mother’s place he tells her of how his uncle, her brother, came to actually guard Adi’s brother while he was in prison. The mother claims to have never heard of this before and is furious with the uncle.
But fury is not limited to this one incident in the film. At another interview Adi is in conversation with the surviving family members of one of the killers. The surviving family is the mother and her two sons while their father was a commander in the genocide process. When Adi tells the family that their father is the one responsible for the murder of Adi’s brother the conversation almost turns to one of sympathy. But it quickly turns when Oppenheimer and Adi show footage of the father while he was still alive. Before his passing Oppenheimer had the opportunity to interview the father on his deeds during the genocide. On camera the father is boasting about his exploits and even gives Oppenheimer a copy of a book that he wrote about the killings. In the book there were vivid descriptions and drawings from the author about his acts. When showed this the surviving family members turn incredibly defensive. They constantly assert that they had no knowledge of the book or of what it was exactly that their father did during the genocide. They turn on Oppenheimer and Adi, saying how they invited him into their home and all they do is accuse them of being responsible for their father’s deeds despite having no previous knowledge of what he has done.
This lack of knowledge was a common trend among the newer generations of the killers. Now, this is not to say that these killers have covered many generations but that their children had no apparent knowledge of what their (traditionally) fathers had done. But this is where Oppenheimer’s work as a witness comes into extreme importance. If the children of the perpetrators had no knowledge of what exactly their parents had done, then how are other people around the world expected to know about it either? That is where Oppenheimer as a witness to tragedy comes into play. We need his work on this time in history to better equate ourselves with how to approach these issues in the future. It becomes important to understand just how these events affected all the people involved and how it is framed today. Without these nuggets of knowledge we as viewer and we as humans cannot fully comprehend everything that is unfolding in front of us. But once we do understand how to really look at something as massive and as unknown as this we begin to better realize how to deal with it. One of the most important things to gather from The Act of Killing is that these perpetrators are all humans. They laugh and they have families whom they care for and love. But The Look of Silence forces us to see these humans as harbingers of death and that they are accountable for their actions. Essentially, Oppenheimer just spent two films telling us to look deeper at every issue that comes to us. Most of them have two sides to every story. And this becomes an important fact in the world of witnessing and acting against tragedy. That we need to tell the whole story, no matter how unseemly one aspect of it may be. Because only once we know the what AND the why can we then be better equipped not only to deal with certain similar circumstances in the future; we can understand how to stop it.