Monday, March 9, 2015

The Look of Silence is an intense and haunting documentary

I recently volunteered at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, MO and got a chance to see the amazing new documentary from up and coming filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer has been making documentaries since the mid-1990s, but recently gained prominence for his 2012 film, The Act of Killing. Most notably, it was nominated for an Academy Award for best Documentary feature. It also won the BAFTA for best documentary at the 2014 awards. He lived in Indonesia for years in order to make these films.

The Act of Killing has been described as a companion piece to The Look of Silence. They both share the same subject matter of the series of massacres that took place in Indonesia in 1965-1966. Over 500,000 people were killed by the government in a supposed crackdown on communists.

Unfortunately I have not yet seen the first film, but viewing Silence has definitely convinced me to search it out.

The Look of Silence is about a mass killing of thousands but it focuses on the story of one family. This is incredibly important. It can be easy sometimes to hear about thousands killed in a far off land and think of it only as an abstraction. This gives a chance to really feel the experience on an individual level.

The main character is a man named Adi, whose brother was horrifically killed as part of the massacres. The perpetrators are still in power and he is forced to live around them every day.

His job is giving eye exams and he started having to visit the homes of the men who were responsible for his brother’s death. According to Oppenheimer in the Q&A after the film, Adi then started intentionally seeking out older men in order to learn more about the senseless atrocities. In the film, he confronts them, but calmly, seemingly without anger.

The camera unobtrusively observes these tense scenes where old men unemotionally delineate murdering people in horrific ways. However, the film doesn’t shy away from reminding the viewer they are watching a film as Oppenheimer is mentioned by name onscreen and one of the perpetrators talks about how Oppenheimer’s questions weren’t as tough as Adi’s.

These men talk about drinking blood as you or I would describe an iced mocha. At least two or three claim that when killing so many people, one had to consume their victims’ blood to avoid going insane. This appears to be a clear case of incongruent affect where one’s demeanor doesn’t match the intensity or emotion of what they are describing.

Throughout the film, Adi also watches video of the deceased leader of the death squads responsible for the killings. The recordings show a man who describes the killings even more casually than the rest and reenacts them for the camera in minute details. In perhaps the film’s most intense moment, he recounts how Adi’s brother Ramli was killed by having his penis sliced off.

As you can see, the film is quite disturbing at times. Yet there are still moments of levity and humor, mostly provided by Adi’s elderly parents. His father is supposedly over a hundred years old, confined to wheelchair and seems to be barely able to see or hear.  He seems surprisingly full of life for someone in that situation and is a pretty humorous character. We get the pleasure of seeing him sing a song with lyrics such as, “You’re so sexy, I can’t stand it!” The humorous moments are juxtaposed with the heavy moments in a interesting and powerful way.

If you stay for the credits you will notice that many of the crew positions are credited simply as “Anonymous.” They fear reprisals from the Indonesian government for their participation in the film. Oppenheimer also stated in the Q&A that the government has been systematically trying to shut down local screenings. He assumes that he will not be able to return to Indonesia now that these two documentaries have come out.

This is the first I’ve seen by Joshua Oppenheimer, but I can clearly tell he has a distinct look and isn’t your typical documentary filmmaker. The cinematography in documentaries can be a bit basic or utilitarian at times, but he and cinematographer Lars Skree really give us some beautiful imagery and great framing.

The editing is also quite interesting as we often see these drawn out moments of silence during the intense interviews. Often one of the military leaders will finish speaking about a gory murder and the camera just lingers, hinting at what could possibly be going on in their minds.

The Look of Silence also features two famous names credited as Executive Producer. One is the famous German New Wave director Werner Herzog, who has made  many non-fiction films. The other is Errol Morris, known for his documentaries The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War.

The Venice International Film Festival honored this film with the Grand Jury Prize as well as four other awards. It has received several other awards and nominations from various festivals as well.

As of March 2015, the movie has a 8.3 out of 10 on IMDB, but only 547 users have voted on it so far, including my own score of 10/10.

The reviews seem to be very positive as well. It has a 91 out of 100 on Metacritic and a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Seemingly the only mediocre review has come from The Wrap, where it is described as feeling “more like an extended DVD extra to his genre-defying previous film than a stand-alone documentary.” I may have had a different experience not having seen The Act of Killing, but can’t imagine anything making me view The Look of Silence as a DVD special feature.

Other reviews are much more positive. From Time Out New York, Joshua Rothkopf calls the film, “staggering” and a “superior work of confrontational boldness.” Jessica Kiang of The Playlist says it’s “an extraordinarily poignant, desperately upsetting meditation.”

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