Double dose of Oscar-nominated directors dish on daring docs

May 18, 2022 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Oscar week is officially upon us.

The Academy Awards air at 7 p.m. Sunday night on ABC live from Los Angeles.

But first, two of the nominees dropped by WTOP: Joshua Oppenheimer, director of “The Look of Silence,” and Evgeny Afineevsky, director of “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.”

They’ll both compete in a highly competitive category against Matthew Heineman’s “Cartel Land,” Asif Kapadia’s “Amy” and Liz Garbus’ “What Happened, Miss Simone?” for Best Documentary.

“I saw all of them and they’re all fascinating movies. I fell in love with Amy (Winehouse) through the movie. I felt in the same situation as ‘Cartel Land’ because we both were exposed in kind of violent stuff. ‘Nina Simone’ I was blown away by this amazing personality … ‘Look of Silence’ was kind of a sequel to ‘Act of Killing.’ … All of them are extraordinary filmmakers,” Afineevsky tells WTOP.

Read below for our in-depth convos with both Afineevsky and Oppenheimer.

‘The Look of Silence’

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

He grew up in the D.C. area and graduated from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland before ultimately settling in Copenhagen, Denmark. But all these years later, director Joshua Oppenheimer has created two of the most powerful documentaries you’ll ever see.

The first was the Oscar-nominated “The Act of Killing” (2014), interviewing former Indonesian death squad leaders who killed up to three million suspected communists in a 1965 coup, then convinced the killers to reenact the killings in Hollywood genres, from gangster pictures to lavish musicals.

May 18, 2022 | (Jason Fraley)

Now, Oppenheimer has done it again with the Oscar-nominated “The Look of Silence” (2016), which serves as a companion piece by sending the brother of a victim to interview the killers. Optometrist Adi Rukun, brother of the murdered Ramli, asks the killers probing questions during eye exams.

“They didn’t know who I was. They knew just that I was Joshua’s friend and I was there to test their eyes. I asked questions step by step, becoming deeper and deeper, and as the questions would become deeper, they would become suspicious. … Then when I would reveal who I was, that I was the brother of a victim, they would respond with anger with panic with shock,” Rukun says.

The eye exams not only bait the perpetrators into facing their past actions at Snake River, the lenses also provide a symbolic lens for we cinematic viewers, bringing a disturbing history into focus.

“The results have broken 50 years of silence in Indonesia, and the film bares witness to the very first conversations that break that silence,” Oppenheimer says.

The results are shocking, as the perpetrators rationalize — and even brag — about the executions. While Anwar Congo tried to vomit up his sins in a fit of dry heaves at the end of “The Act of Killing,” the death squad leaders in “The Look of Silence” show very little remorse for their actions.

“Inong, the very first perpetrator we see Adi confronting in the film, he’s telling very horrific stories about what he did. Adi asks the question in a pause, ‘Is everybody around here afraid of you?’ And instantly we realize the reason everybody would be afraid of him is not so much what he did then, but because of the way he’s been openly boasting about it ever since,” Oppenheimer says.

The one interviewee that seems to show remorse is the daughter of one of the killers, who sits next to her father during the interview and learns of her dad’s deadly deeds for the first time.

“Adi gets up to leave and she looks like she doesn’t want to let him go. She gives him a hug, almost imploring him in her eyes, ‘Please don’t go.’ Adi hugs her, but then Adi also hugs her dad, who hasn’t expressed any remorse,” Oppenheimer says of the film’s most powerful moment.

Rukun says he felt a glimmer of hope and relief in reconciling with the next generation.

“At the beginning of the meeting she was proud of what her father had done, of the killings. She then realizes what he did and changes 180 degrees. She’s shocked to discover who her father really was. … She asked for an apology, and my response to her was, ‘Your father’s sins are his sins. They’re not your sins. … As his daughter, you still must love and honor him as your parent.’ So there was a reconciliation between us,” Rukun says. “This was my hope, that there would be this reconciliation.”

Listen below for the full interview with Joshua Oppenheimer and Adi Rukun (Oppenheimer translates).

May 18, 2022 | (Jason Fraley)

‘Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom’

Director: Evgeny Afineevsky

While Oppenheimer grew up in the D.C. area, his fellow Oscar nominee Evgeny Afineevsky hails from the other side of the world. Now an American citizen, he was born in the Russian city of Kazan — yes, the same name as “On the Waterfront” director Elia Kazan — so you could say Afineevsky was fated to be a filmmaker. But Afineevsky says he could have never imagined such a future as a child.

“If somebody when I was a child in Russia was telling me that one day I will be stepping in Hollywood and doing my marks on history … I would be laughing and not believing. But I guess the sky’s the limit when you are a hardworking person and you believe in yourself,” Afineevsky tells WTOP.

Afineevsky discovered 16 mm film and made his first documentary at age 16.

“I still remember the smell of film and the smell of chemicals when you’re develop in dark room and you’re splicing and cutting the film. … But right now it’s digital age, and only because of digital age, I have been able to document all this history. Only with the help of modern technology and the variety of different equipment, we’ve been able to facilitate and document all these events on the go.”

Thus, we get the immersive documentary “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” (2016) capturing on-the-ground footage of the Euromaidan protests in 2013 and 2014 as students called for Ukraine to join the European Union. Facing violent pushback from the government — backed by Russia, who would soon invade Crimea — they forced President Viktor F. Yanukovich to resign.

“Even how it started, it was so spontaneous. No one was expecting to beaten or kidnapped or even killed, so all these events were so spontaneous that the technology helped us achieve our goal.”

Not only did modern technology help the filmmakers capture the footage, it also helped spark the revolution in the first place, as the Ukrainian demonstrators organized via social media.

“Nowadays you can start a revolution through social media. It’s amazing that people united through social media, and then you can see their unity on the square. It’s amazing to see these transitions from social media into the reality,” Afineevsky says.

Similarly, the film tracks a young boy who runs around helping protesters charge their cellphones.

“He’s little, but he’s not little. … Through all of these 93 days, I was observing this amazing transition, amazing maturity of him. It’s an extraordinary character, because he runs from his home on the first day and never goes back. … He’s a fascinating character, we can see in ‘Les Mis’ all of these kids on top of those barricades. … (‘Winter on Fire’) is a “Les Mis’ in our harsh reality of our days,” he says.

While the themes echo “Les Mis,” the process of shooting the film was far more dangerous.

“When you’re seeing people covered by blood, when you’re seeing people kidnapped, when you’re seeing bullets really flying towards us. We were sprayed by tear gas and cold water in this cold weather. … It never stopped them from believing what they believed and stood for.”

Afineevsky says the people’s bravery inspired him to carry out his filmmaking duty.

“I am obligated to document this story. I am obligated as a filmmaker, a true filmmaker in heart and soul, to bring it to the entire world. … It’s all important for the generations. … Through this movie, you can go back into the centuries when our founding fathers in the United States … fought for our freedom, our democracy, our values that we’re living right now. It’s some kind of reminder to our generation living right now that things can’t be forgotten and things can’t be taken for granted.”

Listen below for the full conversation with “Winter on Fire” director Evgeny Afineevsky.

May 18, 2022 | (Jason Fraley)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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