On this, my last day of the festival, I saw two films that didn’t make me smile but made me glad I was there. Both The Look of Silence and Low Down proved to be among my favorites, this despite the fact that they are bleak, hard to watch, and provocative pieces of filmmaking.
The Look of Silence was first in a somewhat emptier theater than I had expected (I mean, who doesn’t love watching documentaries about genocide at 3:45 on a Saturday?), but the entire crowd in attendance raised their hand when asked and affirmed they had seen Joshua Oppenheimer’s previous film The Act of Killing. This film truly is a sequel to that groundbreaking first feature. It requires an understanding of why these men, why these killers, are so open and candid about their brutal acts of violence such that now we can appropriately hold their feet to the fire.
Whereas The Act of Killing profiled a warlord, The Look of Silence observes one of the warlord’s victims. Adi is the younger brother of a man killed in the 1965 Indonesian genocide of “communists”, in which over a million were killed in the supposed name of democracy. Those people still linger in power today, and there’s a chilling scene of classroom propaganda that shows how matter of fact and accepted this history is. But more scary is just how afraid anyone in this community is to confront the past in a meaningful way and hold people accountable for their actions. “If you keep making an issue of the past, it will happen again,” a current politician and former killer says with a scarily threatening tone.
After being prompted by Oppenheimer’s footage, Adi now goes around interviewing various killers, all of them still willing to speak but now more aware that their actions are being judged. They admit to drinking human blood to stay sane, they describe what a woman’s breast looks like when cut off, and all of them feel no remorse because they believed they were acting in the will of the state. Adi isn’t looking for answers, but looking for some sense of honesty and empathy that seems strangely absent from these men when discussing this dark chapter of history.
What The Look of Silence lacks is The Act of Killing’s sense of surreal genre-bending and jaw-dropping images, but in a way this new film feels even more human and challenging. It offers us moments of real levity and humor in slices of life that cross three generations of Indonesians. The camera catches people feeling mortified, confused and changed right in the moment. One killer has his daughter sitting beside him as he’s being interviewed. Adi plainly reveals his atrocities as her father openly confesses, and she seems perplexed at the petrifying things he’s done. Whether or not its better than The Act of Killing, this is one of the best films of the year.
Uncomfortable and unsettling to watch in a completely different way was Low Down, a much less critically acclaimed drama about jazz pianist Joe Albany. Based on a book by Albany’s real life daughter Amy Jo, the entire film is told from the 13-year-old’s perspective, making her witness to the pain, suffering and self-destructive habits of her father and others in her life.
During the course of this mid-‘70s period piece, Albany is in and out of jail for violating parole and failing to stay clean off heroin. Watching him, Amy Jo grows up real fast. She’s soft-spoken but extremely observant, and clearly hurt that her father she loves dearly seems so desperate to keep her sheltered and away from helping or nurturing him.
Jeff Preiss’s film is filled with jazzy music and staccato bursts of emotion, poverty stricken conflict and editing with real alacrity. It’s a gritty, grimy, brown ‘70s drama shot on 16mm that just emanates character. That look goes a long way to making this a definitively Hollywood story, in which the characters seem deeply influenced by their surroundings. Drugs and trouble seem to follow everyone, and the bitter irony is that someone like Albany’s creativity has gone to die in this place where everyone comes to let their talents flourish.
Low Down is also anchored by wonderful performances from Elle Fanning, Glenn Close, Lena Headey, a small but meaty role from Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and most notably John Hawkes as Albany.
Both films are compellingly human dramas in which both worlds are dominated by evils and vices that shape the way of life in these regions, be it violence or heroin. The Look of Silence and Low Down are each hard to watch and perhaps not the movies anyone would have in mine on their last day of a festival, but they’re each immensely powerful all the same.
Clouds of Sils Maria
Juliette Binoche, Kirsten Stewart and Chloe Moretz all deliver wonderful performances in Olivier Assayas’s intimate character study. The film involves an aging, legendary actress asked to play a role in a play opposite the role that made her famous, one intended for a much younger actress. But Assayas avoids the All About Eve drama and finds more elegance and meaning in accepting maturity and age as a fact of life. It’s a blessing and a curse that can make legacies timeless but also make relationships vanish. Clouds of Sils Maria is also scathingly sharp and funny at times, including some absurd detours that dive deep into the insider entertainment biz mentality.