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‘Look of Silence’ bravely addresses Indonesian genocide

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Adi Rukun, an optometrist on a mission to confront death squad leaders responsible for killing his brother, shares a moment with mother in “The Look of Silence.” (Courtesy Drafthouse Films and Participant Media)

“The Look of Silence” is a companion piece to “The Act of Killing,” the outrageously masterful nonfiction horror film in which murderers who took part in the Indonesian genocide brazenly reenacted their crimes in scenes inspired by Hollywood. This time, delivering a lower-voltage but equally powerful impact, director Joshua Oppenheimer looks at the massacres from the victims’ side.

You don’t need to have seen the earlier movie to appreciate this one, which opens with the necessary background information: In 1965, Indonesia’s military regime exterminated about 1 million “communists” — basically, anyone it deemed an opponent.

The perpetrators haven’t been prosecuted. Many still wield power and control the surviving victims and their families by fear.

Oppenheimer follows the journey of one brave man, Adi Rukun, a 44-year-old optometrist in North Sumatra. Adi has been confronting some of those responsible for murders that occurred on the Snake River bank, where victims included his older brother. His calm but expressive face watches, on a TV screen, killers boastingly describing those crimes , which, in the case of Adi’s brother, included disembowelment and castration.

Adi examines the eyes of some of the perpetrators. He asks questions, hoping to prompt them to take responsibility for their inhumanity. He doesn’t want revenge.

The men respond with denial and sometimes antagonism. While admitting they killed people, they say they were protecting Indonesia from evil. If people are bad, says one, “you hack them up.”

We meet Adi’s mother, who vividly recalls the nightmare of 50 years ago, and Adi’s father, a centenarian losing his memory. Adi’s wife worries her husband is risking his life. The couple have young children.

Presented straightforwardly by Oppenheimer, the film is less visually creative and overtly potent than “The Act of Killing.”

But it is devastating regardless. Oppenheimer continually solidifies and enriches the picture by providing repetitive but unique recollections of the horrors, and enlightening and gripping material throughout.

During one encounter, Adi learns that his uncle’s actions as a prison guard figured into the family tragedy. In another, a killer tells Adi how he drank his victims’ blood (this prevented madness, killers say); sitting nearby, the man’s daughter hears about this aspect of her father’s past for the first time. Elsewhere, two killers proudly pose for photos after reenacting a grisly murder.

Like its predecessor, the film succeeds as a document of admissions made by participants in government-sanctioned genocide, and as an indictment of a system that needs to address its history.
It is also an engrossing detective story that contains, in Adi Rukun, a quietly fearless hero.

Many thanks to Oppenheimer and company — the sadly enormous number of anonymous talents listed in the credits — for filming Adi’s quest.

The Look of Silence
Three and a half stars
Starring: Adi Rukun
Directed by: Joshua Oppenheimer
Rated PG-13
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes

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