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Oppenheimer’s films and Off-screen presence

            In 2013, after years of collecting information and material, director Joshua Oppenheimer released his feature documentary, The Act of Killing, to the public. The film was a sobering 115-minute denunciation of the Indonesian 1960s communist genocide. Going beyond this sole concern, it also served as a chilling window into the psychology of the very perpetrators of these massacres. What was perhaps most innovative and engaging about The Act of Killing was its structure, in which the now retired, shameless murderers attempt to reenact for Oppenheimer the atrocities they committed, as if in a film, through this device arriving at a deeper understanding of their self-justification. The film got rave reviews all over the board and made the festival rounds, starring at prestigious venues such as Cannes or Berlin, as well as being nominated for an Oscar, and in the process adding the backing of colossal documentarian figures like Werner Herzog and Errol Morris as producers. With the positive response it got, and dealing with such a broad topic as was a country’s history, it should come as no surprise that in 2015, Oppenheimer came up with a follow up. However the newer The Look of Silence, far from being an opportunistic cash-in into its predecessor’s success, takes a look at the brother of one of the genocides victims and at how he faces his kin’s murderers. Instead of seeming repetitive, it serves as a complement to the first film.

            In both films, when the credits role it is striking, but perhaps not all that surprising given the scenario, to see how Oppenheimer’s name comes up followed by an almost fully anonymous crew. After all, the Indonesian crew didn’t want the killers, who are not depicted too favorably in the film, to know who they were, in order to avoid any possibility of reprisal. Only Oppenheimer takes the credit as he is protected by his foreigner status and has already forged the necessary bonds with his subjects in order to get the often-intimate material that he needed, making it useless for him to hide his identity. Boasting degrees both from Harvard and from The London University of the Arts on his resume, the director spent twelve years in Indonesia in order to get himself in a position from which he could tackle the issue as closely as he did, and in the process often feared for his life. Consequently a lot has been written about him and he has become a complex media figure, with some pundits challenging the moral principles he probably had to break to get as close to his criminal subjects as he did. In fact, Oppenheimer’s presence in both films is one of the most interesting elements of the whole process. The director is never seen on screen, even if he constantly comments from behind the camera, and yet he somehow manages to shape every element to his convenience and extract from these criminals the most personal confessions, and gain their trust. With the subject-interviewer relationship being so cloudy, for one, it might be interesting to look at the ethics of Oppenheimer’s modus operandi, but it also remains relevant in understanding the product, to trace the various ways in which the director’s voice is present throughout the film. Be this through the film’s structure, shot-selection, and editing, or through his own comments, which in The Look of Silence are channeled through Adi, the optometrist playing the role of valiant interviewer in search of some sort of reason or truth behind his brother’s death. Without ever actually having to appear on screen, the filmmaker still has a prominent clear voice in the final product.

            For a start one may look at the basic concept behind the first film, the idea of these terrible murderers reenacting their crimes for the camera, something that they surprisingly are quite proud and willing to do. However Oppenheimer never treats his subjects as “evil,” he approaches them as people, and by interacting with them and setting them on this bizarre experiment with surreal results, opens up the space for them to reflect on their own acts. That is, in the very set-up of the film, the perpetrators are not accused by Oppenheimer but are smartly set in a situation where they are forced to face and attempt to validate their crimes. The result can be seen most blatantly when in The Look of Silence, Anwar, one of the main subjects, enacts one of the torture scenes he set up, in the role of a victim, and cant help but be shaken by the reenactment itself as if it were real. Hence, without the filmmaker directly asking any compromising questions, the documentary still leads its subjects towards these answers, a flicker of truth in their murky retelling of history.  The mechanism is a bit different with the second film. The Look of Silence appropriately concentrates on the idea of looking; uncovering the crimes that had been hidden from view and forgotten, and subsequently the interviewers job as an optometrist fits even better with his line of questioning. In this sequel of sorts, Oppenheimer puts Adi in contact with the murderers with the pretext of evaluating their sight, and he in turn questions them. Once again the questions come through no direct intervention on the director’s part but instead arise as consequences of the scenario he has put his subjects and collaborator in.

            Shot selection also reveals the filmmaker’s presence. In fact, the visuals of both releases look clean and often beautiful but they serve more than a simply aesthetic purpose. In his essay, Documentary Animism, Thomas Patrick Pringle concentrates on the purpose of a couple of, seemingly organic, cutaways that depict nature or city landscapes. “With no explicit documentary subjects or presence of the film’s star, Anwar, Oppenheimer stages ethnographic visuals of Northern Sumatra as cinematic breathing spaces, designed to mollify and divide the intensity of the graphic testimonies,” he says. What Pringle poses is that these images of “social wreckage” depict the country as ruins that need to be rescued from corruption both on a geographic and ethnographic level. “Oppenheimer submits the polluted cityscape as a world equally warped and surreal to those images made by the murderers.” In this aspect the film is shaping its viewers’ experience of the reality it is presenting. Of course no film comes without a subjective take on its material, even if diminished in some cases, but in both these films, a film where Oppenheimer has no screen presence or actual interview format, this element is exploited to an extreme in the director’s attempt to have a strong voice of sobriety included in the work.

            The very image used to market The Look of Silence depicts a man wearing Adi’s red optometrist glasses in a shot that isn’t too flattering to its subject. One could argue that the particular frame, by placing a blatant red circle around the man’s eye, besides highlighting the men’s blindness to the evil nature of their deeds and the public’s failure to see and stop what was going on, also depicts it’s subject from an angle that may seem somewhat inhuman. By hiding the subject’s full facial features, the question is being quietly asked on what kind of a man is able to commit the crimes against humanity that these perpetrators fell into. The films are packed with visual metaphors, another example being how in The Look of Silence Oppenheimer often focuses on a close up of the quivering shapes of butterfly larvae, despite not revealing what they are until well into the film, a reminder that a better future may await the country but is still blocked by the past’s shell, just like the butterflies are still contained in their cocoons.

