Arts festival's cinema highlights

Pre-arts festival line-up includes 14 films based on the theme Post-empires, including one with dialogue in sign language

Slightly more than a decade ago, Joshua Oppenheimer travelled to Indonesia.

The documentary-maker asked some old men if they had been in the death squads of the 1960s, responsible for the murders of thousands of men and women.

Not only did the men say yes, they re-enacted the executions with gusto.

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"Two of them took me to the river and showed me," says the 40-year-old American. The victims mostly died by machete or by wire twisted around their throats, often after a period of torture.

Oppenheimer had been in the country documenting the exploitation of oil palm workers when they suggested that he see for himself how, even today, former death-squad members and their cronies create a climate of fear over towns and villages, keeping the descendants of their victims in a permanent underclass.

Astonished by how the men today wear their gruesome deeds as a mark of honour, Oppenheimer decided to focus the Oscar-nominated The Act Of Killing (2012) on them.

It is among 14 films to be screened in The O.P.E.N., the pre-festival programme of this year's Singapore International Festival of Arts. O.P.E.N. stands for Open, Participate, Engage, Negotiate, and its film segment kicks off this weekend.

The Act Of Killing references the frenzy of violence that began after a military coup and which lasted about a year. About half a million accused communists and those accused of sympathising with them, such as ethnic Chinese, were snatched from their homes and put to death.

"It was about the fantasies and stories the perpetrators tell so that they can live with themselves and the stories they impose on the whole of society, with terrible and corrupting effects," says Oppenheimer on the telephone from Copenhagen, Denmark, where he now lives.

The film, in asking the killers to portray their methods of slaughter in the style of their favourite type of movie - gangster, western or musical - was a "flamboyant fever dream", he says.

But the second film to come from the same footage, shot between 2003 and 2005, turns the camera on the survivors of the massacre and, in particular, an optician named Adi Rukun.

The quiet man goes to the homes of former death squad members to fit them with new glasses. As he tests their eyes, he tells them that his brother was killed in the purge, hoping to see a flicker of remorse for a death that still haunts him and his ageing parents.

"Adi explained the desperation that he felt. He said, 'This is the only way my family can escape the prison of fear that we've lived in for 50 years. If I go to them gently, humbly, they will see that I am not there for revenge and they will find the courage to do something they've wanted to do for a long time, which is to admit that what they did was wrong.'"

"'Then I will forgive them and we will be able to live together as human beings,'" he says.

The reactions that Adi sees are documented in The Look Of Silence (2014). Oppenheimer says the documentary deals with the corrosive effects of impunity.

"What does it do to human beings to be not able to grieve or mourn or heal? To be forced to live for 50 years in fear and silence? What does that do to a family and to a community?" he asks.

In Indonesia, the 1965 purge is a taboo topic, fit only to be discussed by the authorities and generally viewed as a positive nation-building event.

Both films are banned in Indonesia, but not before thousands had seen them mainly due to the efforts of two government-linked bodies, the Jakarta Art Council and the National Commission on Human Rights. Oppenheimer says he is no longer welcome in Indonesia.

If The Look Of Silence deals with the figurative handicap of state-approved amnesia, then The Tribe (2014) offers a look at a more literal disability.

The Ukrainian coming-of-age drama is set in a school for the deaf ruled by a gang of deaf young people who operate a prostitution ring.

The work, written and directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytsky, came about because the film-maker was looking to create a pure cinematic experience.

The film's dialogue is almost entirely carried out in Ukrainian sign language, with no subtitles.

He tells Life! on the telephone from the Ukraine that the film, an award winner at the 2014 Cannes Film Festivals International Critics' Week section, is the fulfilment of an ambition.

"I've wanted to make an homage to silent movies. When I was a child, there was a school for the deaf near my school. When I saw them communicate with sign language, I was really impressed by it, it was like magic," says the 40-year-old film-maker.

"It looks like they are on a different level from the rest of us. I wanted to share that feeling that it's a miracle," he says.

