In September 1965, members of the Indonesian military attempted to take power in a failed coup. The coup was blamed on PKI, the Indonesian Communist Party, and over the next year, anyone thought to be a communist was sentenced to death. These killings were carried out primarily by gangsters, eager to protect their capitalist criminal ventures. Over a million suspected "communists", and their families, were massacred. The country's ethnic Chinese minority were also targeted as part of the nationwide purge.
Anwar Congo was a low-level gangster who operated as a ticket-scalp for cinemas in the country's capital, Jakarta. When the communists campaigned for a ban on American films, he willingly took up the anti-communist cause, killing over a thousand people, mostly by strangling them with a wire. "It was wrong, but we had to do it" he tells us, expressing no remorse for his actions. Today, with the country essentially run by paramilitary groups, Anwar is considered a hero to many in Indonesia.
To delve into the nature of Anwar and his fellow killers, film-maker Oppenheimer tasked them with re-enacting their atrocities for a low-budget film. Obsessed with American films, Anwar and company take to the task with relish, reworking their unpunished crimes as homages to classic Hollywood musicals, gangster films and westerns.
"You've never seen a film like this" is an overused piece of hyperbole but in the case of 'The Act of Killing' it holds up. There isn't a moment of this film where your mouth won't be left agape. Watching Anwar and friends hang out and relate their stories is a surreal experience. The tales we hear are as horrific as they come. One elderly man tells us how he walked the length of a street, slaughtering every ethnic Chinese person he encountered with a machete, be they man, woman or child. At the end of the street he encountered his Chinese girlfriend's father and beat him to death with a brick. The brutality of the anecdote is offset by the car its narrator is driving, a banana yellow vehicle you might expect to see in 'The Wacky Races'. The film is full of such contradictions. One gangster, the jovial Herman, is seen joking around in a drag costume in some scenes, intimidating terrified shopkeepers in others.
If you ever needed proof that evil doesn't exist, Oppenheimer's film provides plenty. These mass-murderers are wholly charismatic and at times you find yourself cracking up with laughter at their antics. We see Congo's relationship with his grandsons and he comes across nothing more than a kindly old man, showing affection in one tender moment for an injured duck. Every time you grow to like these guys, however, they bring you back to your senses with another twisted anecdote of rape and torture.
How could seemingly normal family men like this slaughter thousands with their own hands? The impression given is that a lack of education is mainly responsible; their lack of empathy seems to come from pure ignorance. These men simply don't understand the immorality of their actions. The movie's most shocking moment comes as Anwar expresses discomfort in watching a fake torture scene he filmed earlier. "Did the people I really did this to feel as bad as I do now?" he asks without irony. "Ignorance is bliss", they say. It can also be barbaric.