Lights, Camera, Aarhus!

Jutland Station went to the opening of Aarhus Filmfestival, and presents you the top three must-sees of the week. 

The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, among awards at other notable international festivals.

The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, among awards at other notable international festivals.

By David Meffe

The annual Aarhus Filmfestival got underway Tuesday night with a flurry of independent flicks, short films and documentaries that will continue until November 16. The festival aims to present the city with new cinematic ideals, while inspiring dialogue and fostering a love for the not-so-big screen.

“I hope that our content in general and specific works will be eye-openers for the audience as to what film art and cinema can also be – other than mainstream big theatrical releases”, says festival director Karen Rais-Nordentoft.

The festival has grown from its inception in 1997 as a small community-organized event into its very own beast, drawing in a range of audiences from across the city and the region. Some films represent work from international acclaimed directors, while others aim to shed light on regional emerging talents.

“Our experience shows that it is mostly students and culturally open-minded and active people in general. But actually the far majority of films in the program can easily be anticipated by everyone,” Rais-Nordentoft says.

Films range in all lengths and sizes, with several animated films also on the docket. The festival’s mission mantra articulates a belief that “stories that are told with cinematic insights and worldly outsights can enlighten, inform and entertain, challenge our world-views and conceptions of the ’truth’ as well as spark activism and social change.”

We made the festival director do three picks of what you need to see during the week.

1. Interactive: a program of interactive works where the audience with laser pointers control the narrative, make a virtual universe balance, conduct an orchestra.

2. Artist talk with Mårten Nilsson & Gunilla Heilborn, and the screening of his/their works prior to the presentation. Especially the shorts made as a TV serie – it is hillarously funny!

3. Our shorts in general. There are so many fresh takes on cinema and I love when I am taken on a roller coaster through different moods and themes through a short film program.

We reviewed the first documentary shown at the festival, Copenhagen-based director Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence.

The story follows a family of survivors of Indonesia’s 1965-1966 political genocide searching for not-so-buried answers to the death of a loved one long ago. The Look of Silence is the spiritual sequel to Oppenheimer’s critically acclaimed 2012 documentary The Act of Killing, in which the director explored the Arandesque banality of evil and impunity in the years following Indonesia’s mass execution and torture of suspected communists. It also exposed blatant government corruption and impunity in modern Indonesia, tying in themes of cyclical hatred and thinly controlled rage among the country’s notorious paramilitary groups. Rather than relying on convoluted historical sources or imagery, the original film focused on members of the notorious gangs and killing squads, comfortably living out their lives while attempting to justify their actions within an altruistic realm of greater good.

The Look of Silence acts more like a companion film than a direct sequel to its predecessor, though the subject matter is comparable. Once again, Oppenheimer explores themes of mass slaughter, but this time with an infinitely more personal and fragile tone. The family portrayed in the film deals with the everyday struggles of life, while attempting to bury, or at least conceal, old burdens. More than anything, the film explores the silence born of institutionalized terror, and what happens when than tightly nailed coffin of Pandora ultimately becomes unhinged. The film casts away the usual clichés of heroic survivor stories and presents a loose narrative that lacks distinctly in overt moral judgment or self-righteousness, focusing instead on personal tangents of life, loss and maybe a chance at closure, but certainly not redemption.

But in trying to make The Look of Silence stand on its own legs, Oppenheimer disregards much of the stylistic beauty that gave The Act of Killing its immense emotional weight and transnational relevance. The camera work this time around seems more refined, more controlled, while still exhibiting Oppenheimer’s mastery of slow-paced emotional storytelling, but it often feels as though something is missing to complete the overall picture. There are scenes of immense natural beauty, more than a few laughs and enough silence to make even Danish audiences feel mildly uncomfortable – though that’s probably the point.

Ultimately, fans of the predecessor will enjoy a new, layered dimension to the story, but newcomers will feel a little left in the dark. Oppenheimer’s new piece is raw, calculated, but certainly won’t lend him the same worldly credibility some of his previous works may have granted. If the ending to The Look of Silence seems anticlimactic, it’s because it is – though it’s up to audiences to decide whether this flaw is deliberate. As Indonesia’s culture of political impunity continues to silently slither on, so does the film’s coda, muted and begging more questions than it answers.

David Meffe is a Canadian journalist based in Aarhus, and a part of Jutland Station’s culture team.