Film review: A gentle optician confronts his brother's murderers

Film is a flawed medium. It does not lend itself to conveying information in the way books do. What can be said in a 90-minute documentary could be written on a single page. Yet non-fictional films have a redeeming quality that makes them worthwhile for film-makers and audiences alike.

This unique trait is best described by the title of Joshua Oppenheimer's new film: The Look of Silence. Moving images can render visible things that lie beyond what words can express. True to the promise of his title, Oppenheimer's camera watches as language fails, masks fall and lies dissipate, exposing something raw and vexingly human.

The bare facts of his film are told in three captions during the opening sequence. In 1965, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military. Anybody opposed to the dictatorship could be accused of being a "communist". In less than a year over a million such "communists" were murdered.

While Joshua Oppenheimer's first film on the subject, The Act of Killing, tracked perpetrators who openly boasted about their abhorrent deeds, The Look of Silence puts the relative of a victim centre stage. It not only shifts perspective but shows how differently Indonesia's people perceive the past. Adi, the film's hero, is a village optician. He has plenty of work; many of his fellow citizens see reality through a clouded lens.

One of his clients, for instance, believes that slitting someone's jugular and drinking their blood is an antidote to madness. It transpires that this particular person was in cahoots with a death squad that gruesomely killed the optician's brother – a supposed "communist". Nudged along by Adi's persistent questions, he admits that he himself tasted human blood, and so did many of the other murderers ("both sweet and salty", as one says). As the man speaks, the camera catches on his face not only a mix of turmoil and insolence but some of the haunting guilt he adamantly denies. The optician realises this man's eyes may be fixed but his soul cannot.

Adi, in seeking out perpetrators, is never aggressive, but soft-spoken and sincere in his search for truth. He is a benign counterpart to the protagonist of another documentary, The Naked Emperor's Army Marches On. In this forgotten masterpiece, a man who witnessed atrocities committed by the Japanese army during the Second World War descends on the killers like an avenging angel, physically threatening them if they refuse to apologise. It is precisely this cycle of violence the hero of The Look of Silence attempts to break, for there are rifts in Indonesian society that divide not just towns and villages, but even families. Sometimes close relatives would help to murder a "communist". Some mass executions made the rivers run red: "No one here ate fish. Everyone knew that they had fed on human corpses," says one of the perpetrators.

The optician's brother was one of those who suffered the very cruelest treatment. When the optician confronts the killers with his story, they remain unrepentant, even threatening him. Yet their eyes err this way and that, betraying their guilt.

While the relatives of victims have to live with their loss, these men are alone with what they have done. While they are beyond redemption, it is up to the next generation to come to terms with their deeds. In one of the strongest scenes of the film – in any recent documentary –the daughter of one of the murderers asks the optician for forgiveness, hoping that this might save her father from hell.

While The Act of Killing explored the nature of evil in a world where the villains had won, The Look of Silence asks where a society can go after such bloodlust. During the optician's quest for truth it emerges that those who have committed atrocities are unable to ask for forgiveness, and people like Adi's mother are understandably unable to forgive. Yet in the next generation there is a possibility of atonement and deliverance.

The optician looks the horror of our capacity for murder and cruelty in the eye, and does not flinch. He is willing to embrace those who show remorse. If more such generous and open-hearted people emerge, there may be hope not just for Indonesia, but for all humanity.