Director Morgan Knibbe’s ambitious feature debut examines a serious social problem, the difficult and often hopeless lives of recent immigrants to Europe, via an ambitious, literary approach. Those Who Feel the Fire Burning (T/F 2015) forces us to adopt the perspective of a ghost, a man who drowns while attempting his own journey to Europe. As the ghost we float over crowded streets, journey down back alleys and enter into private rooms, observing the lives of the marginalized and searching for some sense of connection.
I recently got the chance to speak with Morgan on Skype ahead of his film’s screening at T/F 2015. It plays for the first time ever in the United States tonight, opening night, at 9:30 pm at The Vimeo Theater at The Blue Note.
True/False: How did you first conceive this film?
Morgan Knibbe: The concept was to tell the story of a ghost through a collage of stories from different people, who together are one. A guy drowns, shifts into a new reality and is dropped by some kind of mysterious power in a new universe. This universe turns out to be something like Europe — or hell — but not what he expected it to be.
We tried to give a strong cinematic power to documentary images, to say something much more than just the documentary quality of the image itself. The ghost is a metaphor for the lives of all these different people that you see in the film. He begins by roaming the streets and looking for where he actually is. Where am I? Where are the people that I love? Are they still alive? Can I find them somewhere? He sees people who could possibly be from his country and starts observing them. He feels more and more detached from reality as he sees how these people are living life in extreme poverty where they were supposed to have achieved their dreams, in Europe.
The idea was to create a perspective for the audience as if they were experiencing it themselves. But it’s hard if you can’t live with one character. We didn’t want to follow one character from beginning to end, but a wide diversity of people from different cultures, because we wanted to emphasize how big and complicated this problem is. We wanted to bring along many different people from different cultures with different personalities, but with a common problem.
So I was thinking of a way to tell a story of a bunch of different people without a very rigid, classical narrative structure. Yet in the end we ended up with something similar, because the ghost goes through a development. He enters the story with a problem. He tries to solve the problem, but he can’t. Ultimately, he tries to deal with the given.
T/F: How did you know when you had the complete story?
MK: I had written down a lot of the story before we began shooting. My sound recordist Taco Drijfhout and I were very close and were always talking about the development of the story, what elements we needed to be consistent from beginning to end. It was always based on what the ghost is going through. The ghost and the people together somehow need to go through a collective experience, where they all slip down further into some kind of an abyss or hell. At some point people get so desperate they start using drugs. The situation gets when worse when many people die. Finally, people are really trying to flee reality by holding on to a religious ritual used in their culture to express grief. They feel a very strong collective power of grieving.
image from Those Who Feel the Fire Burning
T/F: Yeah, the film felt like it was building towards a feeling of religious transcendence, as both promise and peril. How do you see the religious aspect of the film?
MK: I really was inspired by a lot of religion during the making of the film. I thought I had a responsibility to understand what these people believe in. Most of them are Muslim, but they’re not all the same type of Muslim.
Even though I am not religious, I think religious stories are often quite epic and impressive. I think Hell is a very interesting story. How if you do something wrong you can end up in a very horrible place, but actually that place exists here on Earth. That’s what we tried to play with.
Religious stories often carry metaphors for big human problems and dilemmas. We tried to take something from these religious stories which more or less affects all human beings, to reach a state of equality between the audience and the people in the film. To make it a universal problem. What is good and what is evil? Is there a creator? What is the purpose of life?
But the universal also lies in very small things. Like the way a father speaks to his son in a loving way, how a little girl eats chips or how a man wakes up from sleeping.
T/F: How did you go about creating the voice-over?
MK: The text is spoken and written by someone who more or less experienced this. It’s a man from Iran named Ali Borzuee.
We were doing additional dialogue recording and still looking for someone to be the voice. We knew that we wanted the ghost to have very rich sound, a wise voice of an old man who looks back on his life or forward to hell or heaven or wherever he’s going.
Ali is one of the people who would do ADR, but he also brought a poem that he wanted to recite. Everybody was listening very carefully, and he had to cry. It was very intense and we all decided I think we should ask this guy to do the voice-over for the film.
It took quite a while before we found the right way to write the text. At first I was writing it, but it sounded a little bit artificial. So we asked this guy to improvise. We gave him some specific prompt, for example you have to tell the story of how you first met your wife, you have to name a lot of things from the country where you first grew up. That worked well.
T/F: The idea of perspective in this film is really interesting to me. There is always a perspective in nonfiction film, but your film really forces you to think about it by making it explicit.
MK: What I always say about the way we made this film is that in a way we are really honest about the manipulation. It is a film that is supposed to be very cinematic, and the only way to do that is to manipulate. So the point was never realism or objectivity, because I think that’s a big problem with the way this kind of subject is portrayed normally. There’s always this kind of objectivity that people try to use. But I think that’s not possible. It’s an illusion. That’s why we tried to get rid of that and make a very strong cinematic experience. I think that’s a more honest way of filmmaking.
I am very curious about the manipulation of images and sounds when virtual reality is in a further state of development, a place where reality and virtual reality are harder to distinguish from each other. In a way film has this effect already. People easily think they watch reality or the truth, especially when the film is ‘documentary’. In fact it is a subjective representation of what other people think, or how they observe and listen. Or how they want you to think.
I understand that journalist want to fight for objectivity, but I’m not sure if their battle will be very effective, since they are fighting for something that doesn’t exist.
T/F: Are there any films or filmmakers that served as a point of departure for Those Who Feel the Fire Burning? Particularly in regards to this idea of forcing the audience’s awareness the film’s perspective?
MK: Definitely! Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders. Enter the Void and Irréversible by Gaspar Noe. Irréversible is the best film I’ve ever seen and was also a huge inspiration. He has this crazy way of sucking up the audience in a cinematic experience that truly evokes primal emotions within the audience, but at the same time he makes the audience work and think and search for answers. I think Gaspar Noe could have been influenced by some of Eisenstein’s thoughts about “cinema of attractions”, a theory about stimulating the audience’s primal feelings instead of taking them along a conventional narrative.
Filmmakers like Noe and Haneke use these cinematic tools to evoke primal emotions, but at the same time add artificial elements that somehow make the structure of the film visible, which is actually a filmmaker being honest about manipulation and giving the audience space to reflect upon the medium and themselves. But this balance is always difficult, because you can lose your audience.
The use of darkness and suggesting tracking shots was also a key concept for Those Who Feel the Fire Burning. Some tracking shots out of Children of Men by Alfonso Cuaron were an inspiration.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives was a huge inspiration, especially for sound design, as was the indie game Limbo. We wanted to create hell on earth, or some sort of state in between heaven and hell, limbo or the purgatory. To do that we wanted to lift the images out of the realism and create a feeling of a huge void in sound design.
In his first film War-Wearied filmmaker Laurent Becue-Renard discovered a role for the camera in therapy, observing group sessions with survivors of war in Bosnia suffering from post-traumatic stress. In his new film Of Men and War (T/F 2015) Laurent and his team developed a similar approach, filming with traumatized American soldiers over months and years, both during and after their stay at The Pathway Home halfway house.
I recently got the chance to speak with Laurent on the phone ahead of his film’s screening at True/False 2015. He’ll be in-person at the Fest to discuss the film further, as will David Wells, one of the men from the film who just happened to be from Columbia, MO.
True/False: Can we start by talking about access? How you became involved with this particular program?
Laurent Becue-Renard: Prior to filming I made extensive research, meeting a lot of veterans, their families and sometimes their therapists. During the course of my first trip ten years ago I met Fred Gusman, who at the time was working for The National Center for PTSD. When he started this new program, The Pathway Home, I had known him for three years already. He had seen my previous film shot in Bosnia, also in therapy.
