Saturday, August 8, 2015

Joshua Oppenheimer's new documentary "The Look of Silence" at Northwest Film Forum: Aug 7 - 13

This week Northwest Film Forum presents a one week run of  Joshua Oppenheimer's companion piece to his award-winning surreal work of documentary reenactment, "The Act of Killing". Returning to the subject matter of the Indonesian purges of 1965-66 in which over a million alleged Communists were massacred following the failed coup and ensuing lockdown by the Suharto regime. It watches as a revealing, bizarre, surreal, disconcerting, humorous, (yes if you have a conscience, you'll laugh, in the most terrible way) exhibition of those who perpetrated one of the most brutal of the Cold War purges of Communist citizens in all of South-Eastern Asia. One abetted, like many of them at the time, with aid from the United States. The real-world events beyond nightmarish in their scope. Further reading on Oppenheimer's incursion into Indonesia's past to be found in Nick Bradshaw's "Building My Gallows High" in the pages of Sight & Sound, Stuart Klawans' "The Executioner’s Song" for Film Comment and Carrie McAlinden's drawing of parallel's with Walter Benjamin’s philosophies of historical awakening, "True Surrealism: Walter Benjamin and The Act of Killing". Where "The Act of Killing" peered into history's enabling of genocide via xenophobia, Cold War politics, economics, racial hatred and superstition, his "The Look of Silence" is a more intimate, personal study of the family of Adi Rukun, whose brother was killed in the purges, as he quietly confronts the killers and their leaders. Oppenheimer had begun to gather stories from victims’ families as far back as 2003, but found that his subjects were threatened and feared for their lives. Anticipating repercussions, he then shot “The Look of Silence” before the first film was released and at the advice of human rights activists, has not returned to Indonesia since.

While he was born after the bloodshed, Adi is marked by it, as is his diminutive mother, their contained humiliation, fear and rage we only witness in brief glimpses as it surfaces in the course of this quest of, "'The Look of Silence' Confronting Individuals and Ideology of Indonesian Massacre". What we see of the encounters are, for the most part, unnervingly calm and conversational. Adi making use of his background as a obstetrician while asking questions, his professional bearing enabling his gentle, insistent manner of interrogation. In intimate, sometimes even theatrical and boastful detail, regional military authorities, neighbors, even relatives and friends show the blood on their hands, and acknowledge as much. A few go further, telling of how they drank their victims’ blood, a established superstition believed to save them from the madness that afflicted some of their colleagues. When pressed, the village's retired militia members say they were fulfilling the mandates of their superior officers, while the regional politicians who profited grossly from the murders and the acquisition of land, insist that the slaughter was the spontaneous expression of popular will. As seen in the American interview footage of the time, some even going as far to suggest the “Communists” offered themselves up, asking to be killed as punishment for their transgressions. The nightmare of these accounts is framed by a simmering, hypnotic tone matched by Adi's outer countenance as we observe his reviewing of Oppenheimer's footage. As noted in both Film of the Week reviews for Film Comment and Sight & Sound the silence of the title is echoed by moments in which Oppenheimer cuts out sound from the footage and replaces it with the insistent ambiance of jungle noise, as in the eerie night shots that bookend the film. It's one of his documentary's great strengths that Oppenheimer opts for these intermittent moments of composure and beauty to offset the horror. Conveying a sense of life’s tenaciously continuing on in the shadow of atrocity, injustice and grief.