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The Look of Silence is the gut-wrenching new documentary you have to see

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In 1965 and 1966, the nation of Indonesia was overwhelmed by the murder of more than half a million supposed communists. Many of them were innocent, swept up in the wave of violence. Indonesia struggles to grapple with this history, especially because many of those who took part are still alive. Countries, as a general rule, are not well-equipped to consider their own darkest moments.



Director Joshua Oppenheimer explored this in the Oscar-nominated 2013 documentary The Act of Killing (co-directed with Christine Cynn and an anonymous Indonesian), in which he examined the ways Indonesians have incorporated the mass murder into their national mythology, in ways that seem forthrightly grotesque. That film (enormously powerful and well-made) earned some criticisms that it allowed the killers to revel in the massacre all over again.

Thus, a new companion film, The Look of Silence, has arrived to fill that gap. If The Act of Killing was about this story at a national level, Silence is about it at a personal level, as one man embarks on a request to get anyone, anywhere, to apologize to him for killing his older brother. (You can watch the film on YouTube. It's embedded above.)

It's a powerful, often agonizing film, but a necessary one. And both it and Killing contextualize each other, making both films better. It's a duo unlike any other in documentary film history that I can think of, a set where both parts are great, but the whole is somehow even greater.

A man searches for an apology from those who killed his brother

Adi from The Look of Silence.

The Indonesian man Adi is the subject of The Look of Silence.

Drafthouse Films

The film's central character is Adi, an eye doctor in his 40s who has spent his whole life living in the shadow of brother Ramli, who was killed in the massacre. Adi never knew Ramli, so he only has the memories of others, particularly those of his mother, who spend years trying to turn the younger son into the older, deceased one. Meanwhile, his father falls further and further into dementia.

This is a family torn apart by Ramli's death, a family that never found its way back to being whole, no matter how the government tried to paper over its atrocities. It's a heartbreaking dynamic, one that the film doesn't create artificial solace for, to its credit.

There's a central unreality to the film that may bug some viewers. Adi only knows of the graphic details of his brother's death thanks to the existence of The Act of Killing, which Oppenheimer (returning to direct with another anonymous Indonesian, who chose to remain unknown rather than risk government reprisal) depicts Adi watching, in obviously staged fashion.

It's all in service of a greater truth, however. In a way, Oppenheimer and Adi are using the earlier film as a kind of crucible for the men Adi confronts, those who were responsible for Ramli's death, some of whom have passed away themselves. As he shows those he confronts the almost gleeful, blasé footage of them reenacting their crimes, he pushes and pushes for someone to apologize or at least take responsibility.

And it's in these moments that the film most shines. Before many confrontations, Adi performs an eye examination on the person he's about to interrogate, and Oppenheimer uses these moments to underline two ideas — these men are all getting very old, and they are still very much human beings. In one sequence, Adi sits with one of them as he plucks away at several tunes on an electronic piano. It could be a father and son sharing a quiet night at home, except for the terrible tragedy that has brought the two men together.

This film questions whether healing is even possible in situations like this

Adi meets with a killer in The Look of Silence.

Adi meets with the men who killed his brother to try to find healing.

Drafthouse Films

The questions The Look of Silence asks are related to but diametrically opposed to The Act of Killing. If the earlier film was about how a nation acknowledges its own worst moments, then this one is about how a nation can possibly heal after those dark chapters.

In a way, Adi's quest is a construct the film has created to force this issue. Both Adi and Oppenheimer must know it will be very difficult to obtain that apology. And they also know it will be impossible to even metaphorically resurrect Ramli, to figure out who he was or what the men who killed him thought about him beyond the idea that he needed to die.

Adi himself can't devote the rest of his life to this quest. In several poignant scenes, he spends time with his daughter, a child born into a world where she will only know the killings as a history lesson, one taught by the victors.

But if Killing was a cleverer film and perhaps a more "informative" one (if you want to learn about the Indonesian killings, at least), then Silence is a more gut-wrenching one. The idea of stepping into someone else's home and telling him how much pain he's caused you before asking for an apology is one that takes its own kind of courage, particularly in a nation where someone could be punished severely for even asking these questions. But that work is important, if healing is to happen.

Adi knows he's racing against time, but he enters these homes anyway because he doesn't know what else to do. If he doesn't get answers, Ramli and the hundreds of thousands just like him will be nothing more than ash, in a country built amid the cinders.

The Look of Silence is slowly expanding throughout the United States. Check when it's coming to your city here.