I asked him first for access to the facility when his first patients came in. He granted me access without a camera. I was allowed to be here the first two months like a fly-on-the-wall. That’s what I did; the two months became three, four, five months. After five months I asked him if I could use a small camera, just to see how the camera could take part in the therapy. I did that for several weeks, after which I was granted permission to film with professional equipment, first for three months, then for six, then for nine. All this is to say that when I started filming and when the guys who are in the film arrived I had already been there for several months. They never knew the Pathway Home without the camera.
That being said, it was not compulsory whatsoever for them to be filmed in therapy. At any time they could say that they wanted us to turn off the camera and leave the room, which never happened. In my first film it was the same, I was never asked to leave the room or stop filming.
With most of them I talked about my grandfathers who fought in World War One, and I showed them the picture that’s on the end credits of the film. The two guys who were my grandfathers came back from the war at the same age that they did and built up their families. They never spoke, not to their wives or kids or grandkids. I grew up with the silence over what was experienced in the war. That was something the men could understand very quickly. Those with kids could see very much how the kids were affected by the traumas of the father.
T/F: Could you explain the camera’s place in therapy?
LBR: The camera took a role in a therapeutic process on a daily basis, both in the first film in Bosnia and in this film. It’s mostly two aspects. The first one is acknowledgement. For the patient’s perspective there is in the room a guy coming from very, very far away — not only geographically but also culturally, socially — who seems to have plenty of time. His time is extensive. And he will be there in the room until they are done talking, from the very beginning to the very end. A guy with no agenda or even questions. There are no interviews whatsoever. The only questions the filmmaker is interested in are the questions they are asking themselves. All this put together is an acknowledgement and a validation that something really has happened to them, something that has made them who they have become.
Of course, this is what a therapist is doing on a daily basis. When you go to see a therapist, the very fact that he is allocating 45 minutes of his time and is only there to listen to what you have to tell him is an acknowledgement and validation of what has happened to you and the way you feel about it. The presence of the camera is kind of amplifying that.
The second point would be the mediation, in the fact that each and every one of them lives the trauma in a huge loneliness. And it is very difficult to share with their kids, their wife, their parents, in any circle. The film is a promise that some kind of ties with the outside world will be rebuilt through the story, first of all with the family, then the community, then the community of mankind. I think that’s very helpful in the therapeutic process.
image from Of Men and War
T/F: Is there any sort of explicit promise?
LBR: No, anything I’m saying right now is purely assumed, but it’s based on extensive experience, first with the Bosnian war and then with these guys. Something that we did for Of Men and War that we didn’t for the first film is see them with their families after therapy. We first shot nine months of therapy, then over the next four years we went back and forth to see several of the men with their families. Sometimes we would come three months after the last day in therapy, sometimes nine months, sometimes eighteen months. What was fascinating is that at the moment we would come and turn on the camera they would pick it up where they had left it in the therapy room months before, as if they very fact that the camera is back and that we were all together, even in the absence of the therapist, meant the setting of the therapy was back and they could continue with what they were on when they finished their stay at The Pathway Home.
And then also a kind of a therapy triangle appeared, the guy, the family member — be it the kid, the wife or the parent — and us. Each of them would use the camera to tell the other things that they wouldn’t tell in their daily life. It was unconscious in the way they were using the camera again in a therapeutic role. That was very, very interesting.
And again, I spent fourteen months on a daily basis in this facility and I shot for nine months. This is very long, you know. And any of them could ask us to leave the room at anytime. So every day, every hour even, it was a re-acknowledgment of their agreement.
T/F: Are you literally not saying anything to them? “Good morning? How’s it going?”
LBR: In the corridors or in the daily room or in the kitchen, of course we are talking, definitely. I’ve done sports with them, I’ve gone on a bike ride to get an espresso at the French bakery downtown. We have daily activities.
T/F: But none of them involve the camera?
LBR: They don’t involve the camera and they never mention what we have taped in the therapy room. There’s a lot of bonding. There were some other volunteers in the half-way home. Some were doing drama work, stage work. Some were doing photography. And I was kind of just another one, you know, belonging and not belonging to the place.
T/F: When I was watching the film, even though it is a very naturalistic film, I felt a certain abruptness in the pacing, and the way scenes ended. Was that something that a feeling you were trying to achieve?
LBR: As a filmmaker I’m trying to address the unconscious of the viewer. I don’t want to address their consciousness, I want them to work while they’re watching the film, without knowing that they are doing so. So when we were editing each of the sessions, we were really focusing on what is at stake in the session for the guy and for the group. Where does he come from at the beginning of the session and where does he go? Of course that means that you don’t have to respect the chronology of the session, neither inside the particular session nor among the sessions. You’re really focused on the meaning and where there’s meaning in the session.
Fred’s sessions, on average, were lasting around two hours, approximately the length of the film. The sessions in the film are on average is forty five seconds to three or four minutes in duration. Our aim while editing was that the viewer would never feel like something was missing in the session. But still they could work on it on their own and still get the feeling that they got it. That’s perhaps what you mean by abruptness.
Abrupt also comes from the fact that that’s how they interact in the sessions with Fred and the others. A session is rather chaotic, you know? Fred’s sessions with trauma related to war, or any session for anyone.
I also sometimes wanted sessions that were very far apart in time in the real chronology to bump into one another. Some of the meaning comes out of the segments bumping heads together. The work of editing is to have the sessions kind of speaking to each other and then also including scenes of the future and family life shot over the next four years.
image from Of Men and War
T/F: A take-away from the film for me was the variety in the things that these men experienced in war and I think a variety of what they needed from therapy. That the specifics of their stories of trauma in each case were really important, know what I mean?
LBR: Right. As I said, I spent months working at the Pathway Home and I have known more than one hundred guys and filmed in therapy. And of course before filming doing my research I had met hundreds of veterans. So, I had in my mind a broad spectrum of what was war trauma for a young warrior, all the kinds of experiences they could go through and how they would react to those experiences. They won’t say everything, but everything would be said in the room at some time.
A lot of time your trauma will be expressed by your peers sitting next to you and speaking before or after. That’s one of the dynamics of group therapy. For a young man in this culture it’s very difficult to say how they’ve been deeply, deeply wounded in their soul. It’s not part of your culture. They say these things because they are all saying things together. They accept looking at their weakness because the others are also looking at their own weakness.
When they themselves or other veterans watch this they always say you have my story, it’s there in the film. It’s amazing, no matter the culture, the distance, the different types of war, it’s the same story.
T/F: One of the other things I wanted to ask you about are scenes in the film showing how our culture formally recognizes veterans, for example in a parade or at a ceremony of a football game. They aren’t presented ironically, but seeing those scenes alongside the therapy gives them a new context.
LBR: Yeah, I’ve seen how much veterans are around us. But as much as we acknowledge them in the public sphere, it’s not sure that we do really get it. Of course, veterans are touched when people come towards them at the airport and say “thank you for your service”. And of course it is honest for people who do that. But most veterans I’ve met, they say “yes, they come and say that, but they expect us to go back on track the next day. And we will never recover our lives from prior.’The rear’, those who haven’t been to war, don’t really get it.”
I guess they would rather have their PTSD acknowledged. Yes, life is going to be tough, they don’t react to things how they used to. Sometimes it goes from zero to ten just like this. It’s like missing a limb, but you don’t see it. It’s inside; the wound is within. They know that they can’t go back to the person they were before. They’d like that acknowledged. It’s very difficult to mourn your own self. It’s frightening, it’s painful and it’s an ongoing process that will last all their lives.
So I guess the scene of daily life are more talking about the misunderstanding, the profound misunderstanding between those who went to war and those who didn’t.
T/F: Is there anything else you want to include?
