Shame in “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence”

Joshua Oppenheimer exposes the atrocities of the Indonesian genocide in two of the most unique documentaries ever made. “The Act of Killing” is unquestionably the most innovative piece of documentary filmmaking to come out this decade. It re-invents the use of reenactment and takes filmmaking to unprecedented territory. The concept reminded me a lot of Hirokazu Koreeda’s “After Life”, a science-fiction film in which characters restage the best day of their lives in the afterlife. Only everything in “The Act of Killing” is as real as it gets and what is being restaged is far more sinister. Oppenheimer forces a boastful mass murderer, Anwar Congo, to reenact the murders he committed. But as the killer recreates his killings, we see the first signs of shame and guilt boiling to the surface. It is utterly fascinating to witness this subtle emergence of emotions onscreen.

Oppenheimer followed his bizarre masterpiece with “The Look of Silence”, a companion piece to “The Act of Killing”. Both films owe a lot to Kazuo Hara’s “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On”, but “The Look of Silence” in particular, seems to be directly influenced by the Japanese film’s exploration of memory and war guilt. During the 1960’s Indonesian genocide, Ramli Rukun was one of millions accused of being a communist by the military dictatorship. He was taken to a nearby river where executioners repeatedly stabbed him, chopped off his genitals, and drank his blood before dumping his body in the water. Decades after this horrific ordeal, Adi Rukun interviews the group of men who killed his older brother. They brag about their war stories, but at the end of each interview, Rukun reveals his identity to the former killers. The camera captures the most extraordinarily reaction shot, the look of silence.

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