REVIEW: The Look of Silence

7 09 2014

Telluride Film Festival

When I was in eighth grade, I had the remarkable opportunity to hear a Holocaust survivor recount his experiences surviving the cruelty of the Nazis.  After his speech was over and the whole room was crying, he stood at the front of the room and received hugs and other warm gestures from anyone who wished to embrace him.  No gesture of kindness could erase all the pain he endured, but it somehow felt like the only possible way to end the session.  The hug became a sort of promise to bear witness moving forward.

I had never seen anything like it again until I left my screening of “The Look of Silence” at the Telluride Film Festival, which the documentary’s protagonist, Adi Rukun, attended.  After a brief Q&A following the film, the crowd somberly filed out (appropriately, in silence).  And when the bright sunlight entered my eyes, I noticed a sight both moving and surprising: a queue had formed to embrace Adi.  One man seemed to clutch him firmly for well over a minute.

“The Look of Silence” is the kind of film that can inspire such a deep outpouring of emotion with its brutally pared-back power.

The Look of Silence

In the film, documentarian and humanitarian Joshua Oppenheimer revisits the subject of the 1960s Indonesian genocide that made him an Oscar nominee last year with “The Act of Killing.”  That film, as profound an impact as it had upon release, rubbed me the wrong way as it allowed (at least in my audience) repeated instances of laughter at the excesses of men who took joy in murdering large quantities of people.  “The Look of Silence,” its companion piece, thankfully operates under the appropriate sense of solemnity and reverence that is rightfully due to the victims of the extermination and their families.

The narrative journey Oppenheimer fashions in his second take on the subject is assuredly less flashy and entertaining.  It moves slowly and episodically towards its conclusion, never quite signaling where it will eventually deposit us.  “The Look of Silence” occasionally frustrates with its gentle, slow pacing, yet the periodically interspersed revelations more than redeem any plot sluggishness.

To elaborate on Adi’s travails in any great detail would only rob you of experiencing the intellectual and emotional impact of the film.  With Oppenheimer’s help, he embarks on a dangerous and painful quest for answers about the killing of his brother, Ramli, at the guns of a death squad.  What the two uncover is far more than just textbook examples of the social construction of morality or the banality of evil.

That the killers boast of their exploits is hardly news to anyone who saw “The Act of Killing,” but “The Look of Silence” still finds new ways to explore how that past continues to loom large over the present in Indonesia.  The perpetrators continue to perpetuate their revisionist narrative of history, not only by making ludicrous claims as “some of the communists wanted to be killed,” but also through more insidious means of controlling thought and expression.

Ultimately, the film is not about the killers, though; it is about Adi – and subsequently every other Indonesian citizen in his position.  Oppenheimer frequently circles back to a scene of Adi watching a video of two military men detailing how they committed Ramli’s murder.  The camera often lingers on his calm gaze, which contains so much more than merely the look of silence.  The same subterranean power gives haunting resonance to every moment in “The Look of Silence” on the whole.  B+3stars

Telluride Film Festival Diary, Day 4

1 09 2014

9:30 A.M.: Nothing says “Happy Monday morning!” quite like a film on genocide in Indonesia!  Time for Josh Oppenheimer’s “The Look of Silence,” his follow-up to the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Act of Killing.”

11:40 A.M.: Well. That was heavy. Need something to cheer me up ASAP. Found “The Look of Silence” a more appropriate, solemn look at the massacre than “The Act of Killing.”

11:55 P.M.: Werner Herzog might have just cut me in line for lunch.

Sophie Barthes and Ramin Bahrani

Sophie Barthes and Ramin Bahrani

3:30 P.M.: After a nice Q&A with Oppenheimer, I dashed across Telluride on my bike to make the 3:30 showing of “The Imitation Game.” I’m going to be panting for the next 30 minutes, but it’s going to be totally worth it!

6:05 P.M.: Just got back in line at the same theater, now to see “Rosewater” (Jon Stewart’s directorial debut).

8:35 P.M.: And now it’s time for my final film at the festival, “Wild” (starring Reese Witherspoon!). I only got halfway through the book before coming here, so that’s going to be interesting watching the movie.

Also, “The Imitation Game” was solidly good, and “Rosewater” was a nice film if not particularly great.

12:59 A.M.:  Well, folks, that’s my first Telluride Film Festival in the books!  Closed out on a good note with “Wild,” which was a very pleasant surprise.  Depending on how you want to count, I saw roughly 15 films in 4 days.  So a lot of reviewing will be coming up in the next few days!


REVIEW: The Act of Killing

30 07 2013

The Act of KillingRecently in a film class, a discussion arose about disturbing film scenes.  The conversation kept coming back to the rape scene in David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” which many people found uncomfortable and hard to watch.  Someone interjected as the voice of reason and said, “Well, yeah, that’s the point.  It’s rape, a horrible act – you aren’t supposed to feel comfortable!”

Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” tackles another tough subject, one affecting societies rather than individuals: genocide.  Unbeknownst to many (but perhaps surprising to few), the new Indonesian military government commissioned gangsters and paramilitary groups to exterminate dreaded communists in 1965.  As you can imagine, their targets grew in scope beyond avowed Marxists, and the term “communist” came to signify anyone that they consider to be their opposition.  By the next year, they had killed over a million people.

Believe it or not, these perpetrators have not been tried for war crimes.  They proudly walk the streets of Indonesia, boasting of their murders and willing to simulate their violent acts.  Documentarian Oppenheimer crafts an unconventional film around these men by asking them to film reenactments of how they killed and what it felt like.

What ensues in “The Act of Killing” is nothing short of a crash course on the social construction of morality.  Men such as Anwar Congo have a level of impunity in Indonesia because their society does not deem such acts as wrong.  If you’ve ever thought a cinematic gangster was cool, prepare to feel rather shameful when Congo and his band of gangsters talk about how they felt inspired and empowered by films like “The Godfather.”

At times, though, the film fixates a little too strongly on these cultural differences.  The result is a rather dark comedy that happens to end on a harrowing note to drive home the horror of these acts.  While this conclusion (that I dare not spoil) is effective on perhaps the most collective of gut-levels, I didn’t leave feeling all that unsettled or discomforted.  What I’ll remember is that “The Act of Killing” was the most blackly humorous documentary I’ve seen since “Inside Job.”  That’s an accomplishment, to be sure, but not quite the one I think Oppenheimer was aiming for.  B2halfstars