LBR: I want to say I have a great respect and admiration for these young men. I think it’s very, very courageous for each and everyone of them to go into therapy. By going into therapy, they kind of chose life. It’s choosing life when death is all around in their psyche. It’s courageous. It’s courageous to keep being alive, to have a family, to be a part of a community. I think it takes as much courage as being on the front line. I admire their dignity also.
I want to say too that my quest was to go after the words and the sentences my grandfathers could have told me, or could have told my grandmothers or my parents. I think that thanks to these guys I have a kind of access to the trauma that built up in my family and in all of our families in the western world that have this experience of war.
The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durstis a six-part HBO series examining enigmatic millionaire Robert Durst, still free despite being implicated in a disappearance, a murder and a dismemberment over the course of three decades. Created by the team of Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling, the men responsible for the unforgettable Capturing the Friedmans, The Jinx artfully presents a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of perspectives, outrageously including that of Durst himself in an extensive, uncomfortable interview.
Robert Durst in The Jinx
The Jinx deserves to be recognized as both great television and great cinema. For this reason, T/F will be presenting three different programs of The Jinx during the Fest. The first program features episodes 1 and 2 and the second episodes 3 and 4. The third, Sunday night at 9:00 the Vimeo Theater at the Blue Note, will feature episode 5 the same night it premieres on HBO. If you’ve been watching at home or want to catch up on HBOGo, you can jump in for a special extended Q and A with co-creator Marc Smerling, who will be addressing for the first time the startling revelations contained in this episode. It should make for an unforgettable conclusion to T/F 2015.
You’ve probably noticed on our schedule that most of the screenings are now marked “NRT” for “No Reserve Tickets”. This may even include the screenings for that one film you really wanted to see. Please, don’t panic. The “No Reserve Tickets” does not mean sold out. You can still use the Q!
We’re very proud of our Q system, which we feel does a great job of keeping T/F accessible, despite of its growth. But we understand it can be confusing and intimidating, particularly for people who haven’t used it before.
So here’s how it works. At each of our venues you’ll immediately notice the conspicuous ‘Q’. One hour before each and every screening, the flamboyantly dressed Q Queen will begin handing out numbered Q cards. Frequently, a line forms at the Q in the lead up to this one hour til showtime mark.
Once you get your numbered Q card, you can go grab a bite to eat or take a stroll around town. Just make sure to come back 15 minutes before the show starts. That’s when we’ll start filling seats off of the Q, based on the number on your Q card, so make sure you’re back with 15 minutes. To speed this process up, the Q Queen will have you form a line in numerical order. We always hold back seats to fill with the Q, in addition to the seats belonging to ticket holders who decide not to come (something which happens frequently at the film festivals).
Once your number is called and you’re ready to head into the theater, you’ll need to do one of two things. If you have a pass, you can just flash it to the volunteer at the door and head on in. Otherwise, make sure you have cash on you to pay at the door.
It’s easy once you get the hang of it. We promise.
This year we are introducing a new incentive to get folks out and ‘Q’ing. Every time you get a Q card, put your name and email on the back. Whether or not you get in to the screening, make sure to hand your card in to the Queen. We’ll draw one Q card at random for all four days of the Fest. Each lucky winner will receive one LUX pass to T/F 2016! Sorry, volunteers, Ragtag and True/False staff are not eligible.
Some things to keep in mind when planning your ‘Q’ing.
How big is the venue? The bigger the venue, the more people will for sure get in on the Q. Ranked from biggest to smallest, our theaters are: The Missouri Theatre, Cornell, The Vimeo Theater at The Blue Note, The Picturehouse, Geology, Rhynsburger, The Globe, The Forrest Theater, Big Ragtag, Odd Fellows Lodge and the Willy Wilson Theater at Ragtag.
What time of day is it? People tend to have a tendency to sleep in and skip that first screening in the morning. Late at night, they might decide that they’ve already had enough for one day. This frees up more seats for the Q. But if you want to go to a screening at 7 pm, you’ll probably have to line up at the Q a little earlier.
Have fun! Strike up a conversation with a stranger. Tell someone about a film you saw. If we’ve done our job right, there should be more than enough to talk about!
“Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” (Proverbs 19:17)
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
As the Great Recession hit the United States, large oil fields were uncovered in North Dakota. Desperate, unemployed people from all over the world flooded the sparsely populated state. According to the Census Bureau, Williston, North Dakota jumped from 14,717 residents in 2010 to 20,850 in 2013. Many Williston natives resent these outsiders, who frequently live in crowded RV parks. Lutheran pastor Jay Reinke is not one of these angry residents. In the spirit of Jesus, Reinke opens up his Williston church to hundreds of men unable to find temporary housing. The community responds to Reinke’s charity with a suspicion that borders on hostility. In 2012, filmmaker Jesse Moss (Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story (T/F 2004)) moved into Reinke’s church and singlehandedly captured this riveting narrative. The result, The Overnighters (T/F 2014), is an empathetic yet scrupulous look at how challenging it is to be a person of principle.
Note: This interview is in two parts. The first is spoiler free, while the second contains explicit and implicit spoilers for The Overnighters. There will be a warning before the spoilers begin.
True/False: Throughout The Overnighters, we watch characters discover how challenging it is to follow rules. We see Christians wrestle with the commandments and teachings of the Bible. We hear journalists explain their code of ethics. I’m wondering if you follow any rules when you’re making a film.
Jesse Moss: I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I really have just a couple. One basic rule is if somebody asks me to turn the camera off, I turn it off. I might sometimes argue or discuss that decision with them. But I wouldn’t film somebody against their will. There’s a second, really more foundational principle I’ve operated on as a documentary filmmaker. On my feature documentary work, it’s been important to make a movie I believe my subject would stand behind. And hopefully they would stand on stage with me and talk to people about it.
It’s a little hard to define what that rule means, but it’s about really honoring the relationship and the trust. And also respecting and understanding that the film might go to difficult, painful places, but, ultimately and hopefully, I hope that the person who trusts me enough to open their life to my film will make that journey with me when the film is complete. That’s what I hoped in this film. What I had to navigate with Jay was a situation in which I had to be truthful and honest with myself and to the story as an artist. I had to show some very difficult and painful moments that would be hard for my subjects to see. But I thought they had an important place in this film. Navigating to that point of mutual agreement about their inclusion took a lot of time. It was a long conversation over many months with Jay and with his family.
T/F: This second rule obviously applies to your protagonist, Jay. Does it apply to all characters in your film?
JM: Well, no. It would be hard to apply that rule to everybody, but I don’t ask the same from everybody. I don’t have the same relationship. This is a film largely about one man. One man’s struggle, one man’s journey. That’s the foundational relationship in the film. That’s where the real profound crux of this movie is. It’s not to say other people are not party to this relationship in important ways and their considerations aren’t also important to me.
The other challenging ethical scenario in this film had to with some very close relationships with other characters. Like Michael, for instance, who was in a moment of crisis, crying and trying to figure out whether he’ll go back to Georgia or stay in Williston. He asked me what I thought he should do, and I found that to be a very difficult predicament to be in. On one hand, we were very close. We are close. We shared this experience together. He didn’t have any friends in Williston. This is somebody I loaned $40 to. We had meals together. We talked. It was not just a relationship that ended when the camera was turned off. Michael asked me, and I thought, “Jeez, this is a hard one. This is one of the most momentous decisions in this man’s life. We’re close, and now he wants my advice.”
Which is to say that documentary filmmaking — it’s not an abstract, clinical exercise. The camera is present, but it’s about human relationships. These friendships get formed. These are friendships, and it’s not wrong to talk about it. And yet I serve the master of my art. And I serve the film. And I serve the truth. These are things I have to consider. And sometimes those interests align with the interests of your subjects. But there are moments when those interests seem to diverge.
T/F: This is a film driven by observational material, but there are moments where Jay contextualizes scenes in voiceover. Can you talk about the decision to use that voiceover? And where did that audio come from?
