Freedom and Genius

Since my last blog post I’ve had a couple of days of “down time” in London.  A while ago Laura loaned me a DVD copy of The Hundred Foot Journey, and I finally got the time to watch it. Starring some brilliant actors, Helen Mirren shines in a lead part alongside the very lovable and talented Indian actor Om Puri, but the younger leads are also excellent.  It depicts French village life exactly as my imagination conjurs it after visiting rural Dordogne last month.  A most enchanting, light yet meaningful story with beautiful scenery, fun humour and stunning cinematography.  Experiencing genius like this is one of the most conspicuous absences from life in rural Cambodia, where a year of cinema passed me by.  In contrast it is one of the most wonderful aspects to life in a big city such as London, albeit that this was a catch-up DVD from last year’s cinema drought.

Bad Jews is a harsh-humoured play set in a Manhattan apartment starring exactly four actors who hold the audience’s attention with their dramatic First World angst.  It is currently running at The Arts Theatre, below The Arts bar where I spent many nights in the early 1990s.  Last night James and I walked out of The Arts feeling almost assaulted by the caustic themes of greed and grief.  It was worth seeing and sparked some interesting conversation at the pub later on, but not a feel-good experience at all.

This morning I took a tube to South Kensington and managed to make my way around the neighbourhood I lived in for a year in 2002-2003 (in hospital accommodation), where some of London’s most exclusive residences encircle leafy private parks.  I wandered back along Exhibition Road, lined with several famous museums (eg Victoria and Albert; Natural History) and academic institutions (eg Imperial College), past the Royal Albert Hall and then along the southern edge of Hyde Park.  Strolling in the shade of the huge trees lining South Carriage Drive, I watched dozens of school groups play football and softball on the old football pitches, site of the 1851 Great Exhibition.  Past a plaque memorialising Rotten Row, the Kingdom’s first lamp-lit road originating in 1690, I made my way around the curving paths of the Rose Garden near the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Walk.  This was a tiny glimpse of the enormous Hyde Park, so Kate is coming up from Surrey tomorrow and we plan to explore the park some more.

My most awesome discovery today, despite all of the above, was Joshua Oppenheimer.  There is a charming underground cinema a short walk from where I’m staying in Bloomsbury, which screens foreign language films and documentaries.  The entrance is opposite a park, on the edge of an outdoor shopping plaza which is perched about 15 steps above street  level.  Walking in at this level, you find the first level bar and ticket counter in a room no more than about 10 metres squared.  Further bar/ticket counters are one and two storeys below ground, furnished with modern and comfortable lounge seating and decor including cinema-themed black and white photographs and private nooks with atmospheric lighting.  Despite seeming small, the subterranean setting allows for at least six screens with upwards of fifty seats in each.  Last week I saw an Argentinian film here, comprising six short stories about revenge, called Wild Tales.  It was brilliantly shocking and clever.

Joshua Oppenheimer is an up-and-coming American filmmaker whose film The Act of Killing won Best Documentary at last year’s BAFTAs and was nominated for Best Documentary in last year’s Oscars.  Arriving back at Russell Square this afternoon I walked home via the cinema and spent a couple of hours as the solo audience for the 4pm screening of The Look of Silence.  This Oppenheimer documentary is the sequel to The Act of Killing, which I have not seen.  With very little knowledge of what the film was about, I was quickly enthralled.  A brief text introduction in the opening scene explains that in 1965 the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military who immediately employed death squads to kill anyone deemed to be a communist.  This story must be incredibly complex in it’s wider context, but in this particular film we meet a guy called Adi who is my age but leads a very different existence to me.  A significant part of his existence is the constant presence of his brother Ramli, who died two years before Adi was even born.  Ramli is with Adi everyday through the omnipresence of his killers, who not only survive unpunished, but are hailed as heroes who purged Indonesia of the hated and evil communists.  The families of victims of this massacre live alongside the killers of their sons and daughters, who talk openly of their crimes, and are adulated within their families.  Many of them hold positions of power, through intimidation in many if not most cases.

Adi’s young son sits in a classroom as his teacher talks about the evil communists who the country’s now-ageing “heroes” valiantly got rid of in 1965 and 1966.  He goes home and tells his father what he has learned.  Adi, a gentle, serene and extremely brave man, is a community optometrist who visits elderly villagers to test their vision and fit them for glasses.  He gives his son a more balanced perspective of what actually took place, including mention of Uncle Ramli’s death.  He also begins to ask his clients about their knowledge of and/or involvement in, the massacres which are said to have occurred daily.  A range of responses are received, from denial that anything happened, to open admissions and horrific details of cruel terror, torture and murder, and applause of the murderers.

Ramli’s death is unusual in that he escaped from the machete which severely wounded him first.  He managed to reach his parents’ home where he spent a night before the death squad located him the next morning, assuring his mother they were taking him to hospital!  Throughout the film, scenes show Adi watching on a television set in an almost-bare concrete-walled room, what I assume to be The Act of Killing documentary.  He witnesses Ramli’s killers talk in detail about his brother’s terror and murder before they threw his mutilated body into Snake River, the graveyard of an estimated million people during this slaughter.  Adi visits many homes to interview these killers and others, many of them now-powerful political leaders.  He speaks with their families and also his own family including his mother, who features repeatedly throughout the film alongside her 104yo husband who is now blind and helpless.  His mother’s brother admits to having been a prison guard at the place where Ramli was held prior to his murder.  During a number of the interviews Adi is intimidated and threatened, with comments such as “continue with your communist activity” and “if you do not want it to happen again then you need to change your behaviour”.

The most disturbing thing about these interviews is the openness and honesty of the murderers, who are proud of their actions, and seen by their families and obviously within the current political system of Indonesia, as heroes!  During a number of the interviews, when the men and/or their families realise Adi and Joshua (who remains behind the camera throughout) do not hold them in the esteem they believe they deserve, their demeanour changes visibly within an instant.  One former Kommandant is sitting beside his daughter who proudly boasts of her father’s fame as a communist killer.  She suddenly grasps the intention of the interview, just as her father boasts some grisly deeds she claims not to have heard of before.  Her proud smile transforms like a flower wilting on a high speed time lapse video.  Adi says to her, maintaining calm eye contact as her father sits opposite him, “it is not your fault that your father is a murderer”.  I hope the experience halts her boasts about daddy being a killer!

The film is gripping but explicit.  I have excluded all grisly details – if you’re interested enough you can watch it yourself.  It seems our world is teeming with political leaders who have risen to the top through violence, terror, intimidation and deceit.  Cambodia and Indonesia are two very undeserving partners to contemporary Australian politics, yet both countries feature prominently in less than honourable headlines at the moment.  At least, unlike so many involved in the making of The Look of Silence, I currently have the freedom to speak my mind in safety.  The credits at the end of today’s film looked largely like the below photograph which I took as they were rolling.

I also found these press notes to The Look of Silence, which make for an interesting read on the background to the making of the film, and of Oppenheimer’s values as a person.  A genius with a big heart.  Just what our world needs more of!


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