DVD Review – Early Works A collection of 12 Films

Joshua Oppenheimer seemed like this extraordinary new young talent when he come onto world screen with his first feature-length documentary The Act of Killing and he was. However as always with an overnight sensation he has a back catalogue of work which only due to the success of The Acting of Killing and it’s companion film The Look of Silence it’s getting it’s overdue release. However seeds of his later work is fully on evident since his first real documentary Hugh in 1996.

First up are two 1 minute long experiments which are basically Oppenheimer playing around with a camera and to be honest should have been left out of the set. Hugh is his first documentary and it’s about a fairly despicable street preacher who preaches hate towards homosexuals. This is countered balanced by his piano lessons who kids and how is praised by his friends as one of the best people ever. Oppenheimer’s influence from Werner Herzog and Errol Morris is evident here but he makes it his own, Morris and Herzog would later serve as executive producers on his two features.

Oppenheimer’s turning point is the next film The Challenge of Manufacturing which is the first of his “collage” films which would be the style he chooses for most of the films in this set. This one as you can imagine is about manufacturing and especially the horrors of factory farming. Oppenheimer intercuts the film with film footage, self shot footage of man getting tarred and feathered, commercials and factory farming footage.

One of the meatest films in the set is These Places We’ve Learned to Call Home. I watched most of the set before I watched the interview with Oppenheimer so wasn’t aware he was gay which brings a lot of different meaning to some of the films. These Places We’ve Learned to Call Home has Oppenheimer tackling American fundamentalism, gay rights and the militia movement. It’s one of his most impressive shorts in the set but he is still finding his feet here and is trying out how to pace a short documentary and it somewhat falls apart near the end. Despite that it’s a fascinating insight into the mid ’90s and Oppenheimer’s mindset and the rise of the right-wing militia movement which is still relevant to today’s political climate.

The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase is perhaps the best known film in the set. It’s extensively a fake documentary which is a wild ride to watch. It’s about UFOs, the Native American genocide, nuclear weapons and much more. It’s full of clips from old monster movies, commercials, public access TV etc. It’s a kaleidoscopic insight into the downhill psyche of America at the turn of the fear of Y2K.

Oppenheimer goes back to short documentaries with Land of Enchantment, A Brief History of Paradise as Told by the Cockroaches and Market Update. The more effective of the two is Land of Enchantment which is about the despicable but common place act of having prisoners work for a private company for pennies, it’s basically slave labour. It’s packs a lot in its one minute running minute and it’s really direct.

A Brief History of Paradise as Told by the Cockroaches use the notion of cockroaches being the last when everyone is gone and it’s manic gibbering with footage of Cockroaches crawling over the magazine picture depicting the good life. Market Update takes a similar approach with footage of wall street with more manic gibbering make an obvious statement about the madness of wall street and the people who work there. Both films also touch on consumerism as well.

Muzak – a Tool of Management is near the end of the set and along with The Globalisation Tapes; which Oppenheimer produced but didn’t direct. These two films marked the moment Oppenheimer moved to Indonesia where he would discover the story of death squads who performed a genocide of over at least 1 million but the number is unknowable. It started a dictatorship which would complete destroy the communist opposition in the country. Muzak – a Tool of Management uses humour and surrealism like his later work to talk to one of the death squad leaders which is scored by comical muzak music, it’s not as effective as his later work but it’s important stepping stone in his work.

The final film is Postcard from Sun City, Arizona which harkens back to his early work and is a juxtaposition of commercials about retirement community and this crazed phone call from a woman rambling like a cult member about her time on a chain gang. Oppenheimer uses cuts up and audio and video distortion as he does on most of these films to make the retirement home to seemed creepy and the ravings of the woman seems more real. It’s the marks the end of Oppenheimer’s collage period and he would soon embark on The Acting of Killing and The Look of Silence which have taken up years of his life. The disc is complimented by an excellent interview with Oppenheimer which gives a lot of context for the films in the set.

★★★★

Ian Schultz

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