JM: I really wanted to make an observational — observational is kind of a strange term, isn’t it? Because it’s much more subjective than observational. You’re really not just observing. You’re constantly interacting with your subjects. I guess the term I use — I’ve sort of moved away from cinéma vérité, but I have yet to land on a term that feels right. I don’t know from your academic/festival/clinical perspective what term is appropriate. But we can say observational.
This project, The Overnighters, it was really an intent to go back to the kind of blissful ignorance of Speedo, to make a movie with a kind of freedom and with an ambition to make cinéma vérité. To capture moments as they happen — dramatic moments, large and small — with Jay and these men that I met. So I was always questioning my decision to do contextualizing interviews. But I found them useful for a number of reasons.
For one, they were kind of a therapeutic experience for Jay and myself and our relationship and a chance to debrief and decompress from the intensity of these moments. We would go into his office. The conversations had a pastoral, confessional quality. This is the office where Jay took confession from men. Some of those moments I filmed and witnessed. And then we would go into his office, and we would talk. And sometimes I would film, and sometimes I wouldn’t. In a way, that’s how I became Jay’s pastor. I became his confessor. And that relationship he had with me and with the camera accounts for the nature of the great trust in this film. So Jay and I would talk.
In the edit, at one point I had this version of the film that was cluttered with exposition and interior monologue from these interviews woven throughout. And it was totally getting in the way of whatever the story was, which I couldn’t really see. I kind of weeded it all out. I cleared brush away, as George W. Bush would say. I actually made a version where I stripped it all away. It was pure verite. And then I had to look at it, and it didn’t work. I found that we were really keeping the audience at a distance with that version, so we had to work back. Jay was the best person to contextualize Williston, what was happening with the church and the program.
Those were some of the most laborious, difficult challenges in the edit. how to contextualize the world and how to bring to life Jay’s internal struggle. I think if you pulled it out and dissected it, there’s really not a hell of a lot of interview used in the film. But what is there, I can tell you, as you’d imagine, was very, very carefully, precisely considered and the result of painful trial and error. I struggle with that as a filmmaker because I was still holding onto some purer notion. Because I look at the world around me. Does the film need it? What do I want? What does the audience need? And it’s so important to get the audience situated in this world. I didn’t want to rely on interviews with characters from outside.
I knew what the strength of this story was, and I wanted to play to it. Which is that Jay is this incredible protagonist living out this drama in front of us. And I don’t need an interview with the mayor to tell me what’s happening in Williston. I want to get that understanding organically through scenes, through fragments. Through what is said and not said, what is seen and not said. I brought in my editor Jeff Gilbert. I love that Jeff has a foot in fiction, in screenwriting. How would a dramatist, how would a screenwriter think about the information in this scene and the dramatic conceit? We would just apply a sort of dramatic rigor to the unfolding of the story. I don’t mean to imply manipulation. I think we were really true to the chronology of events. With regards to the storytelling, we thought very carefully about how information was conveyed about the arc of stories and the emotional journeys of the characters and the audience in this film.
T/F: How often did you feel that Jay was performing for your camera?
JM: Jay is always performing. And I think it’s the responsibility of the director to recognize the levels of performance, whether we’re talking about fiction or documentary. Sometimes it’s harder to recognize them in the moment, and they become clearer in the edit. And you sift through them. Many people, not just Jay, who are comfortable, natural screen performers are always conscious of the camera and like the camera. Often the best documentary subjects are in their heart performers, whether or not the camera is present. And I think the camera often does gravitate to those people naturally.
Jay is a pastor. He’s used to holding the public’s attention. He performs. And he likes attention, and he has charisma. He employs his skills successfully. It’s the same skill set he directs towards his congregation. He’s a very smart, charismatic, confident, kind of in-the-moment, emotionally accessible person. And I recognize those qualities. The camera recognizes those qualities. I’m drawn to them. I’m drawn to his complexities, his layers, his layers of performance. Jay cried crocodile tears many times through this film, and I thought, “I don’t believe you.” But there were moments where I truly believed him. And I truly felt his pain. And I thought I have to take these moments judiciously in this film because I want to be sure that the audience is with him when I want them to be with him. It’s interesting when you’re aware of the fact that a subject has levels of layers, and you might want to drive the audience’s attention to those things.
Spoiler warning: The rest of this interview contains spoilers for the film. We strongly recommend stopping here until you’ve seen The Overnighters.
T/F: After the Williston Herald publishes the sex offender list, we witness a fascinating discussion between Jay and the editor about that decision. There’s a really interesting parallel between the editor’s words and the decision you ultimately make in the final ten minutes.
JM: I was always struck by the role the paper played in this story. The fact that Williston is still a community where a print paper matters is really anachronistic but really fascinating to me and a great opportunity to really show something. The paper was Jay’s antagonist. But the problem was that the paper was really an embodiment of a few different things. It’s what the headlines said, it’s what the reporter says who chases him down the street, and it’s what the editor says. So it’s kind of fragmented into these component parts. While I always knew it was important as an antagonist facing Jay and inflaming the fears of the community, it took until very late in the edit to really draw it out in a sharp way that was meaningful.
In fact, that scene with the editor, which is actually so important, was not in the film until really late in the edit. And I don’t know why not because I always thought it was a really interesting conversation. I mean, the editor has a point, and he lays it out. He feels like it’s his responsibility to publish all these names. In the name of protecting these children, he’s willing to sacrifice one maybe good man. That’s basically what he says, and that’s a reasonable position I think most people would share.
I think the paper mirrors my own position to some degree, which is one of scrutiny. That reporter who chases him down the street strikes me on one hand as extremely aggressive. On the other hand, that’s what reporters do. He’s chasing the story. He’s probably being a good reporter. Maybe not the way that I would do it. It’s funny, people would sometimes watch the fundraising trailer and think that was me, and I’d say, “No, it’s the reporter for the Williston Herald!” But it’s a bit like me. I’m chasing Jay around asking difficult questions, too. So who am I to harshly judge the Williston Herald? The ethical questions they face mirror my own.
You know, I’m really excited that the Williston Herald may work with us to have a public screening in Williston, and we’ll have a public forum. Tim League at Drafthouse is really excited about this. And we’re going to invite the community to come. And I think it’ll be fantastic. There might be fireworks, and I welcome it. I just think it’ll be such an interesting conversation because I think the fact is that there’s not one right answer. That’s what Jay and what this film is dealing with.
T/F: So did you spend a lot of time with the paper?
JM: I actually went out for pizza with the reporter. He was rotated into Williston and was rotated out pretty quickly. The Williston Herald is owned by a bigger chain of papers, so some reporters just come for a little while. But we actually went out for pizza, and in a way, I could relate to him. He was an outsider journalist like me. I wasn’t his adversary. And actually David Rupkalvis, the editor, was really gracious and let me film the printing presses. So I didn’t consider myself an adversary of the paper, but I think Jay was an adversary of the paper, so that’s how they’re presented. There was a perverse irony that the paper that was out to get Jay was also delivered by his children to his neighbors’ doorsteps.
T/F: I’m wondering if you can discuss the decision to end the film where you end it. I’ve heard many documentary filmmakers say they knew in the moment that they were shooting the final image. Did that happen to you?
JM: The shot of Jay that ends the film, that wasn’t literally the last shot that I shot, but when I shot it, I knew it would be the last shot of the film. Look, it’s a little bit on-the-nose, but Jay is at a crossroads in life. And I did face this choice of following Jay through this new turbulent phase of his life or leaving him at the crossroads. But because that’s the place he meets these men, it felt fitting that he be left in their shoes. And that we the audience be faced with the choice that Jay faces when he sees them for the first time. How do I accept this man and his failings and his humanness? How do I judge him? Do I judge him? And I think that it accounts for the questions that people have leaving the film, that they wrestle with, that I could in a way never resolve fully about Jay’s actions. His goodness and his badness. So that shot, I knew it.
