Unacknowledged scripts: Joshua Oppenheimer on The Look of Silence

Talking documentary performance with Joshua Oppenheimer, after the New York Film Festival screening of his companion film to The Act of Killing.

Robert Greene
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Adi watching his brother’s killers on screen in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence (2014)

Adi watching his brother’s killers on screen in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence (2014)

That we’re all constantly performing is axiomatic. That those performances can be interrupted by a camera, heightened, captured and transformed by moviemakers is a more rare, more complex, potentially more constructive thing. Understanding the unstable nature of onscreen performance is crucial to understanding the way cinema transfers stories and ideas. So it was not surprising that this fundamental element of movies was explored across the fiction-nonfiction spectrum at the 52nd New York Film Festival (NYFF), most fruitfully, perhaps, in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence.

One must be careful when one finds what one is most looking for, and exploring the nature of performance is something that I’m somewhat fixated on (it’s an obsession that animates my own documentaries, including my new film Actress, and I’ve written about it before). Still, from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman to Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What to Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour and even Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery, the festival was packed with reflections on the layering that occurs when fact and fiction are compressed into the volatile, observed construction of the onscreen character/actor/subject. With the best films (both fiction and nonfiction) a concern with performance and the relationship between observation and staging is no formal dead end, but a stepping-stone to fuller narrative and artistic potential.

“There’s a lot of documentary in there,” Heaven Knows What co-director Josh Safdie told me after the screening of his quasi-fictional, hyper-expressive tale of New York junkie kids and the chaotic world that swirls around Harley (newcomer Arielle Holmes, playing a staggeringly raw version of herself). Josh and his brother/co-director Benny are my friends, my longtime collaborator Sean Price Williams was their cinematographer, but I can still report that the film is utterly brilliant and that it further blurs the already unstable boundaries between what counts as documentary and what is solely fiction.

Heaven Knows What (2014)

Heaven Knows What (2014)

Much of the film’s fractured narrative comes from Holmes’ personal stories that she adapted for the film, and her performance and the performances of the many non-actors appearing as heightened versions of themselves (along with the swirling, operatic immediacy of the images and sounds) conjures a powerful feeling of trauma and cinematic catharsis. This deep empathetic sense comes from featuring people who’ve lived difficult, razor-edged lives and then transforming those real experiences into staged, crafted filmic performances.

“Actors are artists expressing the plight of living, what it’s like to live here [in New York]”, Josh told me, “while the non-actors are real people recreating experiences, or conjuring up older emotions. The fusion of the two on screen forces an audience to ask where life ends and a movie begins.” With its stripped-bare, psycho-sonic melodrama, the film elevates both real and staged to a sort of euphoric, symphonic rawness that mimics the brutal theatricality of the streets. This is no formal exercise, but an exaggerated reality about deep emotional truths.

Elsewhere at the festival, Iñárritu’s Birdman sees Michael Keaton overstate any and all aspects of his real self to absurd, comic levels. This is not Keaton per se, but the superhero costume that haunts him, and those deep wrinkles in his neck are certainly gestures towards the real man. The film avoids much documentary, though, with manic (though often crudely drawn) satirical caricatures of acting processes and the egos at the heart of almost every artist. It’s a splendid stunt film, stupid, funny and big, which gleefully rises to the overstated adage that all movies are documentaries of acting.

Birdman (2014)

Birdman (2014)

With her much-anticipated Citizenfour, Poitras goes after a sort of reverse-performance of Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who exposed the dark world of spying and secret data collection by the U.S. and other governments and ended up a media caricature of the self-satisfied activist, a ‘performance’ that threatened to undercut the importance of his exposures (and a calamity Snowden predicted himself when he initially wanted to keep out of the story). Poitras uses a stripped-down, patched-together, home-movie style to show history (and the journalistic process) as it happens, and, though the film’s present-tense, you-are-there style does intermittently rise to the level of heart-pounding thriller, the film functions perhaps most successfully as a humanising, peeling back of Snowden’s imposed performative mask.

In Wiseman’s National Gallery the paintings are the star performers and the film gets emotional and intellectual mileage out of the positioning of these old images as living things, full of mystery and contradiction. Furthermore, several passages of the film use the quasi-structuralist editing technique of cutting back and forth between the paintings and the people gazing upon them, an effective and strangely moving way of demonstrating the ambiguities and power of the museum space and the cinematic potential of watching people simply look and think. The gazers are performers as well, of course, and the framing of their faces underlines the universal appeal of images and our undying attraction to art, a feeling that carries through to the staggeringly expressive, visually sumptuous ending, which is unlike almost anything Wiseman has ever created.

