Screens at CIFF: 10/18 & 10/20
World premiere: 28 August, 2014, Venice International Film Festival

The Look of Silence is unmistakably a great film, though it is not a singular one. For one thing, it isn't an object totally complete unto itself, like director Joshua Oppenheimer's previous work, The Act of Killing: it is a sequel to that film, or perhaps we might call it a follow-up, a companion piece, or an addendum (yes, addendum, I think that's the one I like the best), and it's absolutely aware of that fact. In The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer and the camera were able to vanish, recording the men whose testimonies and self-directed re-enactments made up the film from an invisible vantage point, and this was key to what the thing was: a chance for unrepentant murderers - why should they repent, their government and countrymen regard them as heroes for their role in the mass killings of over one million people in Indonesia in 1965, on the grounds that they were (or were accused of being) Communists - to comfortably and freely indict themselves on the full, limitless horror of what they did, expressed with braggadocio and zeal. But with The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer can't disappear; here is a film in which the subjects are aware of the first movie, and one of the key repeated images used to anchor the progression of the story is the sight of one man, Adi, watching footage of the men responsible for killing his elder brother Ramli, before he was ever born. Far from standing as a blank slate to receive their self-aggrandising, self-damning narratives, the old killers in this film have begun to figure out that the European with the camera isn't actually on their side: many interviews start to crumble with someone's agitated declaration that they're not interested in talking about this with "Josh" anymore.

It's also certainly true that The Look of Silence is more conventional in its goals and its construction, the almost inevitable side-effect of its re-focused attention. The Act of Killing was a film about the minds of people who had committed violence on an enormous scale, and it is appropriately florid and grotesque. The Look of Silence is instead about one single family of victims, and it is necessarily more subdued and intimate: it is not, after all, being filtered through the imagination of madmen. It has no chance to be as expressive and unprecedented. That's certainly no slight against the film, for it is still extraordinarily powerful and potent; maybe even more so, given that it can engage with sorrow and loss more directly. Certainly, I haven't seen a film in 2014 that left me feeling so hollowed-out and anguished - I mean, how many films are there that actually leave you feeling anguished? - and it seems unlikely that this shall not remain the case.

The concept is straightforward and feels distinctly like something executive producer Werner Herzog might do in one of his own films: in 2012, Oppenheimer showed Adi, a 44-year-old ophthalmologist, footage that was shot in 2003, of the people who perpetrated the Snake River massacre, an event at which Ramli was killed in a distinctive and disturbing manner even by the standards of the 1965 mass killings, which were marked perhaps especially by the prevalence of excessively cruel and brutal violence. And then, Oppenheimer took Adi to interview those same men, in the hopes of finding some spark of regret or guilt or just apology from these people (the possibly belabored "the eye doctor hopes to make these people 'see' the effects of their actions" metaphor is thankfully only trotted out once).

What results from all this is harrowing, soul-aching footage. What emerges is less the sense of killers realising that they need to atone for their crimes than killers being confronted, in no small amount of confusion, with the idea that decent people might actually think they did something horrible. What happens, time and time again (and even described in words close to this), is the ripping off of ancient scabs, leaving history raw and fresh and oozing. Indonesia, we find, is not a country that has taken ownership of its sins of made peace with them, but simply stuffed them down at the bottom of the drawer to fester, and in The Look of Silence, we see what happens when that is questioned, and when one person forces another person to reckon with the past.

It is ugly and painful, of course. The film contains an exceptional number of scenes that aren't just depressing, but are acutely uncomfortable to watch on top of it. One woman sitting next to her doddering father for what she plainly expects to be just a game of "let's reminisce" is shattered to learn that he, like many of the killers, drank the blood of his victims to stave off feelings of insanity from the knowledge of his actions (and really, isn't "if we don't drink this human blood, we might go crazy!" just the most perfectly horrifying window into how the minds of these killers?). In something like real-time, we get to watch as she begins reconstructing her worldview to decide that this information is something to be rejected or diminished. And that's not nearly the most cringe-inducing moment in a film where Adi learns that his mother's brother was involved in the system of killings, thinking himself free from guilt since he didn't, personally, take any lives; or a meeting with the family of a man who died sometime after Oppenheimer's 2003 interviews, furiously and passionately and repeatedly trying to deny that the things the director has immediate, firsthand proof of being true could possibly have ever happened.

None of this is, as such, "surprising". While The Act of Killing was a peek in to the minds of the insane, The Look of Silence is about the sane, and it's easier for us to follow along, and suppose, "well yes, that is how I would expect that person to feel about what's going on right now". But simply the lack of being revelatory isn't sufficient to cheapen what The Look of Silence is or what it does. It's no less powerful or important than the first film, using the particular case of one man's death in one period of chaos as a prism through which we can view and ponder the whole business of humans being cruel to other humans and not repenting, and yet never losing sight of the very specific true story being recorded for future historians. The film's consistent rerun to Adi and Ramli's parents, centenarians whose lifetime of suffering is worn visibly on their body (and here, my one big caveat: Adi's 109-year-old father is both mostly blind and mostly deaf, and just on the film's own terms, it's not clear that he could have given his informed consent to be involved in a film that obsessively shows him to be a desiccated man-skeleton being washed and tended for by his patient, loving family), is its best tool in making sure that, whatever universal meaning is easily plucked from the film, we never get to separate it from the specific history that has been almost totally scrubbed from history. Oppenheimer's project - which is probably done now, as he's indicated in interviews that he doesn't think it will be safe for him to return to Indonesia moving forward - is as important historically as cinematically, and if The Look of Silence feels like it needs that justification just a slight touch more than The Act of Killing, the fact remains that we now, in 2014, have a grand total of two important films about the Indonesia mass killings, and it would be irresponsible to pretend that their historical importance isn't a significant part of their legacy. It's wonderful indeed that they are both so powerful, intelligent, and beautifully made on top of it: this is painful and devastating stuff to watch, but so emphatically and movingly human that it's not possible to regret the experience.