An Indonesian man with a communist background named Ramli was brutally murdered when the "Communist" purge occurred in 1965. His remaining family members lived in fear and silence until the making of this documentary. Adi, a brother of his, decided to revisit the horrific incident and visited the men who were responsible for the killings and one survivor of the purge. These meetings uncovered sadistic details of the murders and exposed raw emotions and reactions of the killers' family members about what happened in the past - much to Adi's disappointment.
"The Act of Killing" is one of the best, weirdest, and most disturbing movies I've ever seen. Joshua Oppenheimer's follow up documentary, "The Look of Silence," is more conventional in its approach, but it's also deeply affecting.
Oppenheimer returns to the same material he mined in "The Act of Killing," the slaughter of communists in Indonesia in the 1960s. The men who actually supervised the killings are alive and well for the most part, and still exercise a gangsterish kind of control over the country. Communists aren't still being murdered overtly and en masse, but one senses that it would be easy for someone to "disappear" if he/she pushed too hard against authority. "The Act of Killing" stuck close to the murderers, and we watched in stunned disbelief as they gleefully reenacted their killings, the heroes of their own demented movies. "The Look of Silence" follows a man whose brother was murdered as part of the Communist purges before he was even born, and now wants to confront the men who carried out the murder. It's unclear, probably even to himself, what he wants from these confrontations. Possibly just an apology, possibly simple recognition of what they did. The conversations run the gamut from cathartic to downright frightening (one man obliquely hints that he could make very bad things happen to the film's protagonist if he wanted to). But the reaction from all of the killers is essentially the same: the past is the past (even though in Indonesia it isn't), why are you bringing all of this up again, can't we just agree to forget?
Of course agreeing to forget is what makes horrific events like these possible to repeat. The most fascinating interviews are those not with the killers themselves but with the children of the killers, the people who have inherited their parents' legacies (on both sides of the conflict) and now must make something of the world they share. In some cases, the children learn details they never before knew and we watch them process them on screen in real time. It's difficult as a viewer to know how to feel about these inheritors of their parents' actions. On the one hand, they really can't and shouldn't be held accountable for things their parents did when they were children or possibly not yet even born. On the other hand, like it or not, we all inherit our own histories and have to at least acknowledge them, both the good and the bad, if we are to learn from them.
Both "The Look of Silence" and "The Act of Killing" are infuriating to Western viewers who have been raised to believe that freedom and justice eventually triumph and that evil, either individual or systemic, gets punished. These are brilliant films, and while they certainly sow doubts in my head about the state of mankind, I feel like a better person for having seen them.
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