Most documentaries about genocide are told from the perspective of the victims, rather than that of the perpetrators. You might see a former Nazi Party member or concentration camp guard being interviewed in a documentary about the Holocaust, but you're unlikely to see a credible, non-racist documentary made at this point in history which takes the side of the Nazis. There are certainly exceptions to the rule; due to the rule of numbers, films about the slaughter of Native Americans tend to be by descendants of the victorious side in that conflict, but even those will display some sympathy towards the people being slaughtered.
Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing certainly sympathises with those whose lives were lost or destroyed in the anti-Communist purges that took place between 1965 and 1966 in Indonesia, but his sympathies are implied rather than explicitly voiced. The reason for this is that the subjects of the film are not those who survived the purges, but those who carried them out and thrived as a result; self-styled gangsters who helped in the wholesale slaughter of at least 500,000 people, and possibly as many as one million. These are the men he interviews, and so it is their perspective that shapes the film itself, though in doing so they wind up indicting themselves more fully their those they hurt ever could.
Since the Indonesian government lionises the killers, depicting their actions as heroic deeds that helped create the state, it was not easy for Oppenheimer to get victims to come forward and tell their stories. Especially if they contradicted the official story that the Communists were vicious monsters who did unspeakable things and deserved to be slaughtered. It's a narrative which is still rigorously defended through state propaganda, the education system and heinous violence meted out by hugely powerful paramilitary organisations. Instead of getting stories from the victims, Oppenheimer went to the killers and offered them a unique opportunity: they would be able to tell their story in their own words, using any cinematic style or genre they pleased.
In doing so, Oppenheimer and his co-directors Christine Cynn and Anonymous (such is the culture of fear and violence that most of the local crew go uncredited to protect their lives) created something which is incredibly uncomfortable and compelling. It offers a genuine, harrowing insight into the minds of men capable of carrying out violence on a mind-boggling scale and who are able to justify it to themselves. It is also, thanks to the ludicrousness of some of the film ideas that the gangsters come up with, often very funny, which only serves to make the whole experience more queasy and unsettling.
Although the state and most the perpetrators view themselves as grand, noble warriors, an idea which is reinforced by the way they depict themselves as suave 1930s gangsters, not all of them are entirely comfortable with their past. Some of them genuinely believe that they were doing what was right, that they had to defeat the scourge of Communism by any means necessary, while others accept that what they did was evil but can live with it because they amassed huge wealth, influence and power. Both of these viewpoints are chilling in their own way; the former because it suggests that the propaganda is so pervasive that even the people at the heart of it have started to believe their own legend, the latter because it displays an attitude that breezes past pragmatism and lands in sociopathy. Most of the subjects seen in the film falls into one extreme or the other.
But the most fascinating figure in the documentary is Anwar Congo, a man who can't reconcile the official story with how he feels about his actions. He has trouble sleeping and is troubled by bizarre dreams in which he is haunted by the ghosts of those he killed, dreams which he then re-stages for the camera in a style that is so Gothic it quickly becomes camp. It seems like his conscience is eating him from the inside out. At the beginning of the film, he re-enacts his preferred method of murder - strangling people with wire - with a kind of giddy excitement, mugging for the camera and displaying a huge amiable smile. By the end, having relived his actions as part of the production, he seems to be physically repulsed by them.
Oppenheimer and co. do a great job of showing Anwar's gradual realisation of just how terrible he is in a way which feels very natural, yet is stark enough to have a tremendous impact. Thanks to the mixture of 'behind-the-scenes' footage of the production and the gangsters' lives with the re-enactments, there is a surreal, dreamlike quality to The Act of Killing that both distances the audience from the men involved whilst heightening the horror of their crimes. Even though the film is clearly a document of reality, there's always a layer of artifice that bleeds in and out of the scenes, creating a disconnect between the subjects and their actions that should hurt the film, but actually makes it more powerful.
The concepts that the gangsters bring to the film are often so strange and vivid, and sometimes so funny (such as the way in which one of them almost solely appears in drag) that it pushes you away from the reality of who these people are because it seems so ridiculous. Then they'll talk candidly about how they burned down villages - something they recreate by burning down another village and enlisting real people to act traumatised - and it suddenly hits you with the fact that, yes, these men have committed truly mind-boggling crimes.
The brilliance of The Act of Killing is that it never lets you fall into the trap of believing that these men are monsters who you can dismiss as anomalies who were able to kill people indiscriminately because of the time and place. By showing Anwar's conflict, but also by showing the gangsters joking around and spending time with their families, it reveals the mundane nature of evil, and reminds us that anyone could be an Anwar Congo given the right circumstances. It's a chilling film that blurs the line between reality and fantasy to disquieting effect, and it is simply unlike any documentary I have ever seen.