Joshua Oppenheimer's film is nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. It's a movie about the making of a movie. That movie is about the near-genocide, in fact the mass murder of one million people in Indonesia during the 1960s. The stunning thing is that the men making the movie are the men who committed the murders themselves. How they make the movie is by chilling re-creations of the murders, how they performed each, how they beat, shot, stabbed or strangled the life out of person after person.
While they re-create torture sessions to weed out "communists" or so-called communists, as opponents to Indonesia's dictatorship, the murderers want to imitate the tropes and genres of American films. This includes gangster films and musicals. The murderers who do call themselves gangsters operate under the delusion that they're putting out their version of the truth, which is really just propaganda. The difference is the propaganda doesn't come with spin. They're proud of their brutal murders. They flaunt them because they believe they were right, so there is no shame, no guilt and no pretense on the murderers' part.
The reason they don't have any shame or guilt is because these murderers were never punished. They were on the side of the dictatorship, so all of their kills were basically state-sanctioned. Now, all the murderers are old men looking back on what they did.
What Oppenheimer hopes is that by making a movie about what they did and then watching said movie will have an effect on the murderers. He hopes that the power of cinema will do for them what up until now has never happened. He perhaps hopes it will get them to take a step back or a step outside themselves and consider what they did from different angles or other points-of-view, as any filmmaker often has to do.
Of the various murderers, Oppenheimer focuses on two main ones. The first is Anwar Congo, a skinny, gray-haired grandfather now, but a man who shows no remorse at the beginning and even does a happy dance at the site where he killed tons of people. The second is Herman Kato, a fat, slobbish, aspiring politician who loves the idea of making this movie and becomes such a diva, such a ham about the whole thing.
The film becomes an endurance test of crazy re-enactment after crazy re-enactment with wild and over-the-top musicals numbers thrown in for good measure. Seeing their status within the town and within the community is jaw-dropping in itself, and then seeing the effect that the re-enactments has on the murderers, particularly Anwar, is at times narcissistic and at times haunting.
Oppenheimer's premise and his approach here are brilliant. It could be seen as a kind of funhouse mirror for these wannabe gangsters, or rather a funhouse movie camera whose distorted images of its subjects is not a distortion as much as it's a truth that needed to be bended in order to really be seen for what it is.
Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but recommended for mature audiences.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 2 mins.