Joshua Oppenheimer exposes the atrocities of the Indonesian genocide in two of the most unique documentaries ever made. “The Act of Killing” is unquestionably the most innovative piece of documentary filmmaking to come out this decade. It re-invents the use of reenactment and takes filmmaking to unprecedented territory. The concept reminded me a lot of Hirokazu Koreeda’s “After Life”, a science-fiction film in which characters restage the best day of their lives in the afterlife. Only everything in “The Act of Killing” is as real as it gets and what is being restaged is far more sinister. Oppenheimer forces a boastful mass murderer, Anwar Congo, to reenact the murders he committed. But as the killer recreates his killings, we see the first signs of shame and guilt boiling to the surface. It is utterly fascinating to witness this subtle emergence of emotions onscreen.
Oppenheimer followed his bizarre masterpiece with “The Look of Silence”, a companion piece to “The Act of Killing”. Both films owe a lot to Kazuo Hara’s “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On”, but “The Look of Silence” in particular, seems to be directly influenced by the Japanese film’s exploration of memory and war guilt. During the 1960’s Indonesian genocide, Ramli Rukun was one of millions accused of being a communist by the military dictatorship. He was taken to a nearby river where executioners repeatedly stabbed him, chopped off his genitals, and drank his blood before dumping his body in the water. Decades after this horrific ordeal, Adi Rukun interviews the group of men who killed his older brother. They brag about their war stories, but at the end of each interview, Rukun reveals his identity to the former killers. The camera captures the most extraordinarily reaction shot, the look of silence.
The third film in the ambitious Koker trilogy is a delightful viewing experience filled with pleasant surprises and cameos at every corner. The entries in this multi-layered trilogy are short and sweet, but when consumed together, you get an explosion of flavours that only a master chef could put together. “Through the Olive Trees”, for example, is fairly simple as a stand-alone film, but when you attempt to analyze its place within the trilogy, you’ll find it to be incredibly complex.
This tale follows a romance unfolding in the midst of the making of “And Life Goes On”. It is a poem about love in the countryside and focuses on what went behind a single scene in the previous film. Hossein Rezai, who had an incredibly memorable scene in “And Life Goes On”, takes center stage as a stonemason in love with the girl he’s sharing the screen with.
I think the reason Kiarostami was interweaving fiction and reality was to present film as a reflection of life. You realise that there is nothing more precious, artistic and beautiful than life itself. “Through the Olive Tree” rounds up one of the most fulfilling trilogies in art-house history. It will be studied and cherished for years to come.
In Luis Buñuel’s grotesque, “Land Without Bread”, we are introduced to a small town struck by extreme poverty and disease. The camera does not shy away from exposing viewers to some of the most disturbing imagery you can think of. We see plenty of rotten animals, a dead baby, the mourning mother, and sick children with swollen tongues dying on the sidewalk. We even learn of mentally disabled dwarfs who roam the hills of the town. We are told by the narrator that they are the result of incest, which is quite common in the town of La Hurdes. Yes, the imagery captured in this anthropological expedition is quite unsettling, but nothing is more disturbing than the truth behind the making of this film.
Shortly after watching this thirty-minute documentary, I learned that none of this was real. Buñuel simply staged the film to resemble a documentary to get a point across. Today, this type of film is referred to as a pseudo-documentary, a film that takes the form of documentary, but the events it portrays are not true. Unlike a mockumentary, this type of fake fiction is not intended to be taken as satire or humor. What I found truly inexcusable was the lengths Buñuel went to in order to attain these images.
A tremendous amount of animal cruelty went into the making of this film. In fact, Buñuel flat out tortured and slaughtered several animals to deliver his message. He ordered honey to be spread over a donkey and filmed the poor animal as it got stung to death by bees. In another sequence, a goat was pushed off a rocky mountain; and in an earlier scene, a chicken is strung up from its legs as a man pulls its head off with his bare hands. Naturally, the film was banned by the Spanish government for years after its initial release. The official reason was “defamation of the good name of the Spanish people.”
I couldn’t help but wonder, why one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers would go to such extremes to manipulate his audience into believing this was all true. I suppose the only way to make it look real was to actually film the real thing. But still, why? Was it to cause an uproar and start a dialogue about the dire need for progress? It could be a case of ‘desperate times call for desperate measures’, or perhaps he simply wanted to showcase how easy it is to manipulate the audience. If that was the case then he clearly succeeded, because he surely had me fooled. “Land Without Bread” clearly crossed the line of ethical filmmaking, yet one can’t deny that it brought an awareness to how easy it is for governments to manipulate its people. It also sparks debate about social issues and filmmaking itself to this day.