There was a moment once when Jay was telling me on the phone that an overnighter had put him up and that he was sleeping on the floor in a hotel room. I thought, “My God, that’s a reversal of fortune.” You wouldn’t write it because you’d be laughed out of the room. I thought that would be a fantastic ending. But I was done. I knew I had that ending, that shot of Jay alone. Which was an accident. It wasn’t like I said, “Jay, let’s go out to the old Lutheran Church on the side of the road outside of Williston, and you can wander off into the distance.” We were actually driving back. Jay was getting a haircut. Like every good moment in this movie, it’s just serendipitous luck. I was up on the roof of the car shooting this Lutheran church, and in the background was this drilling rig. It was kind of an interesting composition, which unfortunately I couldn’t have gotten without a crane. But then I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Jay had wandered off. And I just panned the camera over, and I was like, “Please don’t move.” And the shot just holds, and he’s just standing there. And the road stretches out to infinity, and I thought, “that’s it. That’s where this movie ends.”
T/F: You don’t think there’s any chance Jay knew he was helping you out in that moment?
JM: I don’t think so. But Jay was also acutely aware of the camera often. There was an interesting thing that happened relatively far into production where we’re shooting with Jay. It’s single camera coverage, there’s no crew, right? I’m shooting shot reverse shot, dirty shot, dirty overs, medium shots — I’m getting all the camera coverage I think I need to cut the scene of this 45-minute conversation between Jay and Alan. I thought it would be two minutes in the movie. What would happen is that I’d be on Alan, and he’d be in this conversation, in dialogue, and Jay would wait for the camera to swing back to him before continuing to speak. He’d wait for the camera to be on him to commence his dialogue. It’s rare to find that in a documentary subject. And it was a little uncomfortable to recognize it in a way. But I also think, “yeah, why not be considerate?” Maybe because I spent so much damn time filming. Of course he understood that. And Jay would tell me things were happening in his life. Many times, documentary subjects don’t think about you, they don’t think about telling you. But Jay was so good at flight traffic control, he had so many moving parts in his life, so he just folded me into that program. And he would tell me things were happening. He’d text me. It was great. I was spoiled.
T/F: I’m not sure how comfortable you are discussing this, but I’m wondering if we can dive into the film’s final reveal.
JM: What was clear to me from the beginning about Jay was that the program and his actions were in large part an expression of his faith, of Christian charity, to love thy neighbor. This is what it meant for him to be a good Christian. But they were also coming from a deep and personal place in his heart, and that was a kind of mystery to me. Jay hinted at it in some ways when he talked about himself. He alluded to his past, that he wasn’t perfect. I considered if this mystery of motivation might never be revealed to me, if it was only that he wanted me to know that he felt a true identification with men who had burdens and stigma, who didn’t feel like they belonged in the community. So I think what that revelation signifies for me is an unlocking of that mystery of motivation, and it explains to some degree that superhuman compassion that he shows. He identifies with them on a very profound level. And his place in the community as an outsider comes from a real place.
T/F: Can you talk about the decisions you made when Jay revealed this information in the dining area?
JM: Jay didn’t intend to make a confession to his wife in a public place. I was there as I was for so many intimate moments at that time in his life. No one asked me to turn the camera off. I think they were very focused on their conversation. Of course it was very painful to be present for it. I know from experience that the moments I feel compelled to question my own presence as a filmmaker are the most powerful moments. They’re in for that reason. It wasn’t immediately apparent to me that this belonged in the film. I had to think carefully about what its place in the film was, if that was ok. I believe they belong in the film. Jay had to think carefully about it as well.
It was an interesting position to be in that scene and, first of all, to find yourself present in this moment in this story you’re telling. And then you have to think clinically as a filmmaker and camera operator. “OK. I could get coverage I think. Or do I stay in a medium two-shot the whole time? How close do I get? Or how far away do I get? What are the aesthetic considerations here? The ethical considerations?” This is a film that was shot close. This conversation I chose to shoot close.
What people first respond to is how intimate the scene is, how close the camera is. And in fact, whether they acknowledge it consciously or not, there’s a series of shots, angles, close-ups, reaction shots. It’s the kind of coverage you might more commonly find in a fiction film where you have the luxury of time and actors. People sometimes don’t believe that’s a real scene, like I somehow reenacted it or staged it. I shot that scene no different than any other scene I shot in the film. But I think it’s fair to say, when confronted with such a scene, what is the right position to take? When is the right time to turn the camera off? To turn it away? When is the right time to keep the camera rolling? You know what, I can only answer that question for myself.
The Great Wall, T/F’s free outdoor cinema, is back in 2015, now newly situated right outside T/F’s international headquarters at 9th and Broadway. Films will play from 7-11 the Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights of the Fest.
This year The Great Wall will feature two different programs. On Friday and Sunday, we’ll be projecting a shorts program titled Swan Song for the Factory Age. Watch as the walls of modern industry are toppled and a postindustrial civilization arises.
It begins with the hypnotic Single Stream (Ernst Karel, Toby Lee and Pawel Wojtasik, 24 min.), which shows our throwaway society as it reaches operatic excess.
image from Single Stream
In the nihilistic The Digger, the Bell, and the Tropical Pharmacy (Jennifer Allora, Guillermo Calzadilla and Tony Gerber, 21 min.), we ride shotgun on a single-minded, musical excavator.
image from The Digger, the Bell and the Tropical Pharmacy
Assembly Line Movement (Jesse Sugarmann, 22 min.), introduces former Pontiac factory workers pantomiming—with surgical precision— their now-obsolete daily rituals.
image from Assembly Line Movement
In Layover (Vanessa Renwick, 6 min.), in which birds swoop over our demise, their relentless choreography signaling a new start.
image from Layover
This program will also feature a short film from this year’s True Vision Award winner Adam Curtis.
On Saturday night The Great Wall will feature Our Sweet Malik, a tribute to our late friend Malik Bendjelloul. Malik stole our hearts in 2012 when he brought his musical fairy tale Searching for Sugar Man to True/False. He also starred at our game show Gimme Truth! as the charming, befuddled foreigner. Then fresh off of his 2013 Oscar win, he made a victory lap to mentor T/F’s high-school students. With the gracious guidance of Brittany Huckabee—T/F alum and partner of Malik—we’re projecting a number of his visually arresting short works, which herald his later breakthrough.
Make sure to include a little space in your T/F 2015 schedule for a bit of cinema out under the stars.
In 2003, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer first began investigating the unacknowledged and under-reported mass killing of over 500,000 purported “communists” by Indonesia’s military junta and its proxies in 1965-66. He quickly learned about Ramli, one victim of the genocide whose horrific death was widely discussed, if still not part of the official history. After his attempts to film with Ramli’s family and other survivors were met with threats of violence, Oppenheimer instead began to film the perpetrators of the killing, still very much in power and eager to brag about their crimes. The result was The Act of Killing, a surrealist masterpiece where the killers themselves stage cinematic recreations of their crimes and fantasies.
But another story still needed to be told. In the critical window following The Act of Killing’s production but before its release, Oppenheimer again began working with Ramli’s family, particularly his younger brother, the optometrist Adi Rukun. The resulting film, The Look of Silence, is a haunting poem on decades of silence enforced by terror and the breaking of that silence through unprecedented confrontations.
The Look of Silence is our 2015 True Life Fund film, our annual fundraiser for the subject of a documentary. Money raised will go to helping Adi with the relocation of his family and his important ongoing work with the film inside Indonesia. T/F will also be screening the director’s cut of The Act of Killing this year.
