The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence, and the Power of the Movie Cameraby Scott Tobias

By Yasmina Tawil


The essential fact about the camera in non-fiction films is that it doesn’t observe or document, even at its most unobtrusive. There is no such thing as a fly-on-the-wall. The camera transforms reality and creates its own truth. It doesn’t lessen the impact or legitimacy of a documentary to recognize that filmmakers and subjects have their own complicated agendas—sometimes complementary, sometimes not—and the camera plays an active role in the human drama that unfolds. To a degree, having this knowledge spoils an illusion that most documentaries are eager to cultivate: That everything you see is “real” and that everyone on screen lost all awareness that they were being filmed and behaved accordingly. And while there may be degrees to which subjects become less self-conscious over the course of a shoot, technology hasn’t invented the invisible camera yet—and even once it does, the law doesn’t allow for invisible waivers.

Among other things, Joshua Oppenheimer’s stunning companion docs The Act Of Killing and The Look Of Silence—the latter of which begins a limited run on Friday—are a testament to the power of the movie camera. Oppenheimer spent years investigating the Indonesian genocide that began in 1965, when the military dictatorship, with the backing of prominent western governments, purged the country of one million “communists.” (The scare-quotes around “communists” are necessary: The dictatorship, deploying gangsters and regional militias, used it as a catch-all label for opposition of any kind, including union members, homeless farmers, and other ideological innocents.) The two films are very different in style and conceit: The Act Of Killing follows two gangsters as they participate in filmed recreations of the mass murders they perpetrated in 1965 and 1966. (One of them, Anwar Congo, may have killed 1,000 people personally.) The Look Of Silence shifts the focus from the perpetrators to the victims, tracking “Adi,” a 44-year-old whose brother Ramli was tortured, killed, and dumped into the Snake River two years before he was born. Adi interrogates the men responsible for his brother’s death, many of whom are still in power and largely unrepentant.

Of the two, The Look Of Silence has the simpler, more journalistic bent. Adi wants to know what happened to his brother, so he sets about constructing that harrowing story and questioning the deranged rationale behind his murder. But it’s important to emphasize that The Look Of Silence isn’t merely an act of journalism that would be just as affecting on the page as it would on the screen. It’s a feat of filmmaking, too, owed to Oppenheimer’s understanding of how the camera can be used as a tool to arrive at truths that would be impossible without it. Here are some of the key things the camera does in The Act Of Killing and The Look Of Silence:

  1. It appeals to vanity. To quote The Rules Of The Game, “Everyone has their reasons.” And that includes mass murderers in Indonesia. Were Oppenheimer merely a reporter with pen and paper, it seems unlikely that he could have convinced Anwar Congo to open up about his genocidal methods. But even if he could, the impact of Congo actually appearing in re-creations for The Act Of Killing is another matter entirely. Oppenheimer appealed to Congo’s love of the movies, but the true appeal was to his pride and narcissism. Though he admits to being haunted by nightmares, Congo expresses no remorse over his prolific role in the slaughter of innocents; in fact, his face often breaks into a Cheshire Cat grin, as if he knows he’s gotten away with something. By making himself the star of Oppenheimer’s re-stagings, he gets to show the world the efficiency of his technique, like how a particular form of wire strangulation limited the bloodshed. He also gets to wield his still-active power over ordinary people, whose terror in being recruited for these macabre scenes is shockingly real, to the point where some have questioned Oppenheimer’s duplicity in empowering these thugs to do it.

  2. It makes the past present. The Act Of Killing and The Look Of Silence both expose the atrocities of Indonesia’s past, but that is not their true purpose. The point isn’t to make audiences aware of a genocide that was committed nearly half a century ago, because that is a matter of historical record. And though The Act Of Killing especially is a stunning example of the “banality of evil,” that isn’t the thesis, either. Oppenheimer wants to let the world know that the same men responsible for killing a million people—and their children and grandchildren—are still in charge of the country and still a threat to citizens who cannot speak their minds. As the director explained to Jason Bailey at Flavorwire, it’s “like wandering into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust if the Nazis were still in power, and if the rest of the world had celebrated the Holocaust while it had taken place.” Much of the power of these two films derives from the camera picking up on a pervasive, unsettling mood on the ground in contemporary Indonesia, especially when widely recognized men like Congo and the leaders who orchestrated Ramli’s murder are tromping through the streets. The country is ostensibly a “democracy” now, forever freed from communist influence, but the camera exposes that peace as a lie, enforced by fear and intimidation.

  3. It’s the catalyst for unexpected revelations. Roger Ebert famously likened the movies to “a machine that generates empathy,” but it’s not just limited to the viewer. The process of making a movie also requires empathy, particularly for actors who have to sink into a character and be emotionally present in a scene. Toward the end of The Act Of Killing, Congo stops playing himself as the swaggering, pitiless gangster who takes pleasure in showing off for the camera and instead takes the part of purge victim, subjected to the same strangulation method he boasted about earlier in the film. As the scene unfolds, the camera registers a sudden and unmistakable rush of discomfort, as the tremors of guilt and horror that were usually confined to Congo’s nightmares crack his confident façade. The re-creation requires him to lose the power and control that allows him to laugh monstrously over pleas and cries of the helpless and understand for a second what it’s like to have life taken from you. He cannot halt the production fast enough, but Oppenheimer’s camera has effectively turned the tables on him, making him trip over his own vanity and confront the ghosts that have been haunting his conscience.

  4. It’s a topography of the human face. The title The Look Of Silence suggests a play on both Adi’s job as an optician and the unfathomable courage with which he stares down the men responsible for killing his brother. And though the film is full of stunning lines of inquiry, with Adi addressing mass murderers directly and persistently hitting the third rail of Indonesian politics, the fundamental emotions could come through with the sound off. Whenever his subjects try to make a joke or say something provocative, Adi’s face hardens into a leveling stare, as if he’s waiting, none-too-patiently, for the gravity of his questions to be acknowledged. This is a forbidden topic, and Adi addresses it with such impertinent candor that his subjects’ willingness to indulge him stops cold and that genocidal impulse starts to resurface again. “You don’t want to know what I’d do,” one leaders says when Adi asks what would have happened if he’d come to him like that during the dictatorship. But the camera catches that murderous glint in their eyes, which the decades between 1965 and now haven’t entirely extinguished. There’s a reason Adi and half the crew are listed as “Anonymous” in the credits: It could all happen again, and the camera picks up on the threat before it’s ever vocalized.