Joshua Oppenheimer’s doc “The Look of Silence” unspools in Toronto Sept. 9 — the first of three screenings here — with a suitcase full of fresh Venice booty, including the prestigious Grand Jury Prize, as well as best film awards from FIPRESCI, the European Film Critics, and Italian Online Film Critics and the Human Rights Night Award (shared).
The film is a companion (not a sequel, as some have assumed) to the Texas-born, Copenhagen-based director’s 2014 Oscar-nominated “The Act of Killing,” a shocking and inventive doc that examines the mass murder of communists in Indonesia in 1960s, by cajoling death-squad leaders to reenact their deeds in the style of their favorite movies.
Oppenheimer is the keynote guest on Day 2 (Sept. 10) of Toronto’s annual Doc Conference.
“Awards are important in terms of the attention they bring,” Oppenheimer told Variety last week, in reference to “Killing” and before the Venice wins for “Look.” The Oscar nom “opened this space where Indonesia could for the first time talk about what happened in 1965 as a crime that needs to be examined, as opposed to something that was justified,” said the director, who was editing “Look” just as “Killing” was making its global impact.
“But for a film to be a work of art, the truths have to be universal, and intended for any human being anywhere,” he continued. “My hope is ‘Look of Silence’ will reach a wider audience, more quickly, as it stands on the shoulders of the previous film.”
Oppenheimer, a graduate of Harvard and London’s Central St. Martins, first met Adi, the key figure in “Look,” in 2003, soon after the director arrived in Indonesia.
“I knew I would spend as many years as it would take to address the situation, “ he said. “I also understood there would be two films — one about the storytelling and fantasies we retreat into to justify our actions, and the moral vacuum that becomes inevitable, which was ‘Act of Killing.’
“The second (‘Look’) would be just as contemporary, but not about what happened in 1965, but about the shadow it casts on the present, what it means to live as a survivor surrounded by the people who killed your relatives.”
While working with the residents of an Indonesian plantation, Oppenheimer met a family whose son’s murder by death squads was widely witnessed. “Everyone was afraid to talk about it except for the youngest son (Adi), who was born after the killings,” the director explained. “He saw in my process the means to understand his family, and became a key collaborator.
“When he told me he wanted to meet the killers, I thought it was dangerous and reckless,” the director recalled. “But he wanted them to acknowledge what they did, so he could separate the crime from the human being, and live alongside these men and their families.
“He saw his meetings not as a way to shame them, but a way out of this fear, which is a model for how Indonesia could move forward.
“The profound irony is that as he tries to tries to forgive, he is instead treated as a criminal,” Oppenheimer said. “So we had to work closely with the family to relocate them to a more activist community far away.”
Drafthouse Films and Participant Media bought U.S. rights to “Look” prior to its world preem in Venice. The film plays the New York Film Festival, and will be released theatrically in the U.S. in the summer of 2015.