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.
The psychology of the killers appears stuck in childish retreat throughout, which is something The Act of Killing emphasized, but didn’t make its primary focus. Adi’s young daughter has several scenes here that express key links between naïve engagement with one’s own body as a child and what happens if those repressive forces that enable one to mature aren’t cultivated by societal forces. At one point, she farts and revels in the smell, laughing uncontrollably as she forces Adi to smell it too. This isn’t simply a moment of levity, but an assertion of cultural taboos that, while cute and innocent in childhood, become destructive and psychopathic when allowed to stay intact when combined with powerful political forces.
Thus, body and history intersect inextricably within this Indonesian context, where Adi’s repeated confrontation with the killers is met with hostility and an unwillingness to discuss the past. Yet The Look of Silence remains focused on Adi’s family throughout, including his parents, whose wrinkled bodies Oppenheimer lingers on, as if their flesh is a dwindling reminder of historical corporeality, where memory of those who lived certain events is the only hope for constituting a revisionist doctrine.
However, given that Adi’s father, who’s pushing 100, thinks he’s 17 and can’t remember more than 10 seconds into the past, Oppenheimer implies that the only current possibility for salvation from powerful men whose reign remains unchecked is to have figures like Adi press the issue. The Look of Silence refuses to relinquish an interrogation that, if unable to restore the million lives taken, will provide a rejoinder to potentially stopping the currently unceasing forms of violence carried out under lies fortified by myth and puerile conceptions of masculine honor.
Those Who Feel the Fire Burning interrogates the past as well, but does so through a present-tense, first-person narration style that combines Malickian voiceover, a free-floating camera that resembles a similar technique used by Gaspar Noé in Enter the Void, and a sound design that emphasizes natural fury over narrative context, much like Leviathan. But director Morgan Knibbe isn’t simply cribbing together elements from other films; rather, these comparisons grant the film an immediacy that explains a Senegalese man’s death not through sentimental characterization, but an impressionistic sense of experience, cultivated through a cinematic understanding of memory as it pertains to death.
As such, Knibbe seeks to take death not as an end, but a beginning to a largely non-narrative essay film that enables a rigidly formal interrogation of exploitation as it relates to existential displacement. The unnamed narrator asks questions like “What have you done to me?,” but Knibbe refuses to linger on explicit questions of religion or specific places, instead charting the streets of an anonymous European city by stressing various kinds of illusion, made literal when a man performs a knife trick using his lower lip. The confines of illusion aren’t relegated to mere magic shows; on the contrary, the myths of immigrant escape are much deeper and damaging forms of illusion.
However, the film’s final third deviates from its earlier poetic form by focusing on immigrant activists who decide to board a cargo ship in order to plant explosive devices, while also turning to neorealist gestures, as drug addicts and self-flagellating religious demonstrations are glimpsed with stark proximity. If Knibbe never quite makes a clear bid to synthesize these experimental strands into a coherent whole, that’s because Knibbe views coherence as a false premise, made clear by the film’s refusal to assert context of any sort. Narrative destroys as much as it cultivates, as Those Who Feel the Fire Burning implies its titular fire burns anyone of power who makes no strides to eradicate boundaries that result in the deaths of the underprivileged.
Unlike both Oppenheimer and Knibbe, director Jerry Rothwell believes history to be something that can be comprehensively grasped, so long as proper footage and context are functionally assembled. In turn, How to Change the World is a hackneyed expression of rebellious figures, here embodied through the origins of Greenpeace, as 16mm footage is combined with contemporary interviews of the graying and balding men who pioneered “a union between the peace movement and environmental activism.” There’s an undeniable energy to the images of activism on the seas, as the “Save the Whale” campaign leads to a capturing, on film, of Russian whaling vessels illegally harpooning baby whales, but Rothwell structures these revelations merely as moments of triumph for a ragtag band of heroes.
Catchy phrases abound throughout, including a claim that the group were like “ecological bikers,” which the film gladly takes as a term of endearment and applies with little irony or interrogation into the undergirding assumptions of what such a label entails. That is, there’s a male-centric focus throughout that’s not only off-putting, but gleefully aroused by soundtrack choices including Country Joe and the Fish and Pink Floyd, which seeks validation and valorization of Greenpeace as a time capsule and breeding ground for cultural nostalgia. When Brigitte Bardot makes a brief appearance late into the film, the men, reflecting on their experience, fawn over her with a glee that not only objectifies her participation, but makes a careless assessment of the role gender played in the group’s formation.
Women involved with the movement are used in interviews as a source to comment on how zany the group of men were. Rather than seeking to explain their experience absent the men’s sense of camaraderie, Rothwell inserts these comments as a means to further portray the men as loveable outsiders, whose efforts to “change the world” are legitimated because of their personable qualities. Likewise, their drug use is referenced only as the butt of a joke, when one shipmate makes an indirect distinction between fishing lines and cocaine lines. All of it is calculated to provide easily detectable dramatic beats, which cultivates insight into experience by neatly establishing each man as an individual character, but collectively forming a linked-arm, commendable group of proto-environmentalists.
True/False runs from March 5—8.