In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “With only two features to his name, Joshua Oppenheimer might be one of the most important documentary film makers working today.”
The main reason I started this blog was to make me watch more movies, and to vary the kinds of movies I watched. The first part of that has been well and truly accomplished with me watching hundreds of movies for the first time, instead of falling back on old favourites over and over again. But l’m not sure if I’ve varied my selections enough. I still watch mainly American movies, with directors, writers and actors that make them a pretty safe bet. So this year, I’m forcing myself to seek out more international movies. With Foreign Language Weekends, every weekend(ish) during 2016, I’ll review two(ish) non-English language movies.
“In our village, the mayor, the teachers, they were all killers.”
‘Important’ isn’t a word that springs to my mind often when talking about movies. And when someone else refers to a movie as important, it’s more likely to put me on guard about it than it is to get me excited. It just seems like such a pretentious, self involved way to describe a movie. Almost like the person saying it is trying to compliment themselves for ‘getting’ it, more than they’re trying to compliment the movie itself. But ‘important’ is such a perfect word for Joshua Oppeneheimer’s 2013 documentary, The Act of Killing.
As I described The Act of Killing when I saw it, “The central figure is ex-killer, current [Indonesian] folk hero, Anwar Congo. He killed upwards of 1,000 people during the 60s ‘extermination’ and the smug prick couldn’t be more proud of himself. He openly talks about these atrocious acts in front relatives of victims and even in front of his own young grandchildren.” In the follow up, The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer gives us the other side of the story, taking the perspective of the survivors left behind after losing relatives to the extermination decades ago.
In the late 60s, Adi Rukun’s brother was brutally murdered for being an accused communist. In the many years since, Adi has had to grow up and live in a village surrounded by the men who committed the murder. The Look of Silence is a series of interviews, conducted by Adi, with other hitmen from the time, the family of the man who killed his brother, and his own aging parents, who have seemingly been in denial about their vicious neighbours all these years.
More than once, we get a similar order of events from these interviews. Adi meets with one of these killers, they happily brag and jovially reminisce about their monstrous acts, Adi lets them know about the personal suffering his family experienced, and the killers all of a sudden shrink into shame, denial, insecure anger, or a combination of the three.
The Act of Killing was told through Oppenheimer’s eyes, those of an outsider. And he filled that movie with over the top theatrics, offsetting the gritty, documentary realism with deliberate artificiality. Here, he steps back and lets Adi be the audience surrogate. And with the personal experience that comes with that point of view, Oppenheimer also makes the right decision to play things a lit straighter and simpler as a film maker. When you have a murderer claiming that the only reason he is still sane is because he would drink the blood of his victims, you don’t really need to heighten things any more with cinematic tricks or flourishes.
It still pisses me off that The Act of Killing lost the Best Documentary Oscar to the puff piece that was 20 Feet From Stardom. I haven’t seen Amy yet, and I’m sure it’s an effective telling of the tragic demise of Amy Winehouse. But I’m also sure that if and when I do see Amy, I’ll be just as pissed off that The Look of Silence missed out on its night at the Oscars too. Because with only two features to his name, Joshua Oppenheimer might be one of the most important documentary film makers working today.