Documentary Film Reviews – Vol 90, No 1

The Mosuo Sisters = Mosuo Zi Mei. A film by Marlo Poras. Reviewed by Stevan Harrell

The Look of Silence. A film directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. Reviewed by John Roosa


THE MOSUO SISTERS = MOSUO ZI MEI. A film by Marlo Poras; produced by Marlo Poras, Yu Ying Wu Chou; director, Marlo Poras; editor, Amy Foote; original music, Shawn James Seymour. New York: Women Make Movies, 2013. 1 DVD (80 min.) US$350.00, Universities, Colleges & Institutions; US$89.00, K-12, Public Libraries and Select Groups. In Mandarin, Mosuo, and Tibetan; subtitles in English.

The Na or Mosuo people, who live in the Sichuan-Yunnan border region of southwest China, have the dubious distinction of being one of the most ethnographed and documentarized peoples in the world. Most films deal primarily or exclusively with their system of sexual relations, called “walking marriage” in Chinese, in which everyone lives with her or his mother and partners visit each other at night. This one doesn’t, which is one of the many reasons we should praise, publicize, and above all, watch it.

Juma and Latso are two 20-something sisters from a Mosuo village near fabled Lugu Lake, but when we meet them they are working as singers in a Mosuo-owned ethnic theme bar in Beijing. Younger sister Latso has saved enough money to begin a correspondence course in accounting, while older sister Juma, who never finished middle school, works extra hard to support her mother and their matrilineal household back home. Juma does most of the voiceover narration in perfect standard Mandarin; Latso is quieter but equally articulate, describing herself as shy, suitable for a bookkeeping career. It is always night in Beijing; endless strings of taillights creep slowly along the highways and bar patrons proffer tips to the sisters around dimly lit, beer-bottle strewn tables. But when the world financial crisis comes in 2009, the owner closes the bar, and the sisters are on their own again.

They return to Lugu Lake, where the sunshine never fails to dazzle and the language shifts to Naru, the Mosuo vernacular. The sisters join their mother and brother in physical labour; Latso complains that she gets tired and sore. Juma receives a call on her smartphone from a Tibetan man she has been seeing in Beijing; he tells her that there is a job singing in a bar in Chengdu. Their mother decides that Juma should go to Chengdu and make money to send back to the family, but Latso must stay at home to help with the farm work.

Unlike Beijing, where it is always night, in Chengdu it is daytime, but overcast and smoggy. Juma moves in with her Tibetan boyfriend, and starts singing in a Tibetan bar where she earns commissions determined by the number of khata ceremonial scarves she receives from patrons. In a terrified, talking-head sequence she tells the story of how one patron, probably a gangster of some sort, keeps offering her money (she is not naïve about why), and when she puts him off, he hangs around with his buddies after closing time, perhaps attempting to kidnap her, so she has to hide in the bathroom for 40 minutes until they finally give up.

Meanwhile, back at the lake, Latso has been seeing a local guy, and begins to complain more about how tired and sore she is. Mother tells her not to worry, the first months of pregnancy are the hardest. When Juma comes home for a sumptuous New Year feast set out in the ever-brilliant sunshine, she chews her sister out: I have worked so hard so that you can get ahead, she says, and now this. Latso replies that it is her life and this is what she wants to do with it.

Juma comes home again, this time with her boyfriend, to celebrate the one-month anniversary of Latso’s daughter’s birth. In the next heart-to-heart between the sisters, the interaction is tender and gentle; Latso glows with motherhood; Juma likes to play with the baby, and admits she is a bit envious of her younger sister. But she still returns to work, and shortly thereafter she and her boyfriend pay a rather awkward visit to his well-off parents in a Tibetan region of Gansu, where they tell her they expect her to learn Tibetan and move there when they marry. It is not long before he leaves Chengdu to return to Gansu, but Juma doesn’t go with him. She keeps on earning money. The film closes with alternate shots of Latso, secure with her baby in the bosom of the household, and Juma, valiantly trying to keep up the family cash flow while rapidly approaching the age where she will be considered an old maid.

In the final titles on a black screen, we are informed that “It is likely that Juma and Latso’s children will be the last generation to speak Mosuo and practice walking marriage.” We wonder why it is Juma and Latso’s children, not the sisters themselves or their grandchildren, who will be the last generation.

I was impressed by the realism of the story. The Mosuo sisters, who do all the voiceover narration themselves, come across as real-life people, rather than objects of the sort of voyeurism that Tami Blumenfield describes in Scenes from Yongning, her dissertation on filming the Na or Mosuo. They are alternately confident and terrified, affectionate and angry, sentimental and calculating, ambitious and despairing. I wondered, though, just how spontaneous some of the voiceover was. Are we hearing Juma “in her own words” when she describes her experiences, or is she reading something? And how do the sisters just happen to have their two heart-to-hearts as there is a camerawoman in the room? How scripted can a documentary be and still be a documentary?

