Joshua_Oppenheimer - photo by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung

For his follow-up to 2012’s The Act of Killing, documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer returned to Indonesia to once again explore the late 1960s massacres of innocents that put the nation’s current government in power. With The Look of Silence, once again, Oppenheimer, co-directing with the victims and the victims’ family members who he credits as “anonymous,” creates a stark testament to a grim history. As opposed to The Act of Killing where he spoke to only the perpetrators who killed people with clubs, knives and steel wire with impunity, The Look of Silence features the family members of one of the victims.

Speaking via phone from New York City, the Danish-born filmmaker reveals he first thought of this film before he shot The Act of Killing. However, he only began shooting The Look of Silence in 2012. It was actually too dangerous to identify survivors of the massacres because the current government could have imprisoned them or worse. People still live in fear of the government in Indonesia, and the release of The Act of Killing has now given him and his victims a kind of protection, though he still had to be careful not to shoot interviews with people who were too high-ranking in the government.

Oppenheimer calls The Look of Silence and The Act of Killing mirror images. He says the title The Look of Silence also came to him before The Act of Killing. Explaining the film’s title he says, “It was, above all, a definition of a project of making visible, of making palpable something normally invisible, this silence born of fear and the traces that fear and silence leave on a human life. How can you look at a family that’s lived for 50 years afraid and in silence, and in forced silence, and see the traces of that and how can you discern the inventive ways that people find to live with dignity and love, despite being surrounded by the powerful men who killed their loved ones.”

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It’s a profound observation for a heavy subject. The family Oppenheimer spotlights is that of Adi, a village optician who makes the rounds testing the eyes of his neighbors, including some who actually participated in the massacre. And it is Adi who conducts the interviews with some of the perpetrators. They share with him chilling stories of drinking the blood of their victims to keep from going mad. But what mainly gets to Adi is footage Oppenheimer shot of two elderly men while making The Act of Killing. The two men stand at a clearing by the Snake River and admit they were the ones who killed Adi’s elder brother, Ramli, They even act out their actions and go into gruesome details of each machete blow that they remember. And they laugh.

The film also features Adi’s parents, his mother, who calls Adi the reincarnation of Ramli, and his father, who is now blind, toothless and suffers from dementia. In a particularly unnerving scene that Oppenheimer says Adi shot one day when he was home alone with his father, his father suffers an episode and begins crawling on the ground patting the walls crying that he doesn’t recognize where he is. “Adi explained to me, ‘I shot this because I couldn’t comfort him that day,” says Oppenheimer, “because I was a stranger to him, and I realized that it’s too late for my father to heal. He’s forgotten the son whose murder destroyed his life and his family’s life, but he hasn’t forgotten his fear, and now he’ll die like millions of others, in a prison of fear. It’s too late for him to heal because he’s forgotten what happened, and I don’t want my children to inherit this prison of fear.’”

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Indeed, this is a stark movie that dwells not so much on explaining but understanding how to heal from such a past for the sake of the nation’s future. A sort of mantra is repeated by both survivors and perpetrators of the genocide: “The past is the past.” Oppenheimer explains this reasoning thus: “It’s a statement that absolutely belies itself because the survivors always say it out of fear, and the perpetrators always say it as a threat, indicating that the past is not the past. It’s right there, keeping people afraid. It’s a gaping wound. It’s an abyss dividing everybody. Keeping survivors afraid and a kind of threat by the perpetrators. The past is right there and is open … That’s really the experience of the film. I tried to create a film that’s so immersive that it goes beyond a message.”

Oppenheimer has created a poetic film, actually. It is much more than a documentary (my review: The Look of Silence explores aftermath of genocide with startling cinematic poetry). The quality of his filmmaking stands alongside the work of Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, two of contemporary cinema’s most influential and important documentary filmmakers. Both even acted as executive producers on The Look of Silence. However, Oppenheimer names very different filmmakers as influences on this film. “I kind of made a study in preparation for this use of silence of two filmmakers. I suppose for the viewing scene, I was thinking more of the work of Robert Bresson. Diary of a Country Priest, for example, the closing shot of that film, where you see a face reacting to memory and reacting to the plights of the world and the trials that are being thrown at the priest, and in the dialogue scenes, I was thinking about Yasujirô Ozu, whom I think is a master of creating dialogue scenes where everything important being said is articulated through silence and shame as opposed to the words.”