“And Life Goes On” is Abbas Kiarostami’s second film in the delightful Koker trilogy. After the 1990 earthquake that took over 30,000 lives, Kiarostami goes on a search for the kid who starred in his previous film, “Where Is the Friend’s House?” The film was shot like a documentary, yet it is actually a semi-fictional work based on the actual events. Kiarostami blurs the line between fiction and reality, breaking new ground in what a filmmaker can achieve with the cinema.⠀
As the director (played by an actor) and his son embark on this journey, they bump into several survivors who share their personal accounts of what happened on the night of the earthquake. Everyone they talk to seems to have lost a brother, a sister, or a relative, and yet they go on with their days without clinging on to the past. “And Life Goes On” suggests that we shouldn’t mourn the dead too much, because the living are the ones who suffer every day. So instead of living miserably, the villagers swallow the pain and live life moment to moment in good spirits.⠀
This is an absolutely beautiful film from a filmmaker who knows how to capture the human spirit. Although the subject matter sounds quite heavy, Abbas Kiarostami’s sublime film doesn’t feel dull or depressing at any moment. It will make you smile at the beauty of humanity. In the hands of another director, a film like this would be about painful endings, but Kiarostami makes it about new beginnings. This mature work of art is full of wisdom and wit. It is the most optimistic film about coping with loss you will ever see.⠀
Martin Scorsese brings forth a gangster film we haven’t seen before. “The Irishman” is a meditation on time and death. Scorsese doesn’t glamorize a gangster’s lifestyle by showing them indulge in excess. Instead, he draws our attention to the latter part of their lives, the part we rarely see on the big screen, when their time on Earth is nearing its end. We see them look back at their legacy with regret, numbness, and shame. We feel the loneliness of their last days, hours filled with melancholic reflection and hopelessness. In a lot of ways, this film is the antithesis to “Goodfellas”, a eulogy to the gangster genre the same way “Unforgiven” was a eulogy to the western genre.
Death comes to all, and it literally lingers in the air throughout “The Irishman”. Scorsese introduces each character with the cause of their death, a constant reminder of the violent fate awaiting those who follow this line of work. The ones who somehow survive the ordeal have it much worse, because they get to slowly suffer as they embark on a desperate search for any kind of redemption. The themes explored in this film reminded me a lot of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”, another masterful work about an outlaw drenched in shame. Yet, “The Irishman” still very much feels like a Scorsese picture, filled with his trademark religious themes and characters searching for meaning.
Throughout the film, we see Frank Sheeran’s daughter stare him down with a silent piercing gaze. In a lot of ways, she’s a God-like figure judging his unforgiveable behavior without uttering a single word. Robert De Niro delivers a subtle and nuanced performance, reminding us all why he’s one of the greatest performers alive. And Joe Pesci stands out with an impressive turn as a gangster who could kill you just by looking at you, a much more dialed down performance compared to his previous work, but one that is just as menacing. Al Pacino also chews through the scenery, but he really shines in the quieter lighthearted moments like when he’s in his pajamas or enjoying his ice cream. So much can be written about the dynamic relationships between all three fleshed out characters, a testament to Steven Zaillian’s excellent writing. I feel like I’ve written these words countless times, but here it goes, Martin Scorsese has done it again.
In Kazuo Hara’s shocking Japanese documentary, “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On”, Kenzo Okuzaki will do anything to get WWII veterans to confess to the barbaric atrocities committed in New Guinea towards the end of the war. When the conversation doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, Okuzaki resorts to violence. He punches, kicks, and wrestles old veterans to get to the bottom of things. And although the morally ambiguous tactics he uses in pursuit of truth and justice will surely make any viewer feel uncomfortable, it’s not for a lost cause.
Okuzaki knows that his bursts of aggression are nothing compared to the horrific acts of cannibalism that he witnessed in the Pacific. At one point, he looks to the camera and tells viewers that he is doing this “for the sake of mankind”, so that people would stop regarding war as heroic, and see it for what it truly is. This may be one of the most shocking documentaries ever made, but it is also one of the most important and challenging ones out there. It blurs the line between right and wrong, and puts viewers in a very uncomfortable position.
Yet when all is said and done, you realize that the unorthodox methods used are the result of years of pain and suffering. I couldn’t help but feel that this was all done for a greater good. It took the filmmakers five years to get this historically significant film made, and its influence is still felt today. Hara’s film paved the way for other confrontational documentaries like “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence”. However, what makes this work so compelling and different is that it is both an exposé and character study at the same time. This is fascinating cinema that will stay with you forever.
Kieślowski’s “Red” is the most philosophically dense film in the Three Colours trilogy. In his final entry, Kieślowski effortlessly weaves everything together- very fitting for a film about making connections. An opening scene is often a film’s first shot at conveying its main themes and ideas. Here, the camera follows a telephone wire from a living room all the way to the ocean and beyond, but suddenly the line gets disconnected. Without uttering a single word of dialogue, Kieślowski establishes that the film is also about the failure to make connections.
We witness Valentine (Irene Jacob) as she forms a new bond with a dog and his owner, an old retired judge played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. As she’s making these intimate connections, she’s also failing to connect with her controlling boyfriend in England. Things start getting interesting when we follow a parallel storyline of another judge whose life echoes that of the older judge. We quickly get the sense that a force larger than life is at play, and everything in life is linked somehow. The only things disrupting our interconnected lives are time and space.
The retired judge eavesdrops on people through the telephone. The act itself has taught him to stop judging people based on the limited facts that he knows of them. When the news of his eavesdropping breaks out, an angry neighbor throws a rock through his window. It doesn’t seem to bother the old man. In fact, he tells Valentine that if he was in the neighbor’s place, he would do the same thing. “Of course. And that goes for everyone I judged. Given their lives, I would steal, I’d kill, I’d lie. Of course, I would…all that because I wasn’t in their shoes, but mine.”
The film invites viewers to consider what others have been through before passing judgment on them. At its core, “Red” is about the need to come together and share experiences. It left me with the urge to be more understanding and compassionate towards others. However, the film’s most impressive feat is its metaphysical connection with the medium itself, the cinema, which is also about coming together and sharing experiences.