I also have a quibble about the subtitles. I’m told by Dr. Blumenfield that the Naru translations are not bad. But the translators took great liberty with the English subtitles for the Chinese narration and dialogue. For example, Juma, interestingly using state ethnological categories to describe her own people, says, “Women Mosuo ren shi muxi shizu” 我쳬摩梭人角母系氏族: “we Mosuo people are matrilineal clans.” Yet the subtitle comes out, “Mosuo culture is matriarchal.” Even given the mix-up between matrilineal and matriarchal (which is a big mistake that almost always happens), still there is nothing in the original about culture, and nothing in the translation about clans. Twice yuanwang 愿望 (wish or ambition) gets translated as “dream.” There are many more examples of this, and it’s completely baffling to me why viewers who know no Chinese, or even viewers like me who know no Naru, don’t get to find out what the sisters are actually saying.

But this is still an outstanding film. The sisters’ appealing personalities and articulate narration, the universality of the story, and the striking visuals all combine to hold a viewer’s interest and offer a variety of possible lessons about gender, ethnicity, labour, family, and ambition in today’s China.

Stevan Harrell, University of Washington, Seattle, USA                 


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THE LOOK OF SILENCE. A film directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, produced by Signe Byrge Sørensen; executive producers, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Andre Singer; editor, Niels Pagh Andersen. Copenhagen: Final Cut for Real; San Francisco, CA: Drafthouse Films [distributor], 2014. 1 online resource (102 mins.) In Indonesian and Javanese with subtitles. Url

If Oppenheimer’s earlier, world-famous documentary, The Act of Killing (2012), was a nightmarish passage into the fantasy world of génocidaires, this companion piece is more like a bracing awakening into the tragic world of the terrorized survivors who have been forbidden, like Antigone, to even mourn the dead. The first film in this diptych, judging by the commentaries on it, left most viewers stunned and overwhelmed, struggling in the subsequent days to process what they had just seen. (What was that big fish sculpture? Why was that guy dressing in drag? How could they be so brazen?…) The Look of Silence, by contrast, presents viewers with the somber, quiet dignity of the victims. Both films are set in the same region of Indonesia, North Sumatra, and address the same event, the political genocide of 1965–66, but they have completely different emotional landscapes.

It is to some extent inaccurate to call the two films “Oppenheimer’s films.” The complexities of authorship lie not just in the extensive involvement of Indonesian filmmakers and film crews who have wished to remain anonymous. Both films are the brainchildren of the protagonists who appear in them; each man uses Oppenheimer to help him make the film that he wants to make. In The Act of Killing, the film moves forward by Anwar Congo’s relentless and futile quest to land upon an adequate representation of his murders. In the Look of Silence, the film moves forward by Adi Rukun’s relentless and futile quest to find a perpetrator who can honestly tell him how and why his elder brother was killed, and perhaps even apologize for it. In his relationship with Anwar Congo and Adi Rukun, Oppenheimer has drastically altered the customary role of the documentary filmmaker.

Adi Rukun is no less haunted than Anwar Congo, but he is haunted in a different way. He was born after 1965 to parents who viewed him as a kind of replacement for his elder brother who was murdered in 1965. His parents, Javanese workers in the plantation belt around Medan, hold tightly to the memory of his brother Ramli and secretly visit his anonymous grave in the middle of an oil palm plantation two miles away. Having been yoked to the history of his absent brother, treated within his family almost as a reincarnation of Ramli, his quest to understand what happened in 1965 is a quest to understand himself. Anwar Congo was drunkenly running away from himself, unable to squarely face the horror of his deeds; Adi Rukun is running towards himself and is serious and driven.

It is excruciatingly uncomfortable to watch Adi Rukun’s confrontations with the perpetrators of the plantation belt, the counterparts of Anwar Congo, whose dirty deeds were in downtown Medan. This film may be the first documentary in which a victim is filmed conversing with perpetrators who were not part of an ousted regime. He was putting himself in great danger, talking to men who are still powerful figures in the area—men who have been remarkably successful in preventing public discussions of the killings. While they have boasted about their murders in certain contexts, such as when meeting Oppenheimer (a presumed fellow anti-communist from America), they have understood that a curtain of silence was supposed to separate the general Indonesian public from the mass killing, as it did at the time. They look at Adi Rukun asking them questions, demanding the curtain be torn down, as a threat to national security. They begin asking questions of him—“where do you live?”—to insinuate threats to his security.

The film begins with shots of jumping beans—moth larvae that move about inside hard casings. They are plentiful amid the foliage of tropical Sumatra. They form a metaphor, one can assume, for the political situation in Indonesia, where people of a younger generation like Adi, refusing to rest content with the silence and the lies, push against the iron cages of the military and its assorted para-militaries. What seems as static as a stone may suddenly jump.

This film has certainly helped jumpstart discussions in Indonesia about the political genocide, despite it being banned and many of its showings raided. Given the current attempts to enforce silence, one can hardly imagine anything more subversive than the image of Adi, staring intently, refusing to be deferential, eschewing phatic communication—the smiling, the joking, the small talk—and demanding honest answers. Like its predecessor, this film is profound and profoundly moving.

John Roosa, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada         


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