A few weeks back I got the chance to speak with Joshua Oppenheimer about both films and their impact while he was attending the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival where The Look of Silence was awarded the Peace Prize.
True/False: It’s been a little tricky for me to describe the situation in Indonesia when you began. You’re uncovering a secret, but as one of the perpetrators in The Act of Killing says, the killing in 1965-66 is an “open secret”. The “open” part seems important. How do you approach this “open secret” idea?
Joshua Oppenheimer: I would simply say that it’s a reality that everybody knows at some level but is too afraid to talk about. And that kind of known but unspoken quality, that secret but not secret quality, is precisely what makes it frightening and has been used by the regime for decades to keep people afraid.
When I started working on the genocide in 2003 on the plantation where Ramli was killed, the survivors quickly introduced me to Ramli’s family, including his parents Rohani and Rukun, the old couple in the film. I was introduced to them so quickly because Ramli’s name was synonymous with the whole genocide across the region. That was because his murder had witnesses. People saw him escaping from the truck, he ran home, his family saw the death squad coming for him. There was the sense for everyone miles around that to speak about Ramli was to insist that these events really happened.
Imagine that a whole community is traumatized by something but has to pretend that the source of the trauma never occurred. In such a situation to speak about Ramli was an act of resistance. It’s almost like pinching yourself to remind yourself that you’re awake. I think that gives a pretty good sense of this open secret quality.
I think what these two films have done is hold a mirror up to Indonesia after which it is no longer possible to maintain the lie of the government propaganda. It’s like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes saying “look, the king is naked.” Well, everyone knew the king was naked, but couldn’t talk about it before. The whole game changes once people can talk about it. The propaganda no longer functions.
One other thought I had about this. After the army threatened Ramli’s family and the other survivors with whom I was working back in 2003 not to participate in the film any more, they all said “Josh, before you quit and go home, try to film the perpetrators.” When I first heard that I took it as a sign of desperation. But I came to understand that the boasting of the perpetrators, which both films interrogate, was something systemic and used as an instrument of fear.
As I came to hear more and more of it, and film dozens and dozens of perpetrators boasting like this, I had the feeling that I’d returned to Germany 40 years after the Holocaust only to find the Nazis still in power. I realized you could imagine the government of the Third Reich encouraging the aging SS officers to return home to their villages and boast. Not because the crimes should exactly be public — everyone would be terrorized into not talking about what really happened, so it would never really be on the public record — but because it becomes a veiled threat, the perpetrators become agents of terror, or terrorizing proxies of the state. So there’s a whole economy of terror around storytelling, a whole way that stories are used to keep people afraid. And it’s in that economy of terror that the film intervenes.
The Act of Killing does so by removing the fundamental motive the perpetrators have for boasting, to sugarcoat these grotesque details of mass killing that haunt them everyday. The perpetrators have a need to sugarcoat the details in the sweet rhetoric of heroic victory which leads them to boast about things a human being would normally never boast about. And as they come to see that what they’ve done is wrong and not something that you can boast about, it exposes the lie for what it is and it undermines the whole motive for boasting. And if you go to Indonesia now the perpetrators do not boast.
image from The Act of Killing
T/F: You’ve insisted you wanted to make films primarily about the present and not the past. Was that always clear?
JO: They are films about the past’s presence in the present. It was William Faulkner who said “the past is not dead, it’s not even past.” The past is our present. We know ourselves, we have a common language, we can speak to each other because we have a past. The present is this infinitely fleeting, mere horizon over which images and impressions appear, but the moment they appear they’re already in the past. We are our past, I think that’s the message of both films. It’s a kind of secular definition of karma.
There’s a scene in The Look of Silence that was really the inspiration for both films. Two men take me down to the river, taking turns playing victim and perpetrator. They pose for photographs in a spot where they helped kill 10,500 people. Shooting that I did something that I hadn’t done before, bring perpetrators together from neighboring villages. I wondered if they would boast in front of each other in the same way they would boast when they were alone with me. I suppose I suspected they would, but it was also a brutal confirmation to hear them trying to outdo each other in their boastfulness and enthusiasm for recounting the worst details of what they’ve done. It was this terrifying realization that the boasting is systemic.
That’s when I had this feeling that clearly these are not psychopaths. This is impunity. This is what impunity looks like. If you listen to right-wing American talk radio, you’ll hear boasting about torture. It’s a pretty acceptable thing across much of our political spectrum in the United States to actually boast about torture. Macho jockeying for who would be more willing to waterboard somebody has become an acceptable part of American discourse.
I recognized that two films need to be made about this impunity, both about the present. One about what happened when perpetrators win and are justifying what they’ve done. What lies do they tell themselves so they can live with themselves? What fantasies do they identify with? And what are the effects of these lies on themselves and on a whole society? I knew that would be a film about fantasy and storytelling and escapism and guilt.
But I also knew there was an equally contemporary film to be made about what silence and terror and unresolved trauma do to community and family, what is laid waste by trauma and fear as it’s allowed to fester for decades and decades.
image from The Look of Silence
T/F: The way The Look of Silence is structured around the two different layers of investigation, with Adi watching the older footage of you interrogating perpetrators and then confronting them himself, is very dramatically effective. Did you always imagine the film looking like that?
JO: No, I think we found that already in the shooting in that we knew Adi watching the footage would motivate the confrontations. I mean, he wants to meet people because of what he’s seeing. Midway through the shooting of The Act of Killing, I showed Adi everything I had time to show him and he watched with the same emotions you see in the film. I could see that it was transforming him, that he was now as an optometrist starting to deliberately approach older people so he could ask them what they remember about 1965-66. That was a response to him viewing my work. When we started shooting the film he said “Joshua, I need to meet the perpetrators.” It was his idea.
Adi’s confrontations are necessarily a response, not so much to the crimes that the perpetrators committed, because if they were languishing in prison or contrite there would be no need, but to the performance of impunity, to the boasting, which I see more as performance than as sober testimony. The confrontations are a response to performance which had served to terrify everyone in Adi’s community for so long.
T/F: I’m struck by the moment in all of the confrontations when Adi revealed that his brother was one of the people killed. You can really feel a shift whenever that happens and they start to squirm under his gaze. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on why this has such an impact.
JO: I think first of all we have to understand that when he says it’s his brother that’s killed, that he is revealing that he’s a survivor, right? And before that they don’t know who he is. He’s asking tough moral questions, but when he mentions that his brother was killed it reveals that he’s a survivor.
When Adi first told me that he wanted to do this, I said “absolutely not, it’s too dangerous.” It’s never happened in Indonesia. Millions of survivors all over the country and tens of thousands of perpetrators. Never has a survivor confronted a perpetrator to my knowledge. It’s completely unprecedented what he’s doing. I think it’s unimaginable for all of the perpetrators too. I think one of the reasons we were able to do this safely is because they simply can not believe that these conversations are taking place. They can’t believe it’s happening. How did this happen? What elaborate trap have I fallen into that allows this conversation to take place?
Because they know about the production of The Act of Killing, but haven’t seen it yet, they don’t know what to do. They would probably like to ask their thugs, who the more powerful of the perpetrators have standing by, to attack us. But they don’t want to offend their superiors with whom they think I might be close to from The Act of Killing. So they’re dumbfounded and a little bit paralyzed.
I had a feeling that if we could succeed in doing this, we would be doing something unprecedented in the history of nonfiction cinema. I don’t think there’s ever been a documentary where survivors confront perpetrators while the perpetrators still have an active monopoly on power. Because it’s too dangerous. Because why would you do that?
So even though I understood Adi would likely fail in his mission to get an apology from these men, I felt that by documenting something as unprecedented as the beginnings of a dialogue, however it turns out, we would be truly breaking silence on a national scale, and he’d be succeeding through the film where he fails in the scene.
