He sobs with remorse, having just watched a reenactment of his own murders — with himself as the victim.

Anwar Congo is a mass murderer, who by own admission strangled thousands of people to death after a bloody coup in Indonesia in 1965. Congo became a professional in the killing business, having perfected new methods for garroting enemies of the state.

This might sound like a feverish nightmare, but it’s a real scene from the 2012 documentary The Act of Killing, which observes the lives of an Indonesian death squad decades after one of the worst extermination campaigns of the 20th century — and watches their re-enactments. The documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer is now seeing a limited release by Drafthouse Films.

Oppenheimer’s docu features cross-dressing killers, frightening musical numbers and surreal dream imagery. This is the bizarre face of untried, unrepentant executioners.

Talking about murder

In 1965, Indonesia suffered a violent coup. The perpetrators under the dictator Sukarno went on to destroy the Communist Party of Indonesia — a large and powerful faction in the country — in one of the bloodiest attempted genocides of the 20th century. Depending on who you ask, the new government slaughtered between 500,000 and one million communists, labor organizers and ethnic Chinese.

The people responsible are still in power. America didn’t step in. The U.S. believed it had bigger problems to deal with in the region — and saw the purging of communists as good for its then-policy of “containment.” Indonesia’s rulers, unpunished, would go on to commit atrocities in East Timor in the 1990s and 2000s.

Filmmaker Oppenheimer went to Indonesia with the intent of documenting the aftermath of the genocide. He wanted the survivors’ stories. He wanted the children of those who were murdered to talk. They wouldn’t. The legacy, to them, is still fresh. They pointed at the perpetrators and told Oppenheimer to talk to them.

So the filmmaker did, and found them more than willing to talk about murder.

It might seem surprising that mass murderers would admit to their crimes on camera, but they did. The executioners are proud of their actions. Then someone got the idea — the film never makes it clear who — to film re-enactments of the war crimes. A movie within a movie. Or, as the director calls it, “a documentary of the imagination.”

You have never seen a documentary like this before.

Murder at the mall. Drafthouse Films Capture

The banality of evil

The film focuses on four gangsters. In Indonesia, the word gangster is not a pejorative. It’s the most recent label for a group of people who live on the fringes of society and do the dirty business of its rulers. They have existed since the beginning of Indonesia’s recorded history.

At first they were the jago, a word meaning “fighting cock.” When the Dutch colonized the region, the jago became vrijman, Dutch for “free man.” This changed, over time, to preman. When American movies became popular in the region, and the preman saw America toughs in pinstripe suits, the preman became gangsters.

But throughout time, they have been violent and romantic figures.

The reality, however, is quite dull. In The Act of Killing, four gangsters are brought together to relive their glory days. They smoke, put on costumes, drink, sing songs and reminisce. The whole show has the vibe of a Hellish high school reunion as these fat and venal “free men” relive their glory days and try to recapture something of their past with a camera and stage makeup.

Herman Koto is obese. He fits into his costumes only just. He runs a corrupt and inept campaign for local government, a task he takes on so he can extort a wider range of people. He fails. Afterwards, the camera lingers on him lying on his bed in his underwear while he chews gum. He blows a bubble and it pops in his face. He attempts to remove it through facial contortions, too lazy to use his hands.

Safit Pardede moves through the markets sweating and huffing while he explains to shaking Chinese shopkeepers that he requires more money than normal this week. He’s planning a big event, you see. Later, lounging with one shoe hanging off his foot, he rubs his belly and recalls the good old days, when he could pluck a 14-year-old “communist” girl off the street and do what he liked with her.

Aldi Zulkadry descends from an airplane wearing a t-shirt explaining the definition of the word “apathy.” He dares The Hague to try him in international court. He seems to know the magnitude of what he’s done, but he does not care. Footage of him in a mall with his wife and daughter are proof that evil can be boring.

