Director Joshua Oppenheimer emphatically suggests that all of humankind’s troubles begin and end with the body. With The Act of Killing and its companion piece, The Look of Silence, the filmmaker offers startling concentration of how members (though mostly men) of a community can be so stridently abusive and murderous to one another, but still carry out such operations with a smiling, almost carefree abandon, that when asked to recount their deeds, they do so with a willingness that suggests they’re talking about something as seemingly innocuous as their days in elementary school.
Such a comparison isn’t arbitrary, however, because unlike The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence is directly concerned with generational lore, as attitudes and values both personal and political are disseminated in schools and perpetuated as fact rather than roundly unfounded propaganda. Adi Rukun sits and watches videos of members of the Indonesian death squad’s featured in The Act of Killing; in effect, Adi is watching that film, often in tight close-up, with nary a change of expression to his emotionless face. Adi’s brother Rimli was killed during the coup, but the killer’s explain over and over again that he was castrated, even fully reenacting (with one of them bent over) the actual action as it took place. Oppenheimer has an uncanny ability to get grown men to act like adolescents, playing out their actual murders as if they were simply childhood fantasies of war and adulthood.