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You can read much more about the film, its story and Oppenheimer’s intentions in an article I wrote for the Arts and Culture blog of “The Miami New Times.” I’m quite proud of it. Jump through the logo of the blog below to read an even more insightful piece on what is sure to be one of the greatest documentaries of the year:

NT Arts

Hans Morgenstern

Screening update: The Look of Silence returns to our Miami area thanks to the Miami Beach Cinematheque starting Friday, Sept. 4 (see screening calendar here).

The Look of Silence opens in our South Florida area exclusively at O Cinema Miami Shores on Friday, Aug.14. It plays only for the weekend. If you live outside of Miami, visit this link for other screening dates and locations. Drafthouse Pictures provided a screening link for the purpose of this review and also provided all images in this article.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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Yesterday, the “Miami New Times” arts and culture blog “Cultist” published an interview I performed with actor Brady Corbet. He is at the Miami International Film Festival to introduce Robert Bresson’s masterpiece Au Hasard Balthazar in 35mm during a one-night only screening this Friday (buy tickets).

For that article we spoke about the merits of this 1966 film, its importance in the world of cinema and his own personal experience with the movie. You can read that article here:

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We spent the other half of the interview discussing the merits of watching and making movies in 35mm. Based on other posts written on this blog, a reader will notice a concern and interest I have in the format (here are two particular in-depth posts about it: ‘Side By Side’ presents close examination of digital’s quiet conquest over filmTo accept the death of celluloid). Brady CorbetCorbet revealed an equal, if not deeper concern than I about the state of 35mm, and I found it wonderful to know a filmmaker as young as he (24) not only shows concern about it, but is also taking steps to keep the format alive.

When the leaders at MIFF asked him to host a screening, he agreed to do so only if it were a 35mm film print. “I said, ‘Well, here’s ten films I’d be happy to screen, but I want to make sure that it’s a print. I don’t want to screen a DCP [Digital Cinema Package],’” he recalls and explains:  “First of all, DCPs are very unreliable. They’re fussy, and there’s frequently drop outs. There’s all sorts of problems with them, and second of all, there’s a majesty about celluloid that at this point is impossible to replicate.”

He considers the idea to replace film cameras with digital rather premature, noting that the image capable with the highest quality digital camera has yet to match what can be achieved with 35mm. “I saw Leos Carax speak after a screening of Holy Motors this year, and he said this very funny thing in regards to the digital movement. Denis Lavant in 'Holy Motors.' Still Image courtesy of Indomina ReleasingHe said, ‘I feel like we were prescribed an antidote or a medicine for something that we weren’t sick for yet,’ and so for me, unfortunately, I think that eventually, maybe in five years or 10 years, I don’t know, it will be impossible to tell the difference, but right now you still can.”

Corbet will not go as far as calling all digital filmmaking inferior to 35mm. He says there are certain master filmmakers who understand the various capabilities of either format and some that know how to work in either one when the occasion calls for it. For instance, he gives passes to both Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke (whose movies he has acted in) because they know what it is like to work on film.I think those two guys have been making some of the best movies of our generation, clearly. But it’s an interesting thing. for them it’s probably very exciting because when they started their careers, Lars got to make his first five or six projects on film, and then I understand how freeing and exciting it must have been for him to shoot Breaking the Waves digitally.breaking-41 I’m sure it sort of re-invigorated his interest in the medium. So, as far as they’re concerned, I think they can do whatever the hell they want.”

However, when it comes to a current generation beginning to craft work with digital translation, a lot of the creative process gets lost, as many mechanics are taken for granted. “I think it’s a strange thing for this next generation of filmmakers to grow up on digital without having to learn the analog, for lack of a better word. I feel like you should have the experience of working with something tangible first and understand that deeply and then make a choice.”

Corbet knows firsthand what it’s like to shoot a film on 35mm. His first short film, which played at the Miami International Film Festival in 2008, was shot and projected in 35. He is disappointed that most people will now only have a chance to see it online:

Protect You + Me from Paul Rubinfeld on Vimeo.

“The transfers that have existed online, there’s a lot of problems,” he notes. “They’re either too bright or too contrasty. When you get into the process of exporting it or the output or whatever, when the contrast goes that black, then suddenly you don’t get that milkiness or that nuance that 35mm has naturally. So it’s kinda hard to tell on a computer, but you could tell when it was projected. And Darius Khondji shot that film, so it’s very striking visually. I mean, I was 18 or 19 years old when I made it, so it’s sort of like looking at baby pictures now. But there’s still something to it I think. I haven’t seen it in a while.”