Adi in The Look of Silence
It was always up to Adi whether to reveal that Ramli was his brother. It was always his choice, we knew he might, but he didn’t have to, and he would do it if he felt like it and if he felt safe doing it.
Also, in that moment Adi’s theory is that he’s a gentle and empathic man and that the moment he would confront them with who he is they would think “my gosh, this man is a human being, coming to me like a human being, perhaps his brother was a human being, perhaps all of this was wrong.” And like Anwar [Anwar Congo, the main character of The Act of Killing] when he watches himself play the victim, they would start to glimpse the cracks in the facade that all of this is justified and heroic. And we would see that in fear and doubt in their faces. I think that’s true too. I think that’s occurring right there.
T/F: That they actually believed the official propaganda that the communists were all wife-swapping, godless . . .
JO: I don’t know, I think we have to be very careful with the language we use there. They have clung to that lie knowing that it’s a lie. Cognitive dissonance is an essential element to all of this. Back to your first question, that it’s an open secret, you know, but you don’t know. Rohani finds out that her brother was a prison guard. I don’t know how she couldn’t have known that. But she didn’t want to know. It was too painful for her to contemplate.
Did the daughter of the perpetrator who apologizes to Adi really deeply believe her father was a hero? Or did she always know that at some level she was lying to herself and the details of the killing that come out in the conversation between Adi and her father simply prevent that lie from functioning anymore?
Both films document how people cling to lies. And I think that’s how much political discourse works, especially in the United States, where much of what our politicians say and much of the rhetoric that arouses the passion of the public we all know to be bullshit. Yet we still enjoy or allow ourselves to be inspired by it, for better or for worse. Usually for worse.
T/F: One aspect of The Look of Silence I wanted to ask about is the way you show Adi’s father Rukun, photographing his body and his physical frailty. Those images really work for me intuitively, but intellectually I’m still having trouble understanding exactly how they fit. Could you explain how you see those images functioning in the film?
JO: Well, first of all, cinema should always work on an intuitive level. It’s not a medium for words and it’s not a medium for theories, it’s supposed to work on an intuitive level.
But I think it’s that strand in the film that makes it a movie about memory. And it’s the fact that it’s a movie memory that makes it universal and not merely a political film about a particular country with a particular form of impunity around a particular history. It’s that strand in the film that makes it a poem about what happens, about what is destroyed, not by the genocide itself, but by 50 years of trauma and fear that becomes embedded in the body, almost like the constraints on a bonsai tree shape the tree over many many years.
You know, the whole strand with Adi’s father is really leading up to one critical scene which Adi shot. It’s the only scene in the film he shot and I think it is probably the most divisive scene in the whole movie for audiences. It’s the scene at the end where Adi’s father is crawling, lost. That scene was shot quite awhile before the rest of the film, apart from the old footage that Adi’s watching.
Towards the end of shooting The Act of Killing I gave Adi a camera for him to use as a kind of notebook to look for images. When I returned to Indonesia after editing The Act of Killing to make The Look of Silence Adi said, “you know Joshua, there’s one tape that I never showed you. And I want to give it to you, because I think it’s the most meaningful thing that I’ve filmed, and I didn’t give it to you because I wanted to keep it.” And trembling he took out his camera and took out the one tape that he hadn’t given to me. He put it in and showed me that scene and as soon as it started to play he started to cry. He said, “I shot this at the end of Ramadan, when the whole family comes together. And it was the first day that my dad couldn’t remember who anyone was. It was terrible, and we were all trying to comfort him and he was really scared, but because he was panicking he couldn’t calm down enough to remember any of us, so we just made it worse. He thought we were all trying to harm him. So we didn’t know what to do. And I thought at some point the most loving thing I could do was to film him. And I started to film him”– he’s crying as he’s telling me this — “and I was filming him crawling around the house lost, the house he’s lived since he was a child. That he was born in. And I felt then that I don’t want my children to inherit this prison of fear. I feel like my father’s stuck in a prison of fear, but because he’s forgotten the son whose murder destroyed his life and caused the fear, it’s like he’s locked in a room and can’t even find the door, let alone the key or the lock. He’ll never be able to work through that fear. It’s too late for healing.” That was when he proposed to me, “I need to meet the perpetrators. Because if I meet the perpetrators, confronted by my own humanity, they will acknowledge that what they did was wrong, and finally we can all, us and the perpetrators, get out of this prison of fear and live together as human beings.”
If you think about it, that’s such a symptom of desperation, to think that the only way out of fear is to go and risk your safety to confront the men who killed your brother, to say “please recognize that this is wrong, so we can live together.” I knew that that story would not make it into the film, that we didn’t have the material to tell the story I just told you. But I felt that if I constructed the film as a kind of poem, a very careful visual poem about memory and fear and what it does to a human body, what it does to the wrinkles in Rohani’s brow, what it does to the body as you see the water pour down Rukun’s 103-year-old torso, if I was very focused and precise, we could build up an intuitive, poetic core of the film, that would allow viewers to feel the meaning of that scene, even without that story.
Adi’s father Rukun in The Look of Silence
And I know some viewers will never feel it. Some will say this is wrong, you should help, this is exploitative and so on. But I think most viewers feel a degree of love behind the film and closeness with that family they can trust that there’s probably a story around the actual conditions for making that scene. Most people will know in their heart the story I’ve told you without knowing the story. Just as when you read a poem you might not know the events that inspired it, but you get the feelings from it.
T/F: Thank you, wow. Well, to finish up, is there anything you wanted to say about what’s going on with Adi and his family today and their relocation?
JO: The most important thing is that the film has now screened 1,500 times in Indonesia and Adi has been going to as many important screenings as he can go to. He’s been welcomed at every single one as a kind of hero who has inspired the breaking of silence in a way that hadn’t been imaginable before. The Act of Killing opened this space for a new kind of discussion around the film and created a fertile ground for Adi to bring his film, because it really is also his film.
Yes, it’s an operation for us to monitor and secure his safety and his family’s safety on an ongoing basis in Indonesia. That’s why we don’t complicate matters by bringing me to Indonesia, where I’m likely to face arrest or murder or whatever. And we don’t complicate matters by revealing the identity of all 50 of my anonymous crew members who also could face reprisals. And there’s a backup plan for the family to evacuate temporarily if needed.
But at the moment Adi is doing very important work in Indonesia. He’s really making a difference. And the kids are out from under the shadow of the perpetrators. The kids are in much better schools than the one in The Look of Silence, which you can see is pretty terrible. And Adi, when he’s not traveling with the film, is still an optometrist, going door to door and testing people’s eyes and building a new business.
Of course, it also means that there was a backlash. And the military and the police started with alarming consistency to organize paramilitary thugs to threaten to attack screenings, and use that as an excuse to demand that screenings would be cancelled. That was widely criticized in the news, “Why are the police organizing thugs?” Nevertheless, it was only 26 screenings that were cancelled this way out of something like 1,500. And no one was injured at any of those. The military also managed to get the film banned by the national film censorship board for commercial cinema screening, but the National Human Rights Commission, who is the official sponsor of the release in Indonesia, is still encouraging public screenings of the film, insisting that the ban is unlawful. So there’s a battle inside of the new Indonesian government, and we don’t know yet which way it will go. But I’m optimistic that now, 50 years on from the genocide, with the truth finally being out and undeniable and easily discussed by everyone in the society, the days of censorship, official history and brainwashing in school are really numbered.
Note: Gateway Packets are now sold out. But do not fear, we’ll have thousands of tickets on sale for these and other films at our box office beginning March 5.
The Gateway Packet is now on sale until 6 pm on Friday February 27 for T/F 2015. For $40, the Gateway grants you the ability to reserve three tickets online. For a select set of screenings at True/False 2015, which runs March 5-8. You can reserve tickets for three different screenings or multiple tickets for the same one; it’s up to you. Gateway is a great to introduce someone new to T/F. Pick up yours here.
