Joshua Oppenheimer (#110 of 9)

Oscar 2016 Winner Predictions Documentary

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Oscar 2016 Winner Predictions: Documentary

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Oscar 2016 Winner Predictions: Documentary

Only two rather basic flavors are represented in this year's documentary Oscar rundown, and it's to the doc branch's great shame that they couldn't see fit to nominate a pair of movies each containing multitudes that would give Baskin-Robbins a cold sweat: Laurie Anderson's very subjective and philosophical Heart of a Dog, which astonishingly managed to make it to the list of 15 finalists, and Frederick Wiseman's uncompromisingly democratic In Jackson Heights, which didn't. A nomination for either would have single-handedly liberated the entire category from its continuing, medium-reductive fascination with activist-leaning, politically charged current-events studies and intimate, troubled personal portraits from the arts industries.

BAFICI 2015 Vergüenza y Respeto, The Look of Silence, 35 and Single, The Royal Road, & More

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BAFICI 2015: Vergüenza y Respeto, The Look of Silence, 35 and Single, The Royal Road, & More
BAFICI 2015: Vergüenza y Respeto, The Look of Silence, 35 and Single, The Royal Road, & More

Seen together, many of the excellent documentaries screened at the Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival (BAFICI) articulate a surprisingly coherent argument about nonfiction filmmaking and its relationship to the real. The people on screen might not be invented characters, and their words might not (explicitly) be the creations of screenwriters, but the camera means mediation and performance. Someone selects the shots, presses the record button, and edits the footage, while the filmed subjects know they're being filmed and knowingly create a version of themselves for the consumption of unknown audiences. Rather than ignore this phenomenon, some of the best documentaries take advantage of it, emphasizing how capturing reality is a way of intervening in it.

No other film at the festival conveyed this as forcefully as Tomás Lipgot's Vergüenza y Respeto, concerning the Romani community in the greater Buenos Aires area. At the screening I attended, the film's subjects were actually in the theater, cheering, applauding, and laughing at their projected selves, transforming the cinema into their living room. Cinematic portraits of minorities often establish a distance between the observer and the observed, between the director and his or her subjects, which then grows into an irreparable abyss between the viewers and the viewed. To pose an Argentine example: Even the canonical, fictional works of Lisandro Alonso, though they interrogate the marginality of the rural characters, end up reinforcing their inscrutable Otherness. Alonso himself acknowledges this problem in his meta-textual, self-reflexive Fantasma, in which blinkered city-dwellers, after watching the director's own Los Muertos, fail to meaningfully connect with its provincial star, who travels to Buenos Aires for the quiet, underpopulated screening. “Who is this movie for?” Alonso seems to ask.

True/False Film Festival 2015: The Look of Silence, Those Who Feel the Fire Burning, & How to Change the World

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True/False Film Festival 2015: <em>The Look of Silence</em>, <em>Those Who Feel the Fire Burning</em>, & <em>How to Change the World</em>
True/False Film Festival 2015: <em>The Look of Silence</em>, <em>Those Who Feel the Fire Burning</em>, & <em>How to Change the World</em>

Director Joshua Oppenheimer emphatically suggests that all of humankind's troubles begin and end with the body. With The Act of Killing and its companion piece, The Look of Silence, the filmmaker offers startling concentration of how members (though mostly men) of a community can be so stridently abusive and murderous to one another, but still carry out such operations with a smiling, almost carefree abandon, that when asked to recount their deeds, they do so with a willingness that suggests they're talking about something as seemingly innocuous as their days in elementary school.

Such a comparison isn't arbitrary, however, because unlike The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence is directly concerned with generational lore, as attitudes and values both personal and political are disseminated in schools and perpetuated as fact rather than roundly unfounded propaganda. Adi Rukun sits and watches videos of members of the Indonesian death squad's featured in The Act of Killing; in effect, Adi is watching that film, often in tight close-up, with nary a change of expression to his emotionless face. Adi's brother Rimli was killed during the coup, but the killer's explain over and over again that he was castrated, even fully reenacting (with one of them bent over) the actual action as it took place. Oppenheimer has an uncanny ability to get grown men to act like adolescents, playing out their actual murders as if they were simply childhood fantasies of war and adulthood.

Toronto International Film Festival 2014 The Look of Silence, The Face of an Angel, & Miss Julie

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Toronto International Film Festival 2014: The Look of Silence, The Face of an Angel, & Miss Julie
Toronto International Film Festival 2014: The Look of Silence, The Face of an Angel, & Miss Julie

For all its acuity and innovation, The Act of Killing always risked emphasizing its groundbreaking method—crafting a psychological profile of two Indonesian mass murderers by making them reenact their crimes—at the expense of its most critical message: that the killers profiled in the doc were not only free men, but celebrated heroes in a country still run by people who, shortly after a 1965 military coup, helped murder somewhere between 500,000 and a million Indonesians accused of being communists. With the equally brilliant The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer risks no such misplaced focus.

Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Documentary

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Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Documentary
Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Documentary

Oscar's documentary lineup typically constitutes the black sheep-iest of the award show's 24 races, but this year's crop of nominees is less odd, less disreputable, than usual. Many have bemoaned the omission of Blackfish and Stories We Tell from this year's race, but I applaud the Academy for having the guts to acknowledge both Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer's The Square and Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing, two fervid activist visions that are unmistakably form-pushing. Of course, that they're also the most esoteric of the category's nominees makes this business of predicting a winner here a little easier. We also rule out the topical Dirty Wars for being, in its too-frequent foregrounding of Jeremy Scahill, as self-serving as Stories We Tell, only without exhibiting a smidgen of Sarah Polley's cunning, if calculated, artistic ambition.

Exclusive: 3 Stills from The Act of Killing

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Exclusive: 3 Stills from <em>The Act of Killing</em>
Exclusive: 3 Stills from <em>The Act of Killing</em>

In Joshua Oppenheimer's extraordinary The Act of Killing, film becomes the medium for a bold historical reckoning—and in more ways than one. While the director travels to Indonesia to interview several of the individuals responsible for the mass murders of suspected communists following the country's military coup in 1965, and to record the same culture of casual, near-fascist violence that exists in the country today, he enlists his subjects in a singular project. Because many of the men got their start working as petty gangsters enforcing movie-ticket sales, and because many of them modeled their behaviors on American movie stars such as Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, Oppenheimer offers them the chance to film their experiences, creating a movie of their own in an assortment of genres of their choosing.

SXSW 2013: Before Midnight, Mud, & The Act of Killing

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SXSW 2013: <em>Before Midnight</em>, <em>Mud</em>, & <em>The Act of Killing</em>
SXSW 2013: <em>Before Midnight</em>, <em>Mud</em>, & <em>The Act of Killing</em>

My friend John Morthland, who programmed panels for the South by Southwest film festival in its infancy, says he could only get panelists from Texas and nearby states in those days. The schedule is crammed with panelists and films from all over now, but the festival's programmers still leave plenty of space for native sons and daughters.

Before Midnight, the latest film by hometown hero Richard Linklater, was one of the festival's most anticipated features, and it didn't disappoint. The third in a series of films about Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke), loquacious lovers who meet and spend a memorable day and night together in Before Sunrise, then reunite for another all-nighter years later in Before Sunset, Before Midnight picks up with the two living together, raising twin daughters and sharing custody of Jesse's son from a previous marriage. Reaching the end of an extended summer vacation in Greece, the couple may also be nearing the end of their time together, as the compulsively truthful Celine keeps upending their cozy life, trying so persistently to figure out what she really wants that she forces even complacent Jesse to do some soul-searching.