Three days into this year's Venice film festival and things are finally starting to clear. The San Polo alleyways seem that bit less narrow; the fruit and veg guys that bit easier to find. Over in the Salle Darsena, however, we found Documentary film maker Joshua Oppenheimer clearing up some smoke of a much darker kind.
Oppenheimer pillaged film festivals and newspaper copy the world over last year with The Act of Killing, his horrifying expose of Indonesia's U.S. supported slaughter of roughly one million supposed communists. Using his status as an American film maker, he convinced the aging death squad killers to get in front of the camera and re-enact the atrocities. The results were harrowing; unique; sensational. His follow up was shot a few years before that film's release, and it serves as the correct accompaniment to it.
The Sound of Silence follows a local spectacles salesman called Adi. We learn that Adi lost his brother to the old regime but, having been born after the slaughter, he has been somewhat blinded to the horrors. Adi's brother's murder, it seems, was infamous amongst the militia men for the sheer scale of its brutality and so it was only a matter of time before it came on Oppenheimer's radar. When he eventually learned of this horrendous event, the director decided to track Adi down, reveal it to him, and then document the brave man's efforts to confront the men involved.
Headstrong, dignified Adi only seeks some modicum of emotional resolution, so he calls upon those responsible armed with just his optical prescription test. The murderers themselves wish to see things clearer, not knowing that this unassuming optician seeks the same thing too; a central metaphor so neat it's almost difficult to believe.
The press junket which followed was one of the more interesting this week. Little had been reported of this film in the lead up to the festival, coming so soon after last year's critical smash. The director stated that the massacre had left an unspoken void of sorts; "a haunted silence in which survivors must build a life". The film is dotted with magical imagery throughout, contrasting the brutality with the everyday. Oppenheimer cuts from gleefully bragging murderers to Adi's blind old father having a wash: "the silence which follows atrocity". The Act of Killing exposed Indonesia's horrifying elephant in the room to the entire world and The Look of Silence gives us an impression of the surreal mood which has followed. "The regime is built on a lie and when that lie collapses a space opens up, and it's in that space that The Look of Silence Intervenes".
Praise for this film will not be difficult to find so I will finish on a far less fashionable point. It can be difficult to get a real idea of the level of exploitation a documentary film has reached. How those involve put themselves in such positions of risk when the film maker, it seems, has so little to lose? Adi was present in the press conference, looking shell-shocked but dignified, fielding questions on his family and loss in the most decadent room imaginable. The man has had to uproot his family and leave his country as Oppenheimer sits next to him, practically beaming, happily referencing his recent brush with the academy awards.
His films, of course, will do an enormous amount of good, but there was just something there which did not sit right. The final question came when a reporter asked what his next project would be. The director stayed silent until the moderator repeated it: Oppenheimer then grinned from ear to ear "I heard, I bowed".