Rep Cinema This Week: Mad Max: Fury Road, The Look of Silence, The Act of Killing
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Rep Cinema This Week: Mad Max: Fury Road, The Look of Silence, The Act of Killing

The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.

Still from Mad Max: Fury Road.

At rep cinemas this week: A frenetic, feminist Mad Max, and Joshua Oppenheimer’s essential companion documentaries about the Indonesian killings of the mid-1960s.

Mad Max: Fury Road
Directed by George Miller

Fox Theatre (2236 Queen Street East)

George Miller returns to the franchise that kickstarted his career with Mad Max: Fury Road, the most frenetic action movie in years and arguably the most trenchant dystopian allegory. Tom Hardy picks up where Mel Gibson left off as the taciturn eponymous hero, a drifter and sometimes vigilante whose home is a post-apocalyptic desert where blood, gasoline, and water are the hottest commodities. Max is a survivor, but it isn’t long before he’s captured by a group of cancer-addled War Boys, operating under the auspices of patriarchal tyrant Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played the villain in the first Mad Max). Turned into a blood bank for sickly War Boy Nux (a very fine Nicholas Hoult), Max finds a new purpose when he’s intercepted by Joe’s renegade lieutenant Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who bails on her gasoline run to escort the tyrant’s precious wives to a promised land where they can be more than breeders.

Much has been made of the film’s breathless pacing, gorgeous lensing (by semi-retired DP John Seale), and impressive practical stunt work, but Miller’s greatest coup here might be in envisioning Max as a handmaiden to Furiosa, a proper heroine where Max is at best a self-effacing ally. Theron is fantastic as the film’s stoic and hard-charging stealth lead, a character who’s sure to inspire any number of spinoffs, comic books, and action figures, and the film does right by her, subordinating her male colleagues’ redemption narratives to her revolutionary quest to free the women under Joe’s oppressive rule and establish a matriarchal alternative. It’s progressive storytelling writ large, and if it’s a bit hammy, it still hits hard.

The Look of Silence
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)

Joshua Oppenheimer follows up on his much-celebrated documentary The Act of Killing with the equally bracing and vital The Look of Silence. Where its predecessor saw members of the Indonesian death squads—the men behind thousands of anti-Communist executions in the 1960s—remorselessly acting out their crimes in garish dramatic recreations (taken in one case to the point of the perpetrator’s own nausea), The Look of Silence focuses on the investigative efforts of Adi, a village optometrist whose brother was murdered in the purge, and who now seeks to confront the right-wing paramilitaries behind it.

Where The Act of Killing sought to compromise its viewer for passively bearing witness to such grotesquely aestheticized representations of atrocity, The Look of Silence is devoted to raising and problematizing the idea that documentary filmmaking can be wielded as a blunt tool of social justice. One senses that if reconciliation is not possible for Adi, Oppenheimer at least believes that exposing such blatant abuses of power by people who still wield unbelievable clout under the harsh light of the camera, and forcing perpetrators to engage in one-on-one conversation with their former victims, might at least be the first steps toward something like conciliation. There are no easy answers here, but this is a critical film in the best sense, constantly engaging with the question of what kind of testimony documentary cinema can offer when a nation’s traumatic wounds are still open.

The Act of Killing
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
Saturday, July 25, 1 p.m.

It’s been nearly 30 years since Claude Lanzmann directed Shoah, his landmark nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust, which is comprised of present-day interviews with survivors, second-hand witnesses, and perpetrators. In light of the countless television specials about the Holocaust that followed, most of them spent panning and zooming over archival photos of atrocities, Lanzmann’s decision to dispense with historical mementos and make his own archive at the scene seems even more radical now than it did at the time. At last, it’s found an odd companion piece in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing.

Oppenheimer’s film treats the mass murder of Communists, intellectuals, and ethnic Chinese in mid-1960s Indonesia—unpunished crimes committed by killing squads sponsored by the U.S. and British-backed government. What sets Oppenheimer’s approach apart from other portraits of genocide is his bold decision to focus not on the survivors, who are no longer around to give an account of their experiences, but on the murderers, who have not only avoided prosecution but have been held up as heroes by the still-reigning government. Oppenheimer grants a measure of storytelling control to one such trio of boastful gangsters, encouraging them to re-enact their most heinous murders. Noticing the men’s fondness for American popular culture, he also invites them to stage those scenes in tribute to the Hollywood gangster pictures and musicals that ostensibly inspired them.

That’s a risky concept, and Oppenheimer’s brazenness gets the better of him at times. He has a habit of letting interviews run just long enough that the gangsters say something absurd and psychotic in an otherwise banal conversation, then cutting away to another scene, creating an uncomfortably jokey rhythm that feels borrowed from John Oliver’s former exposés as a correspondent on The Daily Show. All the same, this is a powerful, complex, and wholly necessary film—an antidote to the creatively bereft documentaries that package atrocities in the most mundane fashion. Its outrage is palpable, and contagious.