Joshua Oppenheimer: Early Work

For most filmgoers, Joshua Oppenheimer emerged fully-formed out of nowhere with his landmark 2012 documentary The Act of Killing. A horrifyingly intimate portrait of elderly death squad leaders in Indonesia, it fused fearless journalism with surreal, fantastical black comedy – a mix which earned the film the support of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, two of the only directors whose work is meaningfully comparable to it. The chief pleasure of Second Run’s new collection of twelve early films by Oppenheimer lies in seeing the director develop, to watch the precedents to a work that initially seemed to be unprecedented. That’s not to say that these films lack merit on their own, or for viewers who haven’t seen The Act of Killing and its spiritual sequel The Look of Silence. The best of them are good by any metric, but even the weakest become substantially more interesting when watched as part of Oppenheimer’s learning curve.

If Herzog and Morris are the presiding deities of Oppenheimer’s work now, his early work was both influenced and championed by Dušan Makavejev, the eccentric, radical Yugoslavian director best known for hugely controversial features like W.R. – Mysteries of the Organism and Sweet Movie. (If you are on a work computer now, please resist the temptation to Google either of those films) In a fascinating, useful 23-minute interview on this disc, Oppenheimer talks about seeing these films, as well as earlier work by Makavejev such as Man is Not a Bird and Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator, and having a revelation. Films do not need to fit the categories we put them in, he realised – if you’re documenting a complex phenomenon, you should be allowed to make complex work.

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The Makavejev influence is felt most strongly in three films, The Challenge of Manufacturing, These Places We’ve Learned to Call Home (both 1996) and The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase (1997). These show Oppenheimer, still based in America at this point, trying to encapsulate his home country through experimental collages of its wilder fringes. Each has its own particular area of study – factory farming in The Challenge of Manufacturing, nationalism in These Places…, religion in Louisiana Purchase – but each also feeds into the other. The farcical images of toilets bursting into flames in These Places… is echoed in more haunting form as a woman stumbles through a landscape of burning chairs in Louisiana Purchase. Likewise, Louisiana Purchase’s flashes of campy, early John Waters-style gore are lent weight by their similarity to the genuinely upsetting animal slaughter footage in The Challenge of Manufacturing. They also introduce the strain of kitschy violence that Oppenheimer would use for the film-within-a-film in The Act of Killing.

The two films that most clearly point the way to Oppenheimer’s later work are two documentaries, 1996’s Hugh and 2002’s The Globalisation Tapes. The third film on the disc following a pair of minute-long, soundless vignettes (Light Test and Camera Test, both 1995), Hugh is the earliest demonstration of Oppenheimer’s key thesis that hate and extremism are not necessarily disruptive forces – they can be thoroughly bedded into society. The titular subject is an elderly man who makes furniture, teaches children to play the piano and is hailed by his friends as one of the most generous people you’ll ever meet. He also goes into town with his car plastered in sandwich boards and preaches about how homosexuality will destroy civilisation. In the supplementary interview, Oppenheimer says one of the prompts for his interest in extremism was being the victim of a homophobic assault, and as in The Act of Killing you are in awe of his ability to remain neutral in the face of such people. Hugh is ten minutes long, but has the complexity and nuance of a feature film, and as a bonus is shot in gorgeous high-contrast black-and-white reminiscent of Marc Singer’s excellent 2000 documentary cult classic Dark Days.

The collage films Oppenheimer made after Hugh also delve into uniquely American forms of hate, from the militia-movement paranoia and anti-Semitism of characters in Louisiana Purchase to the plaintive phone call which opens These Places… (According to Gareth Evans’s booklet, the caller – a lonely-sounding survivalist calling a white supremacist group to ask if there are any other “patriots” in his area – is Oppenheimer himself) By 2000’s Land of Enchantment, a brief, dense and revealing observational documentary about market forces at work in America’s prisons, he has moved his area of interest from the fringes to the social structures which fuel them. The next leap forward was The Globalisation Tapes, which saw him move to Indonesia for the first time. Oppenheimer and his frequent collaborator Christine Cynn are mentioned as producers on The Globalisation Tapes, but the director’s chair is shared between members of an Indonesian labour union who explain, passionately and humorously, how the West’s need for cheap palm oil has led to devastating consequences for Indonesian workers’ health and welfare.

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A mesh of two short-lived documentary formats that proliferated around the millennium – the video diary and underground anti-globalisation agit-prop – The Globalisation Tapes sometimes resembles a Michael Moore film with Michael Moore edited out. It keeps the easily digestible episodic structure of a film like Bowling for Columbine, as well as its use of parody and humour, but the author’s voice is relegated to punchy on-screen captions and scrolling text. It also contains the first mention in Oppenheimer’s filmography of General Suharto, leader of the military coup whose aftermath is detailed in The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. In a scene which could easily be edited into either of those films, an elderly death squad leader talks happily of how he would clock off work in the afternoon and kill two or three people accused of Communism every day, unaware that his granddaughter, who can’t be much more than four or five years old, is listening to him with a very uneasy look on her face.

In 2002’s Muzak: A Tool of Management, Oppenheimer isolates this interview and re-edits it to emphasise the girl’s reactions. As the title implies, he also adds a chintzy soundtrack and some on-screen text about the history of muzak in workplaces. It’s a decision which seems to show Oppenheimer struggling with the enormity of what he’s discovered in Indonesia. Like the other films he made directly after The Globalisation Tapes – Market Update, A Brief History of Paradise as Told by the Cockroaches (both 2002) and Postcard From Sun City, Arizona (2003) – it sees him return to methods of film-making and modes of social commentary from his earlier films, without executing them as confidently. After The Globalisation Tapes’s bleak primer on the aftermath of colonialism and how the economy is rigged to keep poor countries in debt, a film like Market Update – which overdubs footage of the trading floor at a stock exchange with childish babbling – seems an inadequate exploration of the theme.

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It can be hard to explain what is important about these films without sounding like you’re belittling them. For all that I’ve spent a lot of this review comparing them to Oppenheimer’s later work, it’s also worth noting that a lot of them are fascinating as roads not taken, particularly The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase. That film is currently his only engagement with fictional narrative, albeit as a mock-documentary. Had it been a hit, Oppenheimer’s career would clearly have moved forward in a very different fashion. Having said that, The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase is an ironic self-reflexive horror-comedy about a woman who becomes convinced her baby is the Antichrist, intercut with footage from 1950s b-movies and newsreel footage of atomic bomb tests. It would only have been a hit in a universe where Craig Baldwin’s Tribulation 99 outgrossed Titanic, or where those hippies you heard about in urban myths really did succeed in spiking the water supply with LSD.

Maybe it’s best to go into this collection without expectations, to treat it not as a series of preliminary sketches for a masterful pair of films and more as a pick-and-mix of Oppenheimer’s other interests. After all, in the accompanying interview, he mentions that he actually studied physics, rather than film, at university, a field of interest which seems to be reflected nowhere in his body of work to date. So if it’s surprising that the man who once made a film starring only cockroaches with dental floss tied around their thoraxes would go on to make two back-to-back Oscar nominees, the real question is; where might he go next? After watching the twelve films collected here, it’s hard to imagine any limit to his frame of reference or his imagination.


Special Features

• Presented from brand new re-mastered transfers of the films, supervised and approved by the director.
• Exclusive, new filmed interview with director Joshua Oppenheimer.
• 24-page booklet featuring an expansive new essay by film writer, curator and producer Gareth Evans.
• Released for the first time anywhere on home video.


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