It's still possible to make a film that is unlike any before it in any meaningful way. The reminders of that fact are rare, but when they do come along, they are staggering.
Enter director Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary The Act of Killing, which, combining unprecedented and open access to subjects who are happy to discuss the many murders they have committed and encouragement to those subjects to confront their crimes in innovative fashion, is a gripping package.
Oppenheimer's film takes us to Indonesia, a place I, like many other Westerners, know little about. It's the home of coffee -- Java and Sumatra -- and of a hip, exotic vacation spot -- Bali -- and the answer to a stereotype-shattering trivia question -- it is the country with the largest Muslim population on the face of the planet. But it is also home to an impossibly corrupt government and one of the littlest known massacres in recent human history (at least here in the West).
It trains its focus on Anwar Congo and a few of his friends, small-time gangsters, who, in the mid-1960s, were enlisted by government officials to carry out the wholesale slaughter of "communists" -- which in the Indonesia of this era apparently meant pretty much anyone who was a political dissident or ethnic Chinese.
Amazingly, Anwar and the many like him who helped carry out the murder of an estimated 500,000 people from 1965-66 have escaped punishment completely for their horrific acts. Even more amazingly, they are celebrated as heroes by many Indonesians, including a paramilitary group called the Pancasila Youth, which, to this day, has connections to seemingly every level of the Indonesian government.
But most amazing of all is how open Anwar is willing to be with Oppenheimer about his past. Just a few minutes in to the film, he unflinchingly re-enacts his favored method of slaughter, a wire wrapped around the neck, which, when tugged just so, decapitated a victim without leaving him splattered in blood. It's a jaw-dropping scene that sets the stage for a film that ups the ante exponentially from there.
Oppenheimer, mostly it seems by pointing a camera at Anwar and friends and letting them fill up uncomfortable silences however they please, encourages them to re-enact more of the atrocities he was a part of in detail, and, motivated by vanity or the opportunity to clear their collective conscience or both, they oblige. Interrogations, torture, murders and a telling scene where Anwar is haunted by the ghost of one of his victims -- all acted out by he and his fellow small-time thugs -- follow.
The lesson here is that evil -- even when we're not framing it with someone like Darth Vader or Hannibal Lecter -- is infinitely more banal than we usually imagine. Anwar is not a mastermind. Neither are any of his friends. They are really just dimwitted and shallow thugs who, apparently inspired by the violent cinema of the time, were given license to behave in any manner they wanted by a shattered and terrified bureaucracy.
Beyond that, the lesson is that evil is not an either-or proposition. No one is good OR evil. We're all a little bit of both, our brain chemistry and circumstances filling in the rest. How else to explain the average-seeming families these men have surrounded themselves with in the years since the massacres? Or what about Anwar's tears and dry-heaving as he watches footage of the reenactments? He's not simply a monster because he has committed unspeakably monstrous acts.
Deep down, we know this big swath of gray is the space that everyone we have ever met occupies. But we often willfully forget that fact because we crave ordered simplicity. It's why we tend to think of evil in Darth Vader-ian terms. And it's why Anwar and many others parrot the mantra that the word gangster finds its roots in the term free man.
Oppenheimer doesn't convey all of this perfectly. Truth be told, I found the structure of The Act of Killing a bit awkward, and it probably could have lost a few minutes along the way. I'm not sure any of that really matters when you have such a unique subject, though. It seems silly to complain about run time or structure when you're getting in Anwar Congo's head space in such a manner.