The Look of Silence, by Tan Bee Thiam

July 15, 2015

This is an essay by the curator of The OPEN Film, dated 20 June 2015, which appeared in our brochure for Week 2. We weren't able to upload it in time during The OPEN, but we thought it'd be good to share it on the site now.

In the recently concluded SEA Games, Singapore won a record number of gold medals. If we were to imagine all the films in The O.P.E.N as athletes, IMDb – the most comprehensive online movie database – would have awarded them a total of 203 medals.

The most garlanded winner would be The Act Of Killing. In this riveting film, director Joshua Oppenheimer asks death squad leader Anwar to recount his experiences in the 1965 genocide after the failed coup of the 30 September Movement in Indonesia. The reenactments are elaborate, as if Anwar and his friends were starring in a Hollywood genre movie. At times, Anwar imitates a cowboy in a Western; other times, he turns into a dancer in a musical. Throughout the film, Oppenheimer and his co-directors provide these war criminals the opportunity to “script, direct and star in the scenes they had in mind when they were killing people”. While the documentary has garnered many accolades, critics have also questioned whether mass murderers like Anwar should be given a forum to tell their stories. Can movies really influence people like Anwar to commit violent acts? 

Certainly, the Singapore Media Development Authority (MDA) believes it can.

Last week, just days before the screenings began, we were notified by MDA that Pablo Larraín’s Tony Manero and Jean-Gabriel Périot’s A German Youthwould be given an R21 rating on the condition that two scenes be excised. The two scenes that the MDA censors had found unacceptable were: a fellatio scene in Tony Manero, and a scene featuring a video on how to make a Molotov cocktail in A German Youth.

It is, of course, ironic that such images and information are already freely available on the web. Does projecting them on a bigger screen amplify the emotional impact of violence? Or is it that watching them in a public communal space makes it easier to indulge in orgies and commit terrorist incidents?

To the mass murderer who wants to be a movie star and the censor who wants to be a movie editor, thank you for believing in the power of cinema.

Tony Manero was our opening film. Instead, we opened with banned filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s indomitable This is Not A Film. Just as how Panahi has turned censorship into art, we have, and will be, mourning the loss of Tony Maneroand A German Youth by observing a blank screen, set to 90 minutes of silence.

  • 2015