In a week in which I watched McCullin and The Spirit of ’45, it would take something remarkable to steal my attention for the rest of the week, but Joshua Oppenheimer’s bizarre and wholly unique documentary is factual filmmaking at its finest.Investigating the systematic and brutal mass killings of communists, left-leaning political figures and the ethnic Chinese that followed a 1965 coup in Indonesia, Oppenheimer goes in search of now ageing local death squad leaders. In a country where these atrocities are considered a matter of national pride, these men are vehemently proud of their actions and hold positions of power and influence in their communities. Through the course of the documentary, three friends and gangsters are invited to recreate their massacres on camera in a feature film of any genre they choose, often diabolically performed pastiches of Hollywood classics. The suggestion is that through re-enactment and role play, a certain amount of realisation or finding of conscience might occur, though really this short blurb does not do justice to the nuanced complexity of what we see on screen.
Focussing on three friends, boasting of crimes equal only in their horror, the starting point for our characters is completely fascinating before we even set out on this peculiar journey. Anwar, the focal point, is entirely unapologetic, finding solace and justification in worn-out tapes of dated propaganda films, yet he is inwardly haunted, suffering debilitating nightmares. Friend and colleague Adi is disarmingly honest and knowing. Fully aware of their barbarism and the nonsense of the misinformation, Adi calls for a governmental apology to victims’ families. He knows that he has done wrong, yet sleeps soundly in his bed at night in the belief that these were acts undertaken in a war sanctioned, financially endorsed and therefore justified by state and army. Though he believes there to be no higher sin than killing, he speaks coldly of having to make oneself believe these excuses in order to live with one’s actions.Shockingly, this film is not entirely without laughs. Sidekick gangster Herman provides some inadvertent comic relief as an overweight, overacting middle-aged man in full drag, smoking a fag between shoots, a sight which is utterly incongruous with his sickeningly malignant front used for extortion and blackmail.
It is an incredibly strange and difficult watch, and yet every second the director's cut (at 2 hours 40 minutes) feels crucial to the story. Moving, horrifying and insightful, this is a lesson in history, conscience, war and humanity, and probably one of the most important films of the year.