This year’s Gateway screenings are as follows:
(T)ERROR, Thursday at 6:45pm, Vimeo Theater @ The Blue Note
Those Who Feel the Fire Burning, Thursday 9:30pm, Vimeo Theater @ The Blue Note
Drone, Thursday, 10:15pm, The Missouri Theatre
Cartel Land, Friday 10:15pm, The Missouri Theatre
I Am the People, Saturday 10:00am, Geology
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Saturday 9:30pm, Missouri Theatre
Finally, The Jinx a multipart HBO series, where filmmaker Andrew Jarecki presents a shifting kaleidoscope of perspectives around millionaire Robert Durst, who happens to be the center of multiple murders and disappearances. The Sunday screening that is part five, so those watching along on HBO or HBOGo can join in. If you’ve caught up, check out the analysis of the latest episode on Vulture.
Amanda Rose Wilder’s debut feature Approaching the Elephant spies into the first year of a “free school”, a radical institution where all the rules are decided democratically and the teachers and students have equal say. An intimate observation reminiscent of the early direct cinema of Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles, the film captures an elemental power struggle between students Lucy and Jio, and their school director Alex Khost in striking black and white.
Approaching the Elephant was unveiled at True/False 2014, screened last weekend at the Wisconsin Film Festival and plays for the second time today at the Sarasota Film Festival. I got the chance to chat with Amanda about her film and its inspiration a couple weeks ago.
T/F: How did you first hear about the idea of a free school?
Amanda Rose Wilder: My father is an elementary school teacher. When I was ten we took a trip to visit Summerhill, the most well-known free school.
T/F: Where’s that at?
ARW: Suffolk, England. It was founded in 1921 by A.S. Neill.
We visited for a couple days. It was a memorable and in some ways shocking experience. In elementary school I was the girl that followed the rules – but liked kids who stirred things up. Summerhill was full of uninhibited energy. The kids were all ‘characters’…self-confident, bold, frank.
I remember I sat in on a writing class that began with a free write, something I’ve done since but hadn’t at that point. I remember sitting there thinking, “what do they want me to free write?” while everyone else was furiously scribbling whatever they wished. I vividly remember a boy shouting during a democratic meeting, ‘fuck off and die!’ and went home quoting that phrase.
T/F: So how did you decide on a free school as a setting for a film? Was it an idea that formed that early on?
ARW: Well, it came about after I graduated from Marlboro College. Marlboro is a progressive college; the last two years you spend working on a thesis of your own design. My thesis was titled “The Poetic Documentary and the Documentary Poem” and I had gotten really into documentarians the Maysles and Wiseman and poets Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams and how poetry intersects with documentary. After I graduated, my film professor, Jay Craven, asked if I wanted to make a documentary with him on progressive education. So, we scraped together a little money and I went to the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) Conference. I conducted about 15 interviews with anyone I could grab. One of those people, who I just met on the street, was Alex Khost. He told me he was months away from opening a free school in New Jersey, 20 minutes from where I was living. He was open, charming, comfortable in front of the camera. After the interview I asked if I could show up on their first day.
From the first day at Teddy McArdle Free School I could tell it would be an incredible thing to document and would fit nicely with the kind of direct cinema filmmaking I’d grown to love. There was a story unfolding before the camera, and a fascinating group of people, most of whom were children.
I shot for two school years. The film comprises the first year, from the first day to the last day. I amassed about 240 hours total.
T/F: So, what’s true/false about your film?
ARW: Oh man, good question . . .
Well, here’s why I decided this was a story I wanted to tell: I quickly realized that the free school model allows for kids to be themselves in a way most schools do not. Their personalities are really able to come out. And as a filmmaker I have an interest in capturing people honestly, as their full-blown selves, warts and all, you might say, but lovingly.
I think you see this in similar ways in documentaries that are about kids outside of school, films like Streetwise, Children Underground. Kids’ lives, as much as adults’, are messy and complicated. I thought, wow, this model is allowing for me to capture the lives of children, something very true and rarely shown.
So I began the film because I had an interest in free schools and then realized I could capture this incredible social dynamic, these complex personalities. The model became a means to an end, a context for a story I wanted to tell.
Lucy in Approaching the Elephant
T/F: Yeah, it really reminded me of how intense childhood was, how important every conflict was in the moment.
ARW: Yes, and more and more kids are being stripped of their ability to take risks and figure out conflicts, which leads to them not knowing how to. I came across a great article recently called “The Overprotected Kid”. In The Atlantic. There’s a line that describes well what I think is happening in child-rearing, “the erosion of child culture.”
As much as I am inspired by Wiseman and the Maysles, I’m inspired by Cassavetes. Love Streams and A Woman Under the Influence as by Gimme Shelter and High School. Cassavetes is my model for showing people honestly. Perhaps there’s a link between the erosion of child culture and the erosion of independent cinema. Films are less wild, less messy, less alive and energetic. More documentarians should take cues from Cassavetes and less from advertising and grant qualifiers.
T/F: It’s interesting how much Cassavetes influences documentary. His work always seems to come up . . .
ARW: I feel like Cassavetes and the Maysles are soul sisters, two sides of a coin. Another of my influences on this movie was the Dardenne brothers. Have you seen Les Fils (The Son)? So much woodworking in that film. And a central man/boy relationship.
So, getting back to your question, what I hope is true about the movie is the depiction of childhood, in this full, vital, energetic, Cassavetes inspired way.
What’s false? I tried to be as true to what I saw as possible. But, of course, what I hope everyone knows, I was only there on certain days, I only captured when I hit record, and we edited.
But I feel the story is the story of the year. I think we accomplished realizing that.
T/F: What effect did you think the camera had on what was going on?
ARW: Not much. Because I was there from the first day, I was taken as a part of the community. I find if you relax and don’t get in the way, people relax. Being a one-person band helps (I did camera and sound). I tried not to be a dominating personality over the kids, and I think they accepted me among them because of that.
Lucy especially was very comfortable from the get-go in part I think because her mother is an avid photographer, so Lucy was accustomed to a camera in her face. Lucy would say to new students, “That’s Amanda, don’t look at her camera, she just wants us to act natural.”
ARW: They picked it up quickly. Kids in general are less self-conscious than adults.
T/F: It was really fascinating to see Alex, an adult, get pulled into all of the conflict between the kids because of the nature of the school?
ARW: Well, it was his school as much as theirs. One of my favorite scenes is the meeting where Lucy and Alex are debating whether Alex should be allowed to make safety decisions by himself or if they should be voted on democratically. More specifically, whether Alex telling Lucy to not jump off a high storage bin was harassment. I love it because they both take the meeting so seriously. Lucy holds her ground against Alex and Alex treats her with complete respect while at the same time stating his points. They’re complete equals. And after the meeting, they go about their ways and are cordial.
How conflict is resolved between Lucy and Alex and between Jio and Alex is, of course, very different. And between Lucy and Jio. The trio was so fascinating. I felt so lucky to have not just one but three incredible people, and the dynamics between them, to focus on.
T/F: When I talked with Robert (Approaching the Elephant editor Robert Greene) he said that the decision to use black and white made the story feel more timeless. Could you talk about that decision?
ARW: While I was editing, before Robert came on as a collaborator, I’d now and then throw the material in black and white. The editing always seemed to just come together more naturally that way. I think it has something to do with going with the elemental, pure nature of the story. It looks so beautiful in black and white, like it could be from any time.
T/F: Yeah, the conflict really feels elemental.
ARW: Yeah, it highlights for me how it’s about social dynamics, personality, people’s faces . . . I think that’s all I have to say about it. It was a pretty intuitive choice.