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NYFF: Documentaries ‘The Look of Silence’ and ‘Seymour: An Introduction’ Shine

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nyff52NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: The first week of the 2014 New York Film Festival is now in the books, with the most recent day consisting of two highly regarded documentaries. They were Joshua Oppenheimer‘s The Act of Killing companion piece/follow up The Look of Silence as well as Ethan Hawke‘s documentary filmmaking debut Seymour: An Introduction. Both docs made for an interesting counterpoint to the other in a way, but also work quite well on their own too.

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The Look of Silence
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

Though it might not be of interest to anyone who hasn’t seen director Joshua Oppenheimer‘s award winner prior documentary The Act of Killing, that shouldn’t be an excuse not to see The Look of Silence. This is a compelling companion piece that looks at a similar issue in a very different light. Whereas the last one took a look at the leaders of an Indonesian genocide and listened to them detail their actions in a horrifying casual manner, this time Oppenheimer follows a survivor who lost his brother as he confronts these men. It’s very heavy material, obviously, but Oppenheimer handles it just as well as last time. I’m not as over the moon for The Act of Killing as some (though my thumb would clearly be up), but in my eyes, The Look of Silence is on the same quality level, so fans of the prior outing should be very eager to see this.

The doc follows an optometrist named Adi, who lives a quiet life in a small village with his wife and children. His brother was among the victims of the genocide depicted in The Act of Killing and it haunts Adi. So too does the propaganda that is being fed to his son in school. Unable to just sit and do nothing like so many others, Adi sets out on a quest to track down the now elderly and retired torturers to interview them and try and find out why they did what they did. We see him sit inches away from murderers and respectfully try and get them to express remorse. It’s emotionally wrenching and even haunting at times.

Oppenheimer doesn’t overdo it with any style here. In fact, the most stylish moments come when we see clips from The Act of Killing. This is a more contemplative film. The moments form that last doc help to fuel the emotion inherent in The Look of Silence. I’m sure we’ll discuss this one a lot more if it qualifies for the Best Documentary Feature field, but since it won’t be out officially until next summer, I’ll just say to stay tuned for more on this one and that The Look of Silence is a worthy companion piece, and perhaps more than that.

(★★★)
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Seymour: An Introduction
Director: Ethan Hawke

Actor/sometimes filmmaker Ethan Hawke makes his documentary debut here with the very charming Seymour: An Introduction, which does exactly what it promises…it introduces us to pianist Seymour Bernstein and lets him into our life while we follow him through his. Hawke is clearly in awe of this man, though you’ll be hard pressed not to be as well when all is said and done. It’s very much a character study, only obviously a real life one.

Seymour Bernstein is an octogenarian pianist who is well known as a great classical player in those sorts of circles, but to many this will be our first time meeting him. We follow him as he teaches his students, meets with former pupil, talks with Ethan Hawke, and just lives his life. He’s a delightful figure, full of wit and wise sayings. It’s the sort of subject that you’re glad we’ve got on camera now, in order to treasure for decades to come. Oh, and when you hear him play the piano, it’s as beautiful a sound as you’ll ever hear from that instrument. Seymour: An Introduction gives you just enough that you’re dying to hear more.

Hawke wisely keeps the focus almost entirely on Bernstein, so the times when he pops up having intimate discussions with the man really pops. At the NYFF screening there was a Q and A afterwards and the two just have such a lovely rapport, you almost wish they’d captured more on the screen. At the same time though, it leaves you so captivated it also works as a treat or sorts. If Seymour: An Introduction gets picked up in time, I wouldn’t discount this one as a contender in Best Documentary Feature. It’s such a crowd pleaser, it could go all the way even if things break right for it.

(★★★)

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Written by Joey Magidson

When he’s not obsessing over new Oscar predictions on a weekly basis, Joey is seeing between 300 and 350 movies a year. He views the best in order to properly analyze the awards race/season each year, but he also watches the worst for reasons he mostly sums up as "so you all don't have to". In his spare time, you can usually find him complaining about the Jets or the Mets. Still, he lives and dies by film. Joey's a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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