Film and Television Features

Sheffield DocFest 2015 – Part One

As in previous years, wading through Sheffield DocFest’s programme of films can be a daunting prospect. Not only has the overall quality of films risen noticeably in recent years, but there’s also a spectacular breadth of stories and topics to delve into – with everything from Mexican wrestling to Philip K. Dick making an appearance in this year’s offerings. With such an impressive quantity of intriguing sounding films available, we decided this year to steer clear of the industry parties and filmmaker masterclasses, and instead focus on just the films themselves. Here then our thoughts on the opening night of the festival.

Kicking off this year’s festival was The Look of Silence, director Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow up to his 2012 film The Act of Killing. For those who haven’t seen it, The Act of Killing focuses on the anti-Communist massacres committed in Indonesia in the 1960s, in which hundreds of thousands of political dissidents and wrongly accused innocents were rounded up and murdered by men who’ve never faced justice for their actions. Where most documentaries would tackle topics like this with a series of talking head interviews and archive footage, The Act of Killing’s approach was something vastly stranger and more disturbing. Oppenheimer sought out the men who committed these atrocities, many of whom remain in positions of considerable power and influence, and invited them to relive their crimes in a series of bizarre pop culture-influenced re-enactments. The resulting film was one of the most challenging and fascinating films I’ve seen made anywhere in the world in the last decade. Despite this, I’d been a little cautious about the news of a follow up. The Act of Killing was such a unique and bewildering experience, that surely any return to it would feel like a watered down repetition? Thankfully, I had no reason to be concerned.

The Look of Silence is best understood not as a sequel, or even a follow up, but as the other half of a single spectacular work. One of Oppenheimer’s most intelligent moves here is to give his new film a directing style completely in contrast with the distinct approach of the previous film. Whereas The Act of Killing was vivid, hallucinatory and chaotic, The Look of Silence is a restrained and contemplative. It is a film of stillness, perfectly in harmony with its subject matter. This time Oppenheimer focuses his lens not on the killers, but the victims, and in particular the family members and loved ones who are left behind and struggling to grieve even decades later. Adi was born two years after his brother Ramli was brutally slaughtered in the purges, and decides it is time to find and meet his brother’s killers. What gives the film much of its emotional potency is the enormous empathy and dignity with which Adi embarks on this project. Again and again Adi finds a country unwilling to properly discuss its history. After all, ‘the past is the past’, as so many people seem keen to remind Adi. The Look of Silence is an extraordinary film about what happens when you’re unable to discuss an injustice, and therefore unable to truly mourn it. It’s also a powerful examination of what happens to the truth of history when memories fade and facts are rewritten. Much of what we see and hear in the film – from the sparse ambient soundscapes to the repeating imagery of the elderly and senile – act in service to these central themes, leading to an enormously rich experience. Seen separately The Look of Silence and The Act of Killing are remarkable films. When considered as a single complimentary work however, what Oppenheimer and his team have created here could be counted among the finest documentaries ever made.

As wonderful as the first film of the festival was, its weighty subject matter didn’t exactly lend itself to an opening night celebration. Thankfully then, the responsibility of kicking off the festival was taken up by the specially commissioned archive film The Greatest Shows on Earth. The film is assembled from an impressive array of circus performance footage, much of which shows its age in the scratches or strangely saturated colours that we see on screen. This visible wear lends the film a pleasingly organic quality; as if we’re rummaging through an old chest of film reels in search of treasures. And there are plenty of treasures to be found. Particular highlights include the images of human cannonballs and stunt men hurtling through the air, here edited together to give them the quality of a beautiful aerial ballet. Much of the best footage focuses on human beings, and the ways in which we can see society shift and change over time through the prism of its circus entertainment. Much less effective then are the extended sequences devoted to animal performances, which unfortunately outstay their welcome. While The Greatest Shows on Earth is right to acknowledge these darker parts of circus history, watching these sequences can feel like watching an extended parade of cruelty, which makes it tricky for the film to bounce back for the lighter and more humorous sections that follow. One of the more intriguing aspects of the film is its soundtrack, which has been created by members of Sigur Ros especially for the film. Instead of the traditional circus instrumentation you might expect to hear with such footage, it’s a surprisingly abrasive and unconventional affair, though one that works on the whole. The Greatest Shows on Earth is a very enjoyable, though undeniably inconsistent, archive film.