National Gallery (2014)

National Gallery (2014)

Meanwhile, the onscreen performance crafted out of archival footage of eccentric BASE-jumping inventor Carl Boenish in Marah Strauch’s Sunshine Superman tends toward the broad and emotionally scheming. The film struggles to ‘humanise’ the man (for example, only briefly mentioning, for plot advancement, the fascinating fact that Boenish was apparently a Christian Scientist), only to set the viewer up for his certain demise – a Hollywood-style storytelling tactic that overly simplifies an otherwise invigorating narrative.

In Pedro Costa’s Horse Money, the director’s particular (and oft-celebrated) way of employing extended narrative abstraction to dissolved boundaries between fiction metaphor and nonfiction milieu lost me somewhere and didn’t care to pick me up again. Still, the haunted images created by Costa are among the most potent in cinema, despite the opaque rendering.

Among the many questions asked in Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan’s harrowing Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait, one concerns the difficulty a filmmaker encounters when he or she attempts to convey a modern vision of atrocity. Within its scattershot, impressionistic aesthetic, the film (a collaboration between Mohammed, exiled in Paris and plagued by thoughts of his war-torn homeland, and Bedrixan, reporting from the ground) employs images captured on “1,001” cellphones and small camcorders, each snippet a gesture towards some attempt to fathom trauma in an age and situation where words fail. The formal play of the film, featuring Mohammed’s mannered voiceover and an invent-itself-as-it-goes style, evokes a sense of rawness-meets-performance that captures an essential tension at the heart of nonfiction.

Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (2014)

Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (2014)

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Few filmmakers, however, are exploring the cinematic possibilities of foregrounding performance as vigorously as Oppenheimer, who was at NYFF with The Look of Silence, the sequel (or, perhaps, partner film) to his breakout The Act of Killing. Whereas the previous film was an audacious, unnerving spectacle, The Look of Silence is a sober meditation. Despite surface dissimilarities, the two films are inextricably linked in both content and form. The Act of Killing used flamboyant, staged dramatisations to tell the story of the still-in-power Indonesian death squads from the perspective of the perpetrators, while The Look of Silence focuses its quieter, steady gaze on members of a family who were victims of genocide.

The newer film’s sobriety doesn’t mean Oppenheimer has lost his interest in mannered, interventionist, performance-centric filmmaking. “There are consequences for our behaviour and our behaviour is only imaginable and thinkable because of who we are,” Oppenheimer said when I sat down and spoke with him. “And if who we are is a set of performances, then the narratives, the ethics, the imaginary universe of those performances and the unacknowledged scripts are things of profound importance and profound consequence.”

This interest in the relationship between performance and the politics of social order – the “unacknowledged scripts” – is not new for Oppenheimer. As a student at Harvard, he was an activist with a flair for the theatrical stunt before he helped organise political street performances of sex workers in India. (“They were trying to do street theatre to be visible publicly,” he says.) Later he played the role of a homosexual who wanted to be ‘cured’ so he could infiltrate a church organisation in England. “I got to be the head of security for a conference put on by this (anti-gay) church group, which allowed activists to burst in and disrupt their conference… which put their activities on the front page of the Guardian and the Times.”

In The Act of Killing, staged sequences of murderous fantasy revealed the insidious psychology of those in power. In The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer uses mannered, composed frames and semi-staged confrontations between Adi (the younger brother of a well-known victim of genocide) and a series of older killers/conspirators to create an emotionally wrenching, cathartic and perhaps even more illuminating response to the previous film’s gut-punch.

The Look of Silence (2014)

The Look of Silence (2014)

“The two films really are companion pieces,” said Oppenhimer. “The Act of Killing is sort of a baroque, Hieronymus Bosch kind of fever dream, and The Look of Silence is merely a film that you have to make if you take seriously the silent haunted tableaux that punctuate The Act of Killing: [if] you imagine entering them, and what it’s like for those two or three inhabitants you see in the film who have to build a life in those haunted spaces.”

To make that space come alive, to create understanding, Oppenheimer relies on the subtle crafting of confrontational performances for the camera, interjecting himself and his characters-as-themselves into a social order that is static with fear and impunity. Using layers of documentary reality, The Look of Silence manoeuvres the viewer into a place where he can see what has seemingly become invisible in Indonesia, which of course correlates to smothered political realities of all kinds throughout the world. The staging makes us ‘see’.

“I’m very aware of trying to make images that have as many inherent layers as possible,” he said. “What happens when you let people perform as themselves? Under what prism does that place reality, and what can you see through that prism? What does it make visible that wasn’t visible before?”

By harnessing one of the fundamental aspects of filmmaking – the shifting ‘prisms’ of onscreen performance – Oppenheimer and others at the New York Film Festival used staged realities to show us ourselves. The distorted mirror can sometimes show our truest face.

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