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Only one filmmaker has ever been nominated for the best documentary feature Oscar in back-to-back years. His name was Walt Disney and he was nominated — and ultimately won — for both The Living Desert (1953) and The Vanishing Prairie (1954). In those days, an organization (i.e. the U.S. Air Force) or its figurehead (i.e. Disney’s Disney) were often recognized for projects that were actually primarily completed by others who worked for them. That was certainly the case with these nature films. But under today’s stricter standards, that would not fly.
In other words, Joshua Oppenheimer — a best documentary feature Oscar nominee earlier this year for The Act of Killing who is now receiving major buzz for its follow up, Drafthouse Films‘ The Look of Silence, which won the Grand Jury Prize in Venice last week and also screened at Telluride and Toronto — may be headed down a path that only one other person has ever walked before. (That is, assuming Drafthouse and Participant Media give the film an awards qualifying-run this year before releasing it more widely next year, which would make sense.) And he would be the first to traverse that path without taking a shortcut.
UPDATE (9/15/2014): The distributors have decided to release the film in 2015.
Both parts of what Oppenheimer calls his “complete diptych” were shot during the decade-plus that he spent in Indonesia after initially going there in 2001 to make a film about the impact of globalization on a community of Indonesians. What he discovered there, though, was a society still haunted by the genocide that followed the 1965 overthrow of the government by the military — and still being run by the people who perpetrated it. As he has described it, “It was like wandering into Germany 40 years after World War II and finding the Nazis still in power.”
In The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer features the twisted perspective of the perpetrators, a selection of whom boasted about and — controversially — even reenacted for the camera their crimes against humanity. In The Look of Silence, he provides the haunted perspective of the survivors, employing as his conduit Adi, the younger brother of a genocide victim whose brutal murder forever devastated his entire family, who courageously confronts the elderly perpetrators in his community seeking not revenge, but rather truth and reconciliation.
The footage for both films was obtained at great personal risk to Oppenheimer, and the latter has necessitated the relocation of Adi — who accompanied Oppenheimer to TIFF and received a lengthy standing ovation when he was introduced for a post-screening Q&A on Wednesday, but was soon overcome with emotion and had to leave the stage — and his family.
Additionally, the legendary filmmakers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, who each have more than a few great docs under their belt, are credited as executive producers on — and have done much to raise awareness about — both Oppenheimer projects.
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