Never held accountable, and brazenly unrepentant, former Indonesian death-squad leaders re-enact their crimes, Hollywood-style, in "The Act of Killing."
With this risky, potentially crazy approach, director Joshua Oppenheimer has made an astounding documentary — a substantial acknowledgment of a genocide, a fascinating probe of the mass-killer brain and a chilling reminder of the horror humans can wreak.
In 1965 and 1966, for those needing a brush-up on this often-neglected stripe of genocide history, Indonesia's military regime killed an estimated 1 million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals. No truth-and-reconciliation hearings or trials have occurred. The killers enjoy hero status.
After pressure from authorities nixed his original plan, Oppenheimer ("The Globalization Tapes") decided to present the genocide through, foremost, the accounts of its gangster perpetrators.
These include Anwar Congo, a dapper, deceptively grandfatherly Sumatran who, in his executioner days, killed hundreds. Herman Koto, a corpulent cohort who sometimes appears in drag, is his colorful second banana.
These and other men gleefully recall gruesome details. Congo cites a wire around the neck as the cleanest way to kill. On the terrace he once soaked with blood, he does a cha-cha.
Because the killers credit American movies with shaping their style, the filmmakers invite them to make movies of their own and to dramatize their crimes therein.
A bizarre cocktail of confession, delusion and revelation results.
A gangster-style scene features a brutal interrogation. The killers mock-destroy a village. Child extras instructed to act scared can't stop crying for real.
We meet newspaper publisher Ibrahim Sinik, who ordered executions by winking his eye. Old cronies reminisce about the killings good-old-days style.
Were this fictional, it would be the world's darkest comedy.
Oppenheimer also reveals jots of conscience, exhibited largely by Congo. The boastful man has nightmares. A head he severed (he didn't close the eyes) haunts him.
Slowly, Congo begins realizing the suffering he caused. He retches, as if desperate to purge himself of his past. Nothing comes up.
There's more, and initially you may wonder what Oppenheimer hopes to accomplish by giving murderers with movie-star complexes a camera and letting them roll with it.
Fortunately, however, Oppenheimer retains the reins, and, in the vein of documentarians Werner Herzog and Errol Morris (both are executive producers), he explores extreme and terrible human behavior keenly and insightfully.
A scene in which the country's vice president lauds the still-thriving paramilitary group that assisted with the executions underscores Indonesia's immense need to address the past.
REVIEWThe Act of Killing
With Anwar Congo, Herman Koto
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
Rating Not rated
Running time 1 hour, 55 minutes