Corbet has also shot in digital, most recently regarding a much-liked music video for Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes. “I always knew people will be watching the video on computers,” he says. “It’s a very modern video, so we shot that on the Alexa, and I’m very happy with the look of it. It’s very appropriate for the content, very suitable. That was shot by Jody Lee Lipes who shot Martha Marcy May Marlene and other things that we worked on together. I basically wish—my hope for 35mm is that simply it remains an option.”

Corbet does recognize that digital technology has unique aspects in certain lighting environs that makes 35mm obsolete. He brings up Simon Killer, a film he co-wrote with its director Antonio Campos and which he plays the titular role. “I think there are plenty of occasions when digital technology is more appropriate,” he says. “For example, a film we have coming out in a couple of months, called Simon Killer was shot on the Alexa, and we couldn’t have really shot the movie on any other format because the Alexa and its sensitivity to light sees more than human eyes see. You can shoot in really negative lighting circumstances and you still have a viewable image. That film we shot without any film lights. We shot it with augmented practicals and available light, so we could have never made that movie for the price we made it for and made it look as good as it looks without that technology.”

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It’s an uphill battle for 35, and Corbet recognizes this. When producers and studio heads or even your own collaborators on the films, like actors and actresses, want to see that day’s takes before the end of the day, it cannot be done with 35. “The problem is also that it’s an issue of immediacy too,” he notes. “They want to see dailies shot all day, and they want to review it at 7 p.m., as soon as you’ve wrapped up photography for the day … People are just getting less and less patient.”

He notes that impatience has a detrimental effect on the creative process. “I believe that sometimes affects the content in a really negative way because you’re rushing things and sometimes it’s nice to sit with something for a little while, and imperfections are a nice thing too. They give an image life.”

Going back to the screening tomorrow night, Corbet has hopes that the film print will look quite nice. “I have a feeling that the print that we have of Au Hasard Balthazar is probably going to look pretty pristine because I imagine it’s a print that Rialto did of the last release of it, so I think that they’re new prints.”

Hans Morgenstern

Au Hasard Balthazar will screen Friday, March 8, at 7:15 p.m. with an introduction by actor/director Brady Corbet as part of the Miami International Film Festival (buy tickets to the event here; this is a hyperlink).

Note: This was to be a post on Day 6 of the Miami International Film Festival and Dark Blood, but a meeting at the “Miami New Times” dragged long into the night, and I missed the screening. Day 7 it’s back to an intimate venue: O Cinema for a film with less hype following it than Dark Blood but much critical acclaim: Post Tenebras Lux (click here for tickets).

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(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

MIF_2011._willem_The_Life_and_Death_of_Marina_Abramovic._By_Lucie_Jansch_13

Day 3 of the Miami International Film Festival started as a bit of a drag with a pair of films that underwhelmed. However, the night ended on a high note as the festival’s director invited me to a VIP party to close the night in celebration of that night’s career achievement award recipient: Lasse Hallström.

I spent most of my time at O Cinema that day, walking in with high hopes for Bob Wilson’s Life & Death of Marina Abramovic. Though I could not have expected to see a filmed version of the actual stage play/opera by Robert Wilson with music by Antony Hegarty and Matmos, I had at least hoped for something beyond brief scenes from the performance and people patting one another on the back. It starts promisingly with Wilson recounting the moment the performance artist called him up to ask him to design her funeral.

The snippets from the performance and rehearsals were as startling as anyone familiar with Wilson’s work should expect. Willem Dafoe delights wearing expressionistic face paint like a Technicolor version of the makeup painted on the actors in the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. bob_wilsons_life_and_death_of_marina_abramovic_posterHowever, I could not help but notice the sentimentality of it all, which stands in stark contrast to the aesthetic of the work of the performance artist herself. Abramovic is well-known as having put her body through the ringer for her work. She stood against the idea of staged performances with fake blood. Wilson’s work is stagey to the extreme. Abramovic searches for some pain to relate with, and it arrives in her taking the role of her own, abusive mother.

In the end, the talents here are unparalleled and maybe should be forgiven some self-appreciation. Perhaps an exploration of a staged, rehearsed performance with props and costumes will serve Abramovic well in her continued evolution as she approaches a deeper sense of her own mortality. An artist should be allowed to evolve for the sake of the integrity of her art, which should never be reduced to gimmick in order to maintain relevance. The documentary was interesting though it did not leave me as enraptured as I would have hoped for.