            The pacing is also key, with long-resting takes and a slow editing rhythm adding to the reflective atmosphere that the films demand. Although this is present in The Act of Killing, the film is also in a rush to get its exposition out to the public. Consequently this use of slow pacing and reliance on pauses is much more apparent in The Look of Silence, which seems appropriate as it deals with the empty spaces that the massacre left in the victims’ lives. Moving on to a more structural side of editing, a quote by Niels Pagh Andersen, one of the films’ editors, is useful in understanding these choices as a way in which to form a narrative and shape the viewer’s experience: “That’s where we built Anwar as the main character. We were re-editing the scenes from his point of view. It wasn’t just what everyone was doing, it was how does that affect Anwar.” Andersen brings into emphasis the idea that in documentary, filmmakers are always deciding what to show and telling the viewer what to concentrate on. It is because of this that Oppenheimer manages to make his work a look at human rationalization, and good and evil instead of a bare exposition of facts.


            Oppenheimer also gets his point across on the soundboard, by overlaying disjointed voiceover recordings over footage to achieve his desired effect. A clear example in The Act of Killing would be a scene in which Herman, one of the perpetrators, is shown gladly campaigning for a post in office while at the same time a monologue in which he fantasizes about threatening innocent citizens for money, with his new position, is played over the scene. It’s ridiculous to the point of becoming comedic, and through this overlapping of material, probably recorded at completely different times, Oppenheimer manages to illustrate the state of disorder where such a man not only goes unpunished for his crimes but is actually considered for office. This is also present in The Look of Silence, for example with the recurrent use of Adi’s senile father’s singing, which also closes off the film. To have the wavering voice of this helpless blind man, even over the credits, stops the viewers from getting comfortable even when the lights come up. It is a lasting reminder that the genocide completely changed the lives of its victims, and that Adi’s family is still trying to deal with life after the loss of a son, even after the film ends.

            These are all ways in which the director makes himself felt in the film without actually appearing in it, but the closest that he comes to actually showing up on screen are the sporadic comments which he at times throws from off-screen. His interventions usually serve the purpose of answering a question by one of his subjects or are an attempt at just probing further into an area he finds valuable to his investigation. In The Act of Killing an interaction with a subject which fills both these criteria can be seen when Anwar, shocked by his experience enacting his own crime, asks Joshua whether his victims felt the same as he did when he tortured them, and the filmmaker brazenly and truthfully answers that they probably felt worse, knowing it was real and that they were going to die. This kind of interaction reminds us that Oppenheimer is behind the camera at all times and that he is actually interacting with these people, and it also exemplifies an attempt on his part to knock some kind of sense or recognition into Anwar by making him face how terrible his crimes really were. Oppenheimer’s method may perhaps be best compared to the approach of filmmakers like Errol Morris, who not-coincidentally also produces the former’s films; Morris being an advocate of documentary transparency but also often remaining away from being seen on camera himself. In The Look of Silence Oppenheimer still intervenes periodically but instead, it is Adi, his newfound collaborator, who mainly holds up the line of interrogation.

            What remains fascinating about both these films is, however, how comfortable the subjects seem in talking about their crimes. Both in The Act of Killing and in its companion piece, when asked about the massacres, they willingly reenact them, and this leads to a number of questions. For one, it might be that these men are just so far detached from reality that they don’t realize how bad what they did was and instead take it as a point of pride, and if that is the case, Oppenheimer landed on exactly the kind of statement that his film was attempting to make about memory and justification. However it also raises the question of what kind of a relationship the filmmaker had to build with those he films, and whether there was or should have been any full disclosure about how these statements would be used in a broader context. In an interview, when asked about whether he had to hide his real intentions Oppenheimer says, “there was a quiet, a holding back of my view, but once I was able to be very open about what I wanted them to talk about, I was able to say, “I want you to talk about how you exterminated the communists.” Because “exterminated” and “kill” is heroic for them, even though the words are that straight.”

            After all, the film is an exploration into trying to understand these men, as complex, or good, or bad as they may be. In fact the director also goes on to state that he still keeps in touch with Anwar and that, even if he “doesn’t know if he likes him” he has a love for Anwar which he thinks is returned. It is natural for filmmakers, and documentary filmmakers specially to get acquainted with their topic before filming and thus the relationship between subject and filmmaker is something that transcends any sort of preset basis and which will remain completely mysterious for all who didn’t experience it. Nonetheless this is the presence that becomes so apparent when Oppenheimer’s voice comes from off-screen, instead of cutting out his bits, he emphasizes the idea that he had to coexist with these men, and thus, that inevitably his incidence is everywhere to be felt in the film.

            Naturally, any film has its director’s presence implicit. It is, in the end, he who makes most of the choices around its production, and yet in so many cases this mark is not easily seen or an attempt has been made to conceal it. By showing the seams of his work, Oppenheimer is stating how he isn’t attempting to trick his audience, but instead share with them what he has seen. When he calls his film an exploration more than an angled look at anything, it fits in with a style in which, to some extent he only shows what his subjects themselves say and what he sees, as if sharing his experience with the viewer, and yet, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are effectively engineered to the smallest detail to transmit a message. Breaking down the films into separate aspects it becomes apparent how present the director’s voice is in each decision and how this adds to a larger result. That being said, what is really valuable about these two companion pieces is how Oppenheimer still refuses to retrieve his persona completely from the situation, this is perhaps what makes the film most relevant and poignant and what grounds it in reality. It creates a call to activism and an effect that would probably not have seemed nearly as urgent had a more distant, conventional form been adopted.

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