Three of best non-fiction films of this year screened at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, and all three provoked conversations throughout town. How does one tell a true crime story in a way that reflects on the state of race relations and economic inequality in this country differently than film has before? How does a leading man turn a dinner conversation into a masterful meditation on craft and commitment to art? How does a director follow-up a breakthrough film like the award-winning “The Act of Killing”? I didn’t get a chance to see many documentaries at this year’s TIFF, but the three I saw were all phenomenal, films you really must make an effort to seek out as soon as you can.
The first of the trio likely to make its way to your senses is Nick Broomfield’s “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” as it was just picked up by HBO Documentary Films. The true crime documentary is a glutted genre, and the fact that there are whole channels on cable devoted to repeats of programs like “48 Hours Mysteries” makes theatrical variations on the theme harder to stand out. Broomfield’s film does so by taking a unique approach to the genre in that the inquisitive director doesn’t interview police officers, prosecuting attorneys or even journalists. Instead, he focuses solely on the community impacted by not just crime but a system that has decided a certain degree of murder in this part of the city is acceptable. Broomfield speaks to neighbors, victims, family members, street walkers, drug dealers, etc. In doing so, he captures not just the grisly details of a serial killer but how we’ve evolved into a state of being in impoverished communities in which this kind of darkness is tolerated. It’s a true crime documentary that simultaneously plays as societal critique and a call for reassessment of how we value human life.
Lonnie Franklin Jr. may have killed over 100 prostitutes and drug addicts in South Central L.A. over the last quarter-century. He was finally arrested in 2010 and will soon go on trial for about a dozen of those crimes. If the evidence is to be believed, Franklin was a sex addict who traded Polaroid photos of the women he paid for sex, many of whom he killed after the transaction was complete. Bodies were dumped all over Los Angeles, from the alleys of South Central to, possibly, the dump at which Lonnie worked. And the system barely registered the fact that women were disappearing because the tragic fact is that the death of a non-white, drug-addicted sex worker doesn’t often produce a response. Groups like the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders tried to get to the bottom of the case, but to say that the system designed to protect innocent lives failed these people would be an understatement.
How did we get here? How did Lonnie Franklin go on for decades killing people? His nickname, “The Grim Sleeper,” comes from the fact that there was a large gap in his crimes, according to the police, as if he “went to sleep” and then started killing again, although there’s every bit of evidence to suggest that timeline is incorrect. He never stopped killing.
Broomfield’s film captures the story of the Grim Sleeper from a fascinating angle—the people who knew him and knew of his crimes while the systems of law turned the other way. We meet people who first deny Franklin’s guilt, but slowly open up to Broomfield and his son Barney, who expertly handles the camerawork. Hearing stories about Lonnie that should have been told to a police officer and stopped these crimes decades ago more vividly defines how broken our system is than any other current documentary I can think of. The people in this community are scared of the police. They tell their children not to interact with them. And so suspicion of people like Lonnie Franklin never gets passed along. It is that dynamic—the one between the people paid to protect and those who don’t trust them to do so—that allows a situation like Franklin. He’s a monster in a part of the United States where monsters have been allowed to run free. Broomfield’s film, especially in light of recent racial tensions like what happened in Ferguson, couldn’t be timelier.
“The Look of Silence,” Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to his multiple award-winning “The Act of Killing” is arguably a filmmaking accomplishment equal to his breakthrough. It is the thematic complement to “The Act of Killing,” replacing that devastating film’s demons with ghosts. It is a work that would resonate if “Killing” had not preceded it, but does so much more deeply when viewed as a cinematic response/follow-up to what came before. Whereas “Act of Killing” was about anger and the violent past, “The Look of Silence” is about the regretful, melancholy present. It is about denial wherein “Killing” was about forced recognition. And it is just as devastating and powerful a piece of work. I have a few more minor issues with the form here, including a few interview moments that feel as staged as the reenactments in the first film without the disclosure of such, but there’s no denying the emotional impact of Oppenheimer’s work. He is already a documentarian worth the international recognition he’s receiving.
The vile-but-fascinating Anwar Congo has been replaced by the haunted Adi, a man whose older brothers was murdered in 1965 during the genocide of people deemed Communists by the Indonesian government. His brother Ramli wasn’t just killed, he was tortured, mutilated and dumped in a river. Oppenheimer uses his form—filmmaking—to essentially stoke the fires of Adi’s resentment over a denied international history and lack of responsibility taken by the perpetrators of such crimes, some of whom still live in his village. Adi’s father is blind, deaf and nearly immobile, and Oppenheimer uses him as a visual motif, a man who appears to bear the pain of a devastating national history.
Adi is an optometrist, a man who travels the back roads of his country to help people see. In his discussions with locals, he’s realized how many of them are blind to the past. And when Oppenheimer shows Adi a series of videos in which the power brokers of the genocide describe their murders, it gives him the courage to confront the people who have lived in denial for a half-century.
Oppenheimer paces “The Look of Silence” much more deliberately than “The Act of Killing,” discarding the reenactments in favor of conversation about what happened, who’s responsible and how a country can’t move on until it sees the past for what it was. Adi is a courageous protagonist, never coming off as aggressive in his encounters with mass murderers, but never shying away from the tough questions. One wonders how much of Adi’s questioning comes from Oppenheimer, and “The Look of Silence” is a film that could frustrate people who believe in the purity of the form of documentary filmmaking. I wondered how much of what I was seeing here was truly genuine—what was actually said in the room, for example, as Adi’s questions are often off-camera. And then I decided I didn’t care. The end result is what matters and the end result of “The Look of Silence” is powerful.
Finally, there’s the delightful, and surprisingly moving, directorial debut from Ethan Hawke, “Seymour: An Introduction.” The construction of Hawke’s conversation-driven film is simple: the actor met the subject, Seymour Bernstein, at a dinner party, and was fascinated enough with him to make a movie about him, assuming you’d be fascinated with him too. The whole film unfolds with nearly constant piano music playing in the background, as if you’re having a nice dinner in a lounge with Mr. Bernstein himself. And it’s an unforgettable meal.
Seymour Bernstein never became a household name, but he was well-known for a time in the world of concert pianists in New York City. He had a promising career that he discarded to become a teacher more than a performer. Hawke basically delivers a biographical documentary on Bernstein, although the life details aren’t as dominant as they would have been in a less interesting project. We learn about Bernstein’s war past, family and professional career, but “Seymour” is really a piece that works thematically more than biographically. It’s about craft, precision, dedication and art. Hawke says at one point (although it should be noted he inserts himself into the film very rarely), “I’ve been struggling recently with trying to figure out what I do,” and it’s Bernstein’s casual philosophies that can offer all of us insight into that struggle. “Without craft, there isn’t any real artistry.” “The real essence of who we are resides in our talent.” I want a line of inspirational Bernstein quotes on T-shirts. That’s how much I love what this guy has to say about life, art and “trying to figure out what we do.” You will too.