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Josh Oppenheimer Looks Into the Abyss With ‘The Look of Silence’

Josh Oppenheimer has an open invitation to the world with his new film, “The Look of Silence.”  

“It’s saying, ‘look at the abyss,'” he says of the film, a companion piece and sequel to his Academy Award-nominated “The Act of Killing.” In that earlier movie, Oppenheimer spent years in Indonesia with perpetrators of the 1960s genocide of political dissidents there. The killers, still in positions of authority and wealth in the world’s fourth-largest country, agree to act out — in dramatic fashion — their past crimes for Oppenheimer’s camera. It’s a startling look at a culture steeped in death and violence, and its release in Indonesia led to an unprecedented re-evaluation of the events of 1965-66 and contemporary society.  

In “The Look of Silence,” the killers are confronted for their misdeeds, their impunity and for their interpretation of the past. It’s just as unsettling and shocking. And the man doing the confronting, an optician named Adi Rukun, whose brother Ramli was brutally tortured and killed decades ago, risks his own life and the lives of his family to do so.  

D.C. audiences got a look at “The Look of Silence” in June at the AFI Docs documentary film festival . From one death squad leader’s assertion that, “If we didn’t drink human blood, we’d go crazy,” and his rather banal observation that “human blood is salty and sweet,” to repeated claims that “the past is the past,” Oppenheimer and Rukun press the killers to own up to their deeds and to stop dehumanizing their enemies.  

The grisliness of Indonesia’s past keeps breaking the surface, and is primary motivation for Rukun to approach the people who have been in power over his family and neighbors for decades. At a screening earlier this month at the United States Institute of Peace, Oppenheimer said Rukun explained to him why he was willing to do so.  

His father, more than 100 years old, loses his bearings and can’t recognize his surroundings, his family or anything else familiar, a moment caught on film by Rukun. Oppenheimer relayed Rukun’s realization that it was too late for his father to overcome the past and to heal, but said he didn’t want his own children to “inherit this fear.”  

And so he continues with his dangerous mission, confronting killers in power. Oppenheimer says the family has since relocated, though the film has made Rukun a hero in Indonesia. Perhaps its mission to heal can continue after all.  

Oppenheimer’s invitation to look into the abyss isn’t a particularly comforting one, but it’s necessary for those looking to understand their history. That sentiment brings to mind a particular scene from an iconic film about deception and owning up to one’s mistakes, Oliver Stone’s 1987 “Wall Street.”  

Toward the end of the movie, Hal Holbrook’s character Lou Mannheim says to Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox, “Man looks in the abyss, there’s nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.”  

Two very different films. But the argument is the same. Look into the abyss to stay out of it.  

“The Look of Silence” opens July 31 in Washington, D.C., at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.

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