At one point in "The Act of Killing," a ringleader of the 1960s Indonesian pogrom that killed more than a million suspected Communists, intellectuals and ethnic Chinese brags that "history is written by the winners, and we won."
That sense of triumphalism partially explains why he and his partners in war crimes agreed to appear in Joshua Oppenheimer's bizarre, nightmare-inducing documentary. They believe that their slaughter was a heroic act, that their story should be told before they are gone. And Oppenheimer's pitch was novel. He would give the men the means to create their own movie about their exploits: cameras, costumes, stage blood, extras, dancing girls.
The deal appealed to their love of theatrics. The men were huge fans of American films: John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Elvis. Spry septuagenarian Anwars Congo recalls how watching movies put him in an upbeat mood for executions. Debonair in white pants and a lime-green floral shirt, he guides us to the rooftop where he murdered hundreds of people with what he calls his little invention, a wire tethered to a pole. Strangulation was faster and required less cleanup than beating them to death, he explains, demonstrating his technique. Then he breaks into a jaunty dance step.
In "The Act of Killing" we see Congo and his cohorts dressed as film-noir tough guys, singing cowboys, horror-film characters and even in hot pink Carmen Miranda drag as they reprise their paramilitary killings. They considered themselves "gangsters," which they insist is a synonym for "free men." They reminisce about raping "delicious" 14-year-olds, as their jovial comrades nod and smile.
Most of the old gangsters are as serene about their old acts as freshly fed alligators. Only Congo suffers bad dreams. Re-enacting the roles of assassin and victim has unlocked something, and he asks Oppenheimer, "Have I sinned?" The film ends with a return to the rooftop execution site (the space below is now a handbag emporium). Revisiting the scene, he experiences a visceral, physically painful catharsis that Oppenheimer records dispassionately.
The Indonesian atrocities, backed by the United States and its allies, are almost forgotten, and Oppenheimer does us a service by memorializing this Asian holocaust. His fly-on-the-wall scenes of contemporary politicians and fawning Indonesian talk-show hosts honoring the death-squad leaders would make a statue's flesh crawl.
But Oppenheimer's aim isn't to produce a history lesson. There's a lack of background that is (along with his 52-pickup approach to chronology) frustrating and damaging to the film's impact. Understanding how the Indonesian campaign played into the domino theory rationale behind the Vietnam War would provide important context. What Oppenheimer is after is a parallel story, a glimpse into the minds of men who can recount mass killings and think "Those were the days."