The Act of Killing, documentary director Joshua Oppenheimer’s first film about the 1965 genocide in Indonesia, jump-started a national dialogue about an atrocity that had been a toxic secret for decades. Largely unknown in the rest of the world, the killings were actively celebrated in Indonesia, where the perpetrators, who are still in charge of the government, described their gruesome deeds in heroic and triumphant terms. But as impressive as that was, it is not the most extraordinary thing about the film. After something much more transformational than merely revealing buried truths or eliciting the easy sympathy of moviegoers for victims from a far-off time and place, Oppenheimer sought out perpetrators, not victims, to tell the story of the genocide, inviting them to reenact their crimes for the cameras. It is deeply unsettling to watch mass murderers matter-of-factly act out some of their more horrific deeds, often enlisting terrified locals to reluctantly reenact the tortures, rapes and murder they are still traumatized by. It is even more disturbing to get to know the perpetrators well enough to see ourselves in them.
In The Look of Silence, the second of his films about the genocide, Oppenheimer switches to a victim’s point of view.