"I've also always wanted to make a silent movie, the kind of movie that had Charlie Chaplin. He uses a cinema language, one that will work anywhere in the world - Japan, Australia, America, Ukraine," he says.

He has forbidden the use of subtitles or overdubbed voice-overs and that clause is present in the distribution deals he signs, he says.

With no cues to guide them other than what they can see, the audience is forced to pay attention to faces and gestures. He sees spoken and written language as a barrier between the audience and the images.

"People will understand what's going on. Love and hate need no translation," he says.

Mr Tan Bee Thiam, curator of The O.P.E.N.'s film programme, says the films were picked with an eye on the theme set by festival director Ong Keng Sen: Post-empires.

"The films use what we see today to imagine a different future - what comes after?" he says. To that end, he selected works such as the Pablo Larrain trilogy, which deals with life during and just before the decline of the Pinochet regime in Chile.

Citizenfour (2014), the documentary about surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden, has echoes in This Is Not A Film (2011) by dissident Iranian film-maker Jafar Panahi, because both concern men who have broken the limits on expression set upon them by their governments, says Mr Tan.

The decay of empire is explored more literally in three works of fiction: Horse Money (2014), Under Electric Clouds (2015) and The Last Time I Saw Macau (2012).

Horse is writer-director Pedro Costa's examination of Lisbon's underclass of African migrants from former colonies. Macau, like Horse, deals with Portugal's colonial legacy - its film-makers Joao Pedro Rodrigues and Joao Rui Guerra da Mata set an impressionist story of intrigue in that former Asian outpost of Portugal.

The films, Mr Tan hopes, will whet appetites for the main feature, Singapore International Festival of the Arts, which opens in August.

"The films should give anyone going to the festival a richer, more meaningful experience," he says.


The selection runs the gamut from documentaries to dramas to experimental video-collage to opera, but all having to do with the notion of old structures giving way to the new. Here are five highlights:

  • Chilean film-maker Pablo Larrain has three films set around the time of the Augusto Pinochet military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s - what the New York Times calls his "unintentional trilogy".

Tony Manero (2008) centres on a man fixated on the character of the film's title, the protagonist in the disco-era hit Saturday Night Fever. If it sounds like a comedy, note that it is not: This Tony is far from charming.

Post Mortem (2010) tells the love story of a mortician and a cabaret dancer set during the 1973 coup that installed General Pinochet. As the morgue fills up, the mortician sees the awful truth of what happens to those taken away by the soldiers.

In No (2012), Larrain's most celebrated film and winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2013, Gael Garcia Bernal is an advertising executive asked to design an advertising campaign encouraging voters to say "no" in a referendum asking if Chileans want more years of Pinochet rule. He takes the job, but only if the "no" side stifles the urge to obsess about the brutality of the regime and, instead, focus on abstract, uplifting ideas of future happiness.

  • The Tribe (2014), a Ukrainian drama about a youth gang, is partly a coming-of-age story and partly an exercise in using one's eyes instead of ears to follow a story. All the characters are students in a run-down Kiev school for the deaf, and there are no subtitles.

Watching this is at first disorienting, but it takes only a few minutes before the brain adjusts to a world where sign language rules.

For those who prefer experimental work, there is more about social and political disintegration in Under Electric Clouds (2015, right), a fable story set in the near future in Russia, featuring characters who talk obliquely about a building under construction.

  • The video collage-like The Last Time I Saw Macau (2012) is even more experimental. Structured loosely as a suspense thriller, it sees two Portuguese men returning to the former colony of Macau to help a friend in trouble.
  • Horse Money (2014) is similarly abstract. In director Pedro Costa's meditation on class structure, ghostly figures, representing the African diaspora in Lisbon, move about it neighbourhoods, talking about events that are about to happen, or may already have taken place.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 17, 2015, with the headline 'Arts festival's cinema highlights'. Print Edition | Subscribe