NYFF: Oscar-nominee Joshua Oppenheimer revisits Indonesian genocide in ‘The Look of Silence’

It would be hard to match the visceral impact of Joshua Oppenheimer‘s Oscar-nominated 2013 documentary “The Act of Killing,” which brought to light the barbarity of the Indonesian anti-communist purge of the mid-1960s. I don’t think his companion film, “The Look of Silence,” has quite the same gut-punch effect, but it comes pretty darn close. It premieres Sept. 30 at the New York Film Festival, and Drafthouse Films has plans for a summer 2015 release. Will it give Oppenheimer a second chance at Oscar?

Joshua Oppenheimer exposes ‘rotten heart’ of Indonesian regime in ‘The Act of Killing’ [Video]

Hundreds of thousands were killed during the genocide, and “Act of Killing” took on the subject from the point of view of the killers, who remain in power and glorified their murders in the style of Hollywood thrillers. “The Look of Silence” flips the script, giving voice to the family of one of the victims. Adi Rukun, whose older brother was the victim of an especially gruesome slaying, seeks out the perpetrators and their families, engaging them in civil discussion but not shying away from calling them murderers. He performs eye exams on some, underlining the film’s central theme: he is trying to repair an entire nation’s vision of its past.

This leads to tense confrontations, self-justifications, and often threats, but neither Oppenheimer nor Rukun blink, though Rukun’s mortal fear is often palpable. They audaciously stare down the killers, challenging them with a directness they’re unaccustomed to. The filmmakers aren’t looking for an admission of guilt, per se; the perpetrators are already open about whom they’ve killed and how. Rather, they’re struggling to find some sign of remorse or empathy in them, something we might recognize as conscience that might pave the way for reconciliation, but they find little if any. Given the tension and intimidation that still exists throughout Indonesian society, it’s easy to understand why dozens of production crew members are credited as “Anonymous.”

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Both “Act of Killing” and “Look of Silence” are deep, dark, and politically urgent, the kinds of important films the motion picture academy often likes to pat itself on the back for awarding, like previous Documentary Feature champs “Taxi to the Dark Side” (about America’s use of torture) and “Inside Job” (about the perpetrators of the 2008 financial crisis). But in the last three years, Oscar voters have preferred the feel-good stories “Undefeated” (2011), “Searching for Sugar Man” (2012), and “20 Feet from Stardom” (2013). And now that the Oscars have expanded voting for documentaries to the entire academy membership, will it be even harder for such a grim subject to beat out kinder, gentler films?

It might help if voters feel that Oppenheimer should have won the first time around and want to give him a makeup prize. “The Act of Killing” won the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary and was named by Sight–Sound as the top film of 2013 and one of the top 50 documentaries ever made.

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But “The Look of Silence” may stand well enough on its own: based on nine reviews so far at MetaCritic, it has an average score of 91. Guy Lodge (Variety) calls it “an altogether stunning companion piece,” while Deborah Young (Hollywood Reporter) says it’s “perhaps even more riveting” than “Act of Killing.” Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian) describes it as “arresting and important film-making.”

I agree, but will this film, like “Act of Killing,” be too dark for Oscar voters to embrace? We talked with Oppenheimer in February to discuss his Oscar nomination and his perspective on the Indonesian genocide. Watch it below.

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