Genocide is difficult to capture on film. The people who commit it rarely invite an audience, and if you just show up with cameras, you could become one of the statistics. What's a filmmaker to do?
In The Act of Killing, documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer has the actual killers recreate what they did in 1965, when the Indonesian military overthrew the government and dubbed anyone who opposed them a communist who had to die. Now these killers — gangsters in their youth — are silver-haired old men with stories to tell.
The result is not one irony after another, but rather the same irony, over and over. For the killers, who speak with a disturbing nonchalance, it was less about ideology than commerce, a way to make money. But even today, communism could never take hold in Indonesia because the gangsters won't allow it (bad for business).
One killer, Anwar Congo, a respected figure in Indonesia, explains that the assassins at first beat their victims to death, which created a bloody mess, so they came up with a less exsanguinating "system" of garroting. He demonstrates, using a live subject, and says that to forget what he did, he would sing, dance and do drugs. Then he demonstrates once again with a little musical number. He later reviews the strangulation footage and critiques his performance.
More recollections follow, as do more recreations, with costumes and makeup, often in the mode of the Hollywood films that the killers say "influenced" them, and stylishly filmed by Oppenheimer. There are, of course, some who have regrets. "I know my bad dreams come from what I did," one says, putting it simply, "killing people who didn't want to die."
The Act of Killing becomes more introspective half way through, following a discussion about the consequences of setting the historical record straight. Still, one gets the overall impression that the tropical paradise of Indonesia is a pretty fucked-up place, and has been for a while. One assassin finally cries, and Congo retches when he visits a killing site, but it's hard to say whether a more straightforward film would have elicited the same response. What allows people to be so cavalier about killing in their youth, then to discuss it like Grandpa remembering a summer picnic (or worse: Grandpa acting in community theater)? Perhaps one death is a tragedy, and a million deaths is just a reminiscence.