Posted in: by Robert Horton, Contributors, Documentary, Film Reviews

Film Review: ‘The Look of Silence’

Adi Rukun

Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2013 documentary The Act of Killing earned an Oscar nomination and a raft of astonished reviews. There were skeptics, however, who questioned the film’s nausea-inducing strategy of encouraging the mass murderers of Indonesia’s mid-1960s genocide to proudly re-enact their atrocities for the camera. That’s a point worth raising, but with the release of The Look of Silence, we glimpse Oppenheimer’s larger canvas. This film—not a sequel, but a complementary project—has an interrogator.

Instead of the neutral camera-eye of The Act of Killing, we see the new film from the perspective of Adi Rukun, an optometrist (born in 1968, after the slaughter) whose older brother was tortured and killed during the purge.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Documentary, Essays

Aftereffects: Joshua Oppenheimer’s Shorts

‘The Globalisation Tapes’

“I’ve never thought of myself as an activist. I do think, though, that the purpose of art is to force us to confront the most painful and important aspects of who we are.”
—Joshua Oppenheimer, interviewed by Jessica Kiang at Indiewire

American-born filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer is a 1997 Marshall Scholar, a 2014 recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Award (the same year that Alison Bechdel was so honored), and director of Academy Award nominated documentary The Act of Killing (2012). From his earliest films, he’s experimented with new forms with which to explore big themes and historical forces, and he’s explored issues of representation and “truth” inherent in the form in articles and books on the subject of non-fiction and documentary.

“In so-called ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary, there’s a claim that the camera is a transparent window onto a pre-existing reality. But what really is happening is that the director and the film crew and the subjects are collaborating to simulate a reality in which they pretend the camera is not present,” he explained at the 2015 Based on a True Story documentary conference. “No one forgets the presence of the camera, no matter how long it’s there. All documentaries are performance. They are performance precisely where people are playing themselves.” It’s the quantum physics of filmmaking: the act of observing changes the behavior of the observed. His solution is to incorporate the tools and the practice of filmmaking into the structure of the film.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Documentary, Film Reviews

‘The Act of Killing’

Some days it seems the world is chock-full of killing grounds, some known, always more to be discovered. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer digs one up for our edification in Indonesia, where gangsters and paramilitary types massacred a couple million Communists and ethnic Chinese in 1965. The “stars” of Oppenheimer’s problematic memory piece are Mandela-lookalike Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, a fat thug who served as Congo’s murderous right hand during the bloodbaths. Both are delighted to reminisce about and indeed elaborately reenact their heyday as homicidal gangstas. Playacting, dressing up, slapping on horror-movie makeup, movie-lovers Koto, Congo, and friends are like happy kids, reveling in once-upon-a-time atrocities.

A good part of the creeping horror of The Act of Killing is how cool Indonesians are with this suppurating history—“War crimes are defined by the winners,” remarks Congo. These aging men and their comrades-in-arms are far from present-day pariahs; they’re mostly treated as heroes, along with the members of the super-macho Pancasila Youth paramilitary troop, responsible for murdering commies as enthusiastically as did small-time gangsters like Congo and Koto. A prominent newspaper editor boasts that, back in the day, “a wink from me” was a virtual death sentence, often carried out in a corner of his newsroom. White-haired Congo stands on a roof where many died at his hands, explaining that there was too much blood to clean up so he turned to a more efficient, less messy method: a wire and a stick. Guess Zyklon-B wasn’t available—or maybe he preferred his hands-on approach. Did I mention that this dapper granddad does a mean little cha-cha on his old killing ground?

Congo and company wrap themselves in the mystique of movies, especially gangster flicks. “We were more cruel than the movies,” he brags, citing Brando, Wayne, Pacino as role models. The old man dyes his hair black, sports a pink cowboy hat and western gear to stand out on a TV talkshow, where the hostess chortles over and the audience cheers his exploits. “I wore jeans for killing,” he notes, critique-ing his costume and performance in one filmed reenactment. Sidekick Koto has a taste for cross-dressing; in one vignette, he’s a Carmen Miranda senorita, getting vigorously raped while caballero Congo looks on. Congo drags his two grandchildren in to watch him get tortured and garroted on TV; in a (therapeutic?) role reversal, he’s playing a Communist victim. The spectacle produces no reaction; the kids are utterly affectless, as though they were dead to visual shock tactics.

As this grueling horrorshow continues, full of geeks and giggles, it’s like watching pornography. At first, there’s titillation, seeing ugly actors exposed, doing what they should only do in the forgiving dark. But after a while, the illicit thrill wears off and boredom sets in. The Act of Killing is two long hours of pornography, of banality and evil “eroticized” by giving frame space and significance to moral nullities, who may or may not discover some shreds of human empathy and remorse as the narrative arcs toward its tacky musical climax. One can’t help but picture a balding, bespectacled Eichmann released from his glass box for a little song-and-dance about the good old days of gassing Jews.

Executive-produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, Oppenheimer’s “documentary of the imagination” has been lauded as a new aesthetic form, edifying and enlightening in its radical framing of grotesque perpetrators of historical atrocity. But how much and in what ways did the director prompt and collaborate with Congo and company in their self-promoting cinematic fantasies? What revelations come about the nature of evil—or sociopathy—when it’s all colorfully wrapped up in the bad-guys’ movie-made fantasies? Or for that matter, what do we really learn about the power of movies to shape bad acts? The Act of Killing possesses a flashy allure—enjoy an hilariously homicidal Laurel and Hardy!—but what truth lies at its slippery heart?  That human beings are, as Jonathan Swift so eloquently put it, “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth”? Is it enough that we simply gaze at Oppenheimer’s monster movie, appalled but none the wiser?

Towards the end of the documentary, Congo returns to that rooftop killing ground. There, in the dark of night, with Oppenheimer presumably directing or at least recording, the old gentleman walks about, stopping at intervals to bend over and dry heave. The sound is awful, as though the man was retching out his body and soul. A repellent moment, in that place, for we have no idea whether this is truth or fakery, acted or directed, remorse or another kind of heartless victimization. Oppenheimer’s POV can’t be described as objective or a brand new coign of aesthetic vantage, or even as acknowledgment of ambiguity. His position feels more like that of a collaborator.

Straight Shooting, July 27, 2013

Copyright © 2013 by Kathleen Murphy