These killers are just men. They marry and have children. They get up in the morning and eat breakfast. They fish with their friends. There’s no grand secret lurking below the surface of them. No special darkness brewing in their soul that sets them apart. If I passed them in the street I wouldn’t know. The day to day of their lives is uninteresting.

But grinning next to all of them is Anwar Congo.

Anwar Congo, right, happy killer. Drafthouse Films Capture

The murderous mountebank

The camera loves him and he loves the camera. His dress is immaculate, his smile seems genuine and his energy is astounding. He is the undisputed star of this strange little carnival of pain and suffering.

Appearances and control of the narrative are important to Anwar. This is his narrative arc. And though Joshua Oppenheimer is editing the footage together, it is Anwar who tells the bulk of the story. I felt Anwar wished me to see the world through his camera lens, bloodily.

Anwar Congo started his life as a street thug before becoming the demigod of gangsters. He scalped tickets to American movies the communists tried to suppress. The point is made, over and over again in the film, that to be a gangster is to be free. Anwar is the embodiment of this ideal.

Anwar understands what Joshua is doing. He understands film and its power. He’s been immersed in it his entire life. He speaks of watching an Elvis movie and being happy and filled with joy. He danced across the street and went to his office where he continued his work of killing communists. Elvis’ antics elated him so that he carried that feeling with him to the killing floor.

His affectation is matinee movie thug. He is a villain so two-dimensional that he seems ripped from a James Bond movie.

But in the movies, the killer is always brought to justice. The villains die, fall from grace or go to jail. Anwar seems to realize this. His whole life has mirrored films. He’s lived them. He wants reality to mirror what he sees on the screen, and this is his big chance.

Some stories are about redemption. Sometimes the villain repents, pays for his crimes and is relieved of the burden of his guilt. During this film I felt, over and over again, that this was the narrative arc Anwar wanted to replicate. He sought redemption. It’s how he sees the movie of his life coming to a close.

But Anwar is a gangster, not a storyteller. He’s charismatic, yes, but discerning viewers won’t be fooled. I recognized the disparate pieces of film he’s trying to pull together to create the image of himself that he wants his audience to remember.

I watched Anwar sit in a field in the dark and recall a beheading he’d seen in a film and comparing it to a beheading he’d performed himself. He speaks of being haunted by the eyes that remained open. He speaks of wishing that he’d closed them. How many times has the killer in a movie spoken of the eyes of the dead man staring, haunting him after his crime? Move through a catalog of westerns to see a parade of similar tales told by campfire light.

At the end of the film the camera is alone with Anwar on top of a building that now houses a store filled with purses, but was once the place where he strangled thousands. Anwar walks around the evening in a golden suit, recalling with overwrought emotion all the lives he’s taken.

His body convulses and a horrid noise fills the air. He is trying to vomit. To wretch at his own horrible deeds. But nothing comes out. Anwar is empty. He gives the audience what he thinks it needs to experience catharsis in the face of his deeds. But he can’t give it to us. No vomit comes. No catharsis. It’s all farce from a cruel murderous mountebank.

The film surrounding Anwar discredits him. It is filled with scenes of true misery. It’s on the faces of children roped into participating in the re-enactments, unable to tell the difference between fantasy and reality when the cameramen yell “cut.” I saw it in the faces of the Chinese shop owners, bullied and berated into giving over money to men they know would kill them.

But the true horror comes in the middle, while one of Anwar’s neighbors is helping the merry band of thugs with the re-enactments. He’s playing a victim during one of the route strangling scenes, and before they begin, he tells a very personal story. The killers sit stone-faced. He babbles and apologizes and laughs. His pain was naked in front of me. It pierced. He sits in a chair. The faux strangling comes.

But it’s real for him.

Anwar’s neighbor sobs, his face filled with the memories of everything that’s happened to his family. Here, for one moment, is the survivor’s story the filmmakers set out to capture.

At the end of the movie, Anwar participates in a final re-enactment. One in which he plays the victim. His reaction is similar to his neighbors. He claims he understands, finally, what he’s done to his victims.

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