The central figure we follow in the documentary "The Look of Silence" is never identified by name. In the credits, he is only "Anonymous." We learn he has a wife and children, seen in fleeting glimpses. We don't know where he lives exactly, but it's near a place called Snake River, where a terrible massacre occurred half a century ago, part of Indonesia's anti-communist purges of 1965-1966. One of the victims was our protagonists' older brother, whose name was Ramli. His murderers were never brought to justice, because their supporters still remain in power, and the killings were either covered up or rationalized away over time. However, the injustice still festers in Ramli's surviving family members - Ramli's brother, his elderly mother, his increasingly senile father, and others - who still live side by side with the perpetrators.
"The Look of Silence" is the follow-up and companion piece to Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing," which looked at the anti-communist purges from the killers' point of view. When I reviewed that documentary, I wrote that the victims could not provide their side of the story, because they were either long dead or still being oppressed. In the few brief encounters with survivors, we see them continue to be persecuted and harassed. No one seems willing to confront the abusers for their flagrant crimes, which allows them to propagate their delusions of being righteous heroes. Here, however, Oppenheimer does find someone brave enough to seek out and uncover the truth: Ramli's brother. And the risk is palpable, as we see him repeatedly intimidated and threatened throughout the film by the various figures he conducts interviews with.
Through Ramli's brother, we slowly learn the particulars of Ramli's death, what happened to everyone involved, and how the killings are remembered. He interviews multiple people while giving them eye exams, a neat little metaphor for helping to correct their way of seeing things. The responses to his questions vary - some are in denial, some are hostile, and a very, very few show remorse. Others not directly involved, including the daughter of one of the killers, only learn about what happened during the interviews. Again and again, Oppenheimer captures the reactions to Ramli's brother, the strained smiles and the nervous looks on the interview subjects' faces when they realize he's one of the persecuted and that he won't let them brush aside or minimize the old crimes. The events of a half century ago are suddenly very immediate and the wounds are still open, even though most of the killers are either dead or incapacitated by age.
Initially, Ramli's brother doesn't press too hard, and doesn't say too much. He doesn't need to. It's the killers who are more talkative, a few openly boasting about their actions via older videotaped interviews. Ramli's brother watches several of them with us, in meaningful silence. It is only when his son comes home reporting that the teacher claims the communists deserved to be killed at Snake River, that Ramli's brother quietly, calmly tells him that it's all lies. Ramli's elderly mother is the mostly openly bitter about the massacre and the continuing injustice, becoming upset as she recalls the details of her son's murder. The interviews gradually become more heated, and the optician's tools set aside. Ramli's brother mostly remains cool and collected, and it is the interviewees who lose their composure, accusing him of wrongdoing and intransigence. But not always.
"The Act of Killing" was an extraordinary documentary, not only for its subject matter but for how Joshua Oppenheimer got his subjects to participate in the filmmaking. "The Look of Silence" isn't nearly so innovative, with a much more familiar narrative of setting the record of a horrific event straight. However, it's still a very impressive feature with moments of tension and horror that rival anything we've seen in fictional films this year. The interviews are well staged and presented, with the moments with the protagonist's family providing an important counterpoint. There's no question that "The Look of Silence" is a great accomplishment in its own right, and together with "The Act of Killing," are important accounts of history on the same level as Claude Lanzmann's films on the Holocaust.
You don't see films like this come along every day, and when they do, it's vital to pay attention.