Some films defy words. You want to say, “Just go see it.” But that’s not very helpful to readers of a documentary blog so I’ll do my best in regards to the heart-stopping The Look of Silence, which is being released in New York City this Friday and then rolling out to more theaters. I’m going to break up my thoughts on the film into two posts, one a more general reaction to the film and the other focusing on my interview with the director, Joshua Oppenheimer.

I’m going to start with the former because this is a film that needs some explaining. It has sprung from a very textured, complex and politically controversial context. Silence is a companion piece to Oppenheimer’s 2014 Oscar-nominated groundbreaking The Act of Killing, a film about the 1965 genocide that occurred in Indonesia and had never been properly confronted in public in that country until the film’s release.

The Act of Killing, in which Oppenheimer films the perpetrators of the genocide reenacting their atrocities, is such a disturbing and audacious film that, even though I was initially part of the chorus that trumpeted its merits, I’ve taken a more reserved approach. I can’t simply say I “love” the film. It’s the rare film that seemingly melts the screen and thrusts the viewer into an untenable position.

Which is why, more recently, when people ask me if I think they’d “like” The Act of Killing, I’ve come up with a default answer since I saw it last fall: Go see The Look of Silence first, and then you can decide if you want to see the more painful Killing. That’s because Silence focuses on the victims of the genocide, and although the perpetrators are very present, our guide is Adi, an optometrist whose brother was killed in the genocide, and who uses the device of fixing eyeglass prescriptions to approach the killers and to, as it were, see if they can see eye-to-eye.

At the beginning of the film, I wasn’t so impressed. After being punched in the gut by Killing, I was prepared to be equally moved. Instead, the film diligently follows Adi’s quest and it’s fascinating as we (re)enter the shacks of Indonesia where the environment is lush but life seems dire. But it’s all fairly straight-forward. But then, suddenly, the film takes a radical turn, or it did for me, when I suddenly became aware of the stakes involved in Adi’s mission. I won’t describe what happens but I was again thrust into feeling palpable fear for the subject as he transformed from guide to victim.

Silence takes on an electrified state from then on. And it’s not just fear that is present. There’s hope. Adi speaks with one of the perpetrators who brings his daughter to the interview. As they are talking, the daughter’s awareness of what her father has done becomes a heavy cloud in a room filled with ghosts (not literal, as we saw in one of Killing‘s reenactments; they’re invisible this time). And when the daughter, suddenly, seems to recognize Adi, I was immediately reminded of that stirring scene in Flannery O’Connor’s story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, in which, in the face of cruelty, an elderly lady reaches out to her imminent killer. The fictional and nonfictional characters were acknowledging a shared humanity in the face of evil.

This is the sort of film that invokes such literary thoughts. There is much more to Silence than what happens on the screen. The themes of living with the past, memory, forgiveness and, well, the human condition, are churning throughout Silence. For more on all that, read my conversation with Oppenheimer in the next Doc Soup.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen