Joshua Oppenheimer – Early Works Review

A dozen early films by the documentary filmmaker of The Act of Killing via Second Run

In 2012, Joshua Oppenheimer’s film The Act of Killing made an enormous splash among critics and viewers. Its relentless, uncomfortable depiction of real-life Indonesian death squad members re-enacting the murders committed decades ago on supposed, yet otherwise innocent, communists was unlike most anything that came before it. The film quickly redefined the landscape of documentary cinema. Its similarly impactful follow-up, The Look of Silence, was in the same vein and focused on a victim’s family members who confront death squad members decades later. Now, Second Run DVD has unearthed a dozen of Oppenheimer’s early works – ranging in length from less than a minute to over an hour – for release to the home viewer. The startling result is often experimental in technique but never less than fiercely compelling in both subject matter and execution. Let’s explore, one by one.

A pair of very embryonic, technical shorts – “Light Test” (0:57) and “Camera Test” (1:17) – from 1995 show striking black and white visuals against silence. In the former there’s a strange shot of a person with a bag on their head and the eyeholes cut out while the latter uses a flower shop as its setting. Things get much more interesting in “Hugh” (9:29), a 1996 short, also in black and white, that begins innocently enough with a man hammering in his shop but soon takes on a sociopolitical tone as it shows the same man loudly denouncing homosexuality while praising Jesus via homemade signs attached to his automobile. This short, co-directed by Nishit Saran, is the first clear hint of the political implications that will continue so strongly across Oppenheimer’s filmmaking.

The three films which follow all act as key, essential pieces of this set, both broadly defining Oppenheimer’s early works and showcasing his knack for arresting imagery. “The Challenge of Manufacturing” (7:00) combines old sci-fi, Robocop, an alien abduction testimonial, patriotism via song, and animal slaughter into a blender of sorts and produces something memorably upsetting. The most lasting impressions are probably the images of rabbits and chickens being coldly killed, presumably so that someone somewhere can consume them later in whatever form. The 1996 short’s title is likely inspired by such animal processing.

The dynamic, well-insulated insanity of “These Places We’ve Learned to Call Home” (30:22) and “The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase” (47:00) are huge finds. There are tricks aplenty in both, with the former offering up burned-in subtitles that don’t match the audio at one point and the latter including “interviews” with a self-proclaimed Antichrist and the supposed inventor of the microwave. There’s quite a bit of fiction here, particularly in the latter, for these to really be considered documentaries but both make clear and sharp points. “These Places” focuses largely on bigoted conspiracy theorists and uses audio of phone conversations in which Oppenheimer himself infiltrates a militia group by pretending to be an alien abductee. This 1996 film came not too long after the Oklahoma City bombing and the Waco, Texas Branch Davidian incident so its emphasis was especially timely and, unfortunately, may not have lost much relevance in the ensuing years.

There’s a lot ostensibly unsaid but implied, both via history and politics, in these two works. “Louisiana Purchase” takes on a different approach than what has been typical of Oppenheimer in that it has a narrative – using made-up elements – with the intent of subtly inserting its point of view along the way. Even if not quite real or true, what’s seen and heard is often fantastical enough to have really happened, perhaps in an alternate reality. This was the director’s thesis film at Harvard and he’s characterized it as the start of the “exploration of the space between documentary and fiction.” The structure borders on straightforward to the point of feeling more clear and mainstream than any of the other works here despite also being the most obviously outlandish. It makes the most of its absurdity by often being quite funny in a deliciously dark way. From the microwave element to the Antichrist’s feud with his mother and his revealing of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, there’s a definite line of humor here that challenges the viewer to determine whether it’s okay to laugh at a film in which the female narrator has murdered her infant child in a microwave.

While “Land of Enchantment” (1:05) is a short burst from 2000 in which New Mexico tourism operators are revealed to be women’s prison inmates, the feature-length “The Globalisation Tapes” (68:11) is probably the closest in spirit and subject matter to Oppenheimer’s pair of acclaimed documentaries to be found in this set. The 2002 film is divided into three parts and ferociously attacks colonialism, the World Bank and the WTO regarding the treatment of smaller places like Sumatra, an island in Indonesia. The idea, as illustrated repeatedly and effectively in the film, is that an export like palm oil – used to make vegetable oil and essential to numerous products across the world – benefits the wealthy nations it’s being sent to far more than the vastly less privileged areas from which it’s made. Whether it’s the banks profiting from the constant loans being borrowed or the importers benefiting from lowered prices as a result of an abundant supply of product, it seems that the only ones not set up for potential success are the workers.

We meet a man locked into a 30-year contract who’s making only $1.14 per day and still must bring his son to work to help him so that he can meet his quota despite the son not being paid. It’s a deeply upsetting look at a broken system which has minimal hope of substantial improvement. Films like this and Oppenheimer’s other features provide some glimmer of optimism that such injustices cannot continue if the light shined on them is bright enough. One can wallow in the futility of attempting to better situations in which the odds seem so stacked in favor of the bigger, more powerful entity, but the persistent drive of cinema of this nature provides incalculable spark to continue the good fight.

Oppenheimer’s final four short films on this disc are all rather short and perhaps less substantial in comparison to the main attractions. “Market Update” (1:01) consists of stock market footage that is variously sped up and slowed down, with crazy narration that isn’t always decipherable. “A Brief History of Paradise As Told by the Cockroaches” (2:50), from 2002, continues the crazy gibberish narration but has cockroaches on an Indonesian newspaper. “Muzak: A Tool of Management” (3:34) is pretty directly tied to the death squad documentaries Oppenheimer would later make in that it shows a shirtless Indonesian at a dining table in his home alongside a little girl. While dialogue crawls across the bottom of the screen describing his killings the soundtrack plays upbeat muzak. “Postcard for Sun City, Arizona” (3:34), made for General Broadcasting Corp. in 2003, juxtaposes audio from a talk radio interview with a female chain gang member alongside video selling an Arizona retirement community.

The Disc

Second Run DVD’s Joshua Oppenheimer: Early Works – A collection of 12 films consists of a single dual-layered disc that is region-free and PAL. It’s being touted as the world premiere home video release for the set of films, totaling nearly three hours in length.

All but the minute’s worth of “Land of Enchantment” use the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The transfers are sourced from a variety of materials originally used for these films. Considering the somewhat modest origins of some, as well as the indication on the back of the case that they come from brand new re-masters supervised and approved by Oppenheimer, there’s little reason to find the results lacking from a technical standpoint. Necessarily rough edges never hinder the viewing experience.

Audio is a similar story, with the English language material often woven against other dialogue or sounds and the non-English portions receiving subtitles. Sound is probably even more experimental than the video here but it all registers without any perceivable hitch.

On the disc is a substantial interview (23:04) with Joshua Oppenheimer in which he touches on several aspects of this early body of work and how it related to what he was dealing with from a personal standpoint. There’s also a 24-page booklet featuring an essay of sorts by filmmaker and friend of Oppenheimer Gareth Evans. It’s described in a footnote as a “partisan piece” and “concerned more with how text and image, sound and light and shadow, collaborate together to help us become more fully human(e).” It offers little value in further contextualizing or understanding the films at hand.

clydefro jones

Updated: Aug 14, 2016

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