How can one even begin to understand the reality of mass murder? Documentary maker Joshua Oppenheimer has attempted to address this question in The Act of Killing, an unmissable documentary about the 1965 Indonesian massacre of political opponents (referred to as “communists” but in fact ranging from the ethnic-Chinese to left wing intellectuals), in which an estimated half to 1.5 million people were slaughtered by paramilitary groups orchestrated by the Indonesian army.

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Oppenheimer wanted to make a film about the 1965 survivors but found that they were mostly too afraid to speak on camera. Many still live alongside the perpetrators: usually local gangsters who remain powerful today. However, during his research he found that most of the perpetrators – perfect strangers to him – would readily and proudly describe their past murderous deeds, and with no fear of reprisal. Oppenheimer realised that showing the world this story, as told by the perpetrators, would give him greater access those involved and would remove any doubt as to the reality of the massacre. But how do you work with mass murderers?

Oppenheimer asked the perpetrators to show him what they did, in whatever way they chose, in order for him to understand what had happened. They decided to re-enact their crimes as a movie, complete with gangster outfits and surreal musical scenes in which the dead victims thank the perpetrators for sending them to heaven. The documentary is essentially the ‘behind the scenes’ for that film, which was never actually made (although footage was recorded). It shows us, through their eyes, how they inflicted pain and death on hundreds and thousands of their fellow Indonesians.

The central figure is Anwar Congo, whose cool and callous manner is gradually broken down during the re-enactment process, and we see that beyond the façade of machismo there are deep wounds caused by the violence in which he willingly took part. Initially he seems totally blasé when he takes Oppenheimer to the site where much of the murder took place. Congo merrily demonstrates how he strangled his victims with wire (proudly explaining that he devised this effective means of death), and then, astonishingly, shows his love of dance by doing the cha-cha-cha – at the murder scene.

Between filming each scene, we witness Congo and his partners-in-murder extorting cash from vulnerable Chinese shop owners and casually chatting about raping fourteen year old girls. The men argue over scenes and comment on events (when watching a replay of the day’s filming, Congo critiques: “I’m wearing white trousers. I would never have worn white trousers for a massacre. I always wore jeans for a massacre.”). When they recreate the destruction of an entire village for the first time we begin to see a glimmer of something – not quite regret, or empathy, but something – when Congo quietly comments: “I didn’t think it would look this bad.”

As they proceed with their film, Congo plays one of his victims, putting himself in their place for the first time, and the result is visibly distressing for him and at one point they cannot continue filming. Watching the recording later, he asks, “did my victