The Look of Shalom: Learning Empathy Through Foreign Documentary
With Jared Klopfenstein on August 11, 2016

We are excited to present the sixth in our 2016 series considering how our watching, writing, and talking about cinema might contribute to God's unfolding shalom in our communities and world. If you are considering responding to our call for submissions for this series, we encourage you to do so. We still have three open spots in our series, so there is still room for your contribution. - Editor


Technology is creating a community in which we come into contact with men and women from other cultures, perhaps more so than ever before. Yet, in some ways we feel more isolated from other people than ever we ever have. How can film aid us in our interactions with cultures “other” than the culture we know? I propose that one way film contributes to an increase of intercultural shalom is through documentation of the “other.” Documentary helps us with what Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird calls a “simple trick” that helps us “get along with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”[1] Documentaries such as Tie Xi Qu (West of the Tracks) and recently Oscar nominated The Look of Silence and Winter on Fire make us feel as if we are walking around in the skin of others. We feel the drudgery of Chinese factory work, the haunting memories of past evil, and the upheaval of violent revolution in these works. These documentaries, through different methods, styles, and situations, put us in the shoes of people who live in a different country, speak a different language, and live under different circumstances.

Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks

Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks is infamous for a few reasons, one being that it is one of the few films from this century to make the prestigious Sight and Sound Top 250 Film list.[2] For those who know about the film, the infamy comes from its nine-hour run time and the difficulty involved in actually getting your hands on a copy (try the interlibrary loan system at your local library). The words “nine hour Chinese documentary about factory workers” may not immediately spark interest, but there is a reason why the film is considered by many to be one of the greatest documentaries ever produced.

Tie Xi Qu provides one of the finest examples of a philosophy of documentary known as “Direct Cinema.” Direct Cinema, much like the similar Cinema Vérité, seeks to film in such a way that real life is unfolding on the screen. This is often achieved through handheld camerawork and lengthy takes, so as to make the viewer feel as if he is watching the events play out in real time. Unlike Cinema Vérité, Direct Cinema does nothing to provoke a reaction from the camera’s subjects. Instead it is merely an observer. This unobtrusive, observational philosophy is fully on display in Wang Bing’s documentation of Chinese factory workers and their families from 1999 to 2001. It is this technique that justifies the nine-hour length. As more time is spent observing these people, their working conditions, and their daily lives, the viewer begins to see more clearly the hardship these families go through. As we trudge through the film with them, their exhaustion becomes real - it is transferred to us.

The characters in the film become more than plot points or a means to discover something. They become actual people. We get a glimpse of the intense heat factory workers experience every day after we watch them in it for more than 90 minutes. When they check into the hospital and have lead poisoning removed from their blood, which they must do for a couple of months every year to stay alive, we cannot help but feel empathy for them. The Tie Xi industrial district used to be a vibrant community. Now, the socialist economic promise of wealth and glory has resulted in lengthy hospital stays for men who know that their jobs will soon be lost, their residencies will be demolished, and their families will be displaced. When suicides happen on the hospital grounds, the lack of surprise is both startling and heartbreaking. The above description represents only the first of the three parts of Tie Xi Qu, which becomes increasingly more intimate as the focus turns to teenagers in part two, and a particular family in part three. Hardship abounds, their realities felt as time is spent observing them. Where is shalom for them? Where is shalom for the viewer?

The Look of Silence  

Next on the list, The Look of Silence, is worthy of note for different reasons than Tie Xi Qu. It was released last year to critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination. Uniquely for a documentary, it acts as a companion piece to an earlier film (also nominated for an Oscar) by the same director, Joshua Oppenheimer, entitled The Act of Killing. Both films take on the subject matter of a genocide of which most viewers are likely unaware, the Indonesia killings of 1965-1966. What started as an anti-communist purge resulted in the deaths of not only communists, but also those who were ethnically Chinese or on the political left. Estimates range from 500,000 to over a million deaths in span of less than a year. While The Act of Killing focuses on those who carried out these killings in horrific detail, The Look of Silence provides a look into the life of a specific individual, Adi Rukun.

Though there are other scenes and interviews with community members, the majority of the film follows Adi as he confronts the men who killed his older brother in 1965. As the killings have still not been acknowledged by the government, and the community seems to have collective memory loss, an extreme measure of boldness must fill this man to ask the questions he asks of his brother’s murderers. Adi - who refuses to give the killers his name; many of the crew members remain anonymous for their own safety as well - gives free eye exams to gain entrance into the warlords’ homes. Slowly he works his way to questions about the killing of his brother, directly confronting the men who murdered his brother.

The conversations themselves are chilling. This owes much to two factors, the filmmakers and their subject. Though interspersed with other elements, the conversations which are the center of the documentary are filmed with no interference. The filmmakers understand the power of the conversations and are content to show merely the intense gaze of the interrogator and the uncomfortable answers of the interrogated. The Look of Silence may refer not only to a country unable to recognize its own genocide, but also to our anonymous protagonist. The camera often rests on his silent face for half a minute at a time, and in it we see more than the average close-up. Staring down his brother’s killers, we see his pain at the loss of his kin, his desire to hear a confession, and his confrontation of the darkness of human sin. We feel he is staring at us as well, convicting us as viewers of our ignorance to the genocide.

As we stare at the criminals, we understand why he feels the need to confront them. Empathy arises as we are put in the shoes of both sides. As we understand a man’s gaze, a silent look at evil, the power of film as a means for shalom becomes evident. This immersion is a clear goal of director Joshua Oppenheimer, who in an interview stated, “I hope that I am creating a world that embodies and that condenses the mystery, pain and the wonder that I’ve encountered during shooting into a visceral experience for the viewer that immerses his whole being, just as it did with mine and learn to look into the mirror, to see something we already know and hear the truth from afar.”[3] We are distant in both space and time to these conversations, but still hear the truth. Wikipedia articles may chronicle the horrific numbers and events, but only film can let us experience the face of a man who still feels their ripples. Where is shalom for him? Where is it for the viewer?

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, was also nominated for Best Documentary at the 2016 Academy Awards. The film chronicles the Euromaidan protests against the government in Ukraine which led to the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution. Though the film glosses over some key facts of the uprising and may not present a full picture,[4] the plight of those involved is represented well. Protestors are subject to harrowing police brutality. The violence of the Berkut, a special unit of Ukraine’s police force, led to the deaths of over a hundred of their fellow countrymen.

Whatever the viewer believes politically concerning the incident, the documentary is still worth viewing for its revolutionary filmmaking. Much like the 2013 film The Square, which chronicled the recent Egyptian Crisis, a political revolution is captured from the frontlines. Utilizing handheld cameras and even footage take from phones, we see firsthand the bitter cold and brutal violence endured by protestors. As gunfire resounds, the point-of-view is not from a distance, but rather first person. Shaky cameras run away from the danger or, in one case, move closer to the gunfire only to see a comrade shot dead. This visceral style does more than chronicle the events of the revolution. It puts us in the place of the protestors. Many movies concerning cultural upheavals recreate similar scenes or narrate events with pictures and interviews. But it feels different when we know what we are seeing actually happened as we are seeing it.

The whole film is not presented in this way, but the parts that are make it worth watching. Yes, the president is overthrown, democracy is supposed to be put in place, and the protests appear to have been successful. Despite the presented storyline, the current state of Ukraine’s government has a lower approval rating than when the former president was in power.[5] Yet, the plight of those protestors is still real. Those moments of footage on the ground and in the middle of protests puts us in the shoes of many in Ukraine who remain oppressed and angry. Where is shalom for them? Where is it for the viewer?


In an age when movies are used primarily as an escape from reality, film is often ignored by many as a means to love other people. Movies and documentaries that encourage Christian shalom are out there if we look for them - but only if we look for them. They are not being sold to us. Avril Speaks sums up this dilemma perfectly in the conclusion to her article, “Screening to the Choir - Insiders and Outsiders:”

If film or any art form is going to continue to be a catalyst for civil dialogue and social change, we have to be willing to not just step outside of our comfort zone and watch, but we also have to give up our privilege and put ourselves in a place of gratitude, both as insider and as outsider, because sharing those cultural experiences are what help bring about change and allow us to have community and to connect as humans.[6] 

Though the films themselves may not offer shalom for their respective situations or a definitive solution to them, their directors most certainly hope it awakens shalom in us. We come into contact often with those whom we would not immediately identify as like ourselves. As the world continues to advance, cultures, races, and people from different walks of life will be more likely to mingle. Immigrants, refugees, foreign-exchange students - these people often feel isolated and lonely, and our lack of understanding contributes to their problems. We forget to look to Jesus. Jesus became man in part to sympathize with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15), which gives us confidence in his mercy and grace (4:16). Should we not sympathize with others so that we can spread mercy and grace to others, to offer shalom in their time of need? We are more likely to offer shalom when we take on the experiences of others, when we taste what others have fully known.

Most of us cannot fly to another country to aid in its problems, come up with answers to its chaos, or donate a million dollars to an aide agency. Most of us cannot meet a new employee from Lebanon, hope to reach him, and then spend a week in his hometown in order to understand him better. Many of us do however have two hours free on a Friday evening. And, rather than always watching another big budget, mainstream production, I propose that you watch something that documents a culture or people who is “other.” Try one of the documentaries which I have discussed here. The latter two are, as of this writing, on Netflix Instant. Or consdier the soon-to-be-released Fire at Sea, which portrays an Italian island on which North Africa refugees often land in their search for freedom. There are countless films you could watch to enlarge your perspective on the world.

We are so caught up in our own problems that we often forget the struggles of others. We forget that their sufferings, though we may not know or understand them, are so often much worse than ours. The example set by Jesus rebukes our lack of empathy and sympathy, our lack of mercy and grace toward others. Our offering of shalom could be so much greater. Watching the right films with the right mindset can help.      

Jared Klopfenstein currently lives in Colorado Springs, CO, where he is finishing his Masters in Theology from London School of Theology. He also has a B.A. in Biblical Languages from Moody Bible Institute. When not spending time with family and friends, he can be found reading, enjoying nature, and editing videos for T-Net International. 


[1] Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1960, Chapter 3.
[4] See for some startling omissions, as well as some well presented thoughts about the effects of the revolution.

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