With just two films to his name, both about the Indonesian mass-murders of the mid-1960's Oppenheimer has become the most important documentarian of his generation.
His second film, "The Look of Silence", coupled with his "The Act of Killing" has created a sea- change in the Indonesian truth, justice and reconciliation movement. Forcing new laws to be written and putting the government in a defensive position against the nation's media.
But Oppenheimer is more than an activist. He's an artist. His films are contemplative, playful and quietly confrontational. His visual attack is succinct, his marriage of form and theme is flawless and his moral intent is thunderous.
Where "Act of Killing" was concerned with a larger study of post-massacre Indonesia, "Look of Silence" chooses a more intimate landscape. Geographically, emotionally and cinematically it is regional. Concerned with a single killing, the men who did it – directly and indirectly - the family it affected and the small village that has lived with questions about other killings like it for fifty years. Where "Act of Killing" lived in absurdist grand cinema, "Look of Silence" exists in tight close-ups of the perpetrators, survivors and truth-seekers. More than anything, more than words, their faces tell the story. So much happens behind the eyes, around the corners of the mouth, in unspoken glances. The horror, doubt, guilt and seemingly impossible reconciliation stirs below the surface. For all the cinematic flex of "Act of Killing", this contained take on the same material, seems more haunted and human.
The star of the film, Adi the eyewear peddler, pursues this mission with intelligence and courage. We meet his family. His happy playful daughter, his thoughtful son, his cautious loving wife, his ageless mother (probably the most engaging character captured on film this year), his wisp of an ancient father, and his memory of a murdered brother, looming over everything. From them he finds the courage to question murderer after murderer face-to-face. The combination of his profession as an optometrist with his quest to seek truth would seem heavy-handed if it were fiction, but nothing here is inauthentic. In showing all of Adi's family, from the fresh and young, to the spent and dying, we see the full arc of life.
Lastly, the film makes a glancing but firm indictment against the American anti-Communist fervor that fed into - and the American corporations that profited from - these killings. It gives strong evidence that the Cold War, the war of ideology and the murder of millions, allowed for, and was even fought for, Western corporate dominance in places like this. And here the grinding up of human beings for profit in this situation is undeniable. Oppenheimer wants to make sure no one involved gets off without having to face, if not their own role in the massacre of millions, then at the very least, their culture's.
And so it goes, the people (wives, mothers, daughters, sons, fathers, husbands), the silence, the haunted jungle hum that fills most of the auditory space in the film, the great and overwhelming significance of it all
everything pools together to show us something words alone can't manage. Something about how a horror can be so great that its impact can loom over generations. About living with debilitating fear of those who have claimed power over you through violence. About the most nightmarish tendencies in humanity, and our courageous capacity to overcome the worst of ourselves. About just how difficult it is to look into the eyes of a killer and say, "I know what you did."
And more profoundly, more frighteningly
"I know you."