The film also opened with a very loose narrative short film that had nothing to do with Abramovic. “Ebb and Flow” was a 29-minute short that at first seemed to recall Pedro Costa’s work in the slums of Lisbon, with an opening scene of a shirtless man hanging laundry inside a bricked building in shadows sliced by incongruent light. ebb-an-flow-rodrigo-marianaThe film turned out to be a series of loosely linked scenes about the young man trying to raise a young daughter in Brazil while keeping a job building extreme car stereos. Oh, and he’s deaf. Though the scenes are often rambling and slight, with little conflict, they are quite humanistic and raw.

I broke up the screenings at O Cinema by dashing over from the Wynwood base of the art house to Downtown Miami and the festival’s primo venue, the Olympia theater, for Hallström’s career achievement award tribute and presentation. I greeted he and his wife actress Lena Olin at the end of the red carpet where festival director and kind champion of this blog, Jaie Laplante introduced me with words of flattery. Olin and I had a nice chat, and I was happy to shake Hallström’s hand after “meeting” him only over the phone for a conversation that ended up published in the “Miami Herald” (read it here).

They were soon whisked away for the presentation of Hallström’s career achievement award. I watched it from the back of the room. It began with a montage of marvelous scenes from some of his more famous films. During the intertitles someone messed up the dates noting Abba: the Movie as a 1985 film and then My Life As a Dog as coming from 1977. Murmurs from the crowd proved I was not the only one to have noticed this flub. But the typo was soon forgotten, as one enchanting scene after another surprised members of the audience. They gasped at the breadth of this man’s work since his U.S. debut in Miami, which included Chocolat, Cider House Rules, Once Around, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. The producer of Hallström’s first English-language film, Once Around, actor Griffin Dunne presented the award, noting the embarrassing amount of tears he shed when he first saw My Life as a Dog. When it was his turn to speak, Hallström could not help but express how precious the moment was when the film premiered at the 1987 Miami International Film Festival. It clearly stands as one of the most memorable experiences of his life.

As I had already seen that night’s Hallström film ahead of my interview with the director, I headed back to O Cinema for one more movieErrorsOfTheHumanBody-Poster-565x798. Part of MIFF’s Mayhem series, Errors of the Human Body proved downright disappointing. I had hoped for something at least slightly Cronenbergian, but ended up with a film way too long for its own good. It lingered on scenes for so long dread turned to boredom. To make matters worse, the film ended with a twist that trumped anything prior. As one moviegoer outside O Cinema exclaimed, “I feel as ripped off as when I watched Lost!” Errors has been picked up by IFC Films, so you may be able to see it for yourselves soon enough, be it in a theater near you if not on-demand.

After that film, I took up Laplante’s invitation to stop by the VIP party at the Epic Hotel, a fancy new hotel a few blocks south of the Olympia in Downtown Miami, just before the Brickell financial district. It was a chilly walk on an extra cold night for Miami (like yesterday, low 50s), but it proved worthwhile. After not seeing anyone I recognized around the whole bar, I saw Olin and Hallström sitting alone at a small table and approached. We ended up chatting the night away. I mostly spoke with Olin who shared her feelings about what a leap of faith acting in film is, considering she came from live theater in Stockholm. She shared that, while making the Unbearable Lightness of Being, she had feared the end result would be an embarrassing mess. But what a nice surprise she would be in for, as most cinephiles know.

Later, one of 1990s great American independent filmmakers came over to introduced himself, who Hallström seemed not to know. Olin and Hallstrom at afer party. Image fourtesy of MIFF Facebook pageWhit Stillman is at the festival as part of the jury for the festival’s long-running Knight Ibero-American Competition. I gushingly vouched for the talent of Stillman while also introducing myself to him. We bonded after he dared asked if I had ever panned one of his films, and I shamelessly admitted that indeed I had (read it here). Regardless to say, an interesting conversation turned even more interesting, as we all hunched over the tiny table to hear everyone speak.

At the end of the night, I wished Olin and Hallström a pleasant trip back to their home in New York for which they are headed to today. Stillman shared his email address with me, as he and I look to make plans for meeting at some point during the festival. I hope to make up for my harsh review of Damsels in Distress, which the Stillman-centric fansite whitstillman.org called “thoughtful.” The man was utterly agreeable and down to earth and is truly looking forward to our conversation, which I hope to share here.

Today, I have a ticket to only the following screening:

Monday, March 4th
7:00 PM: MY GERMAN FRIEND (EL AMIGO ALEMÁN)

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It’s a weekday, so it will mean a lot of writing. Among assignments to get to: transcribing an interview with actor Brady Corbet who will be down at MIFF on Friday to host a 35mm screening of Robert Bresson’s masterpiece Au Hasard Balthazar (if you have nothing else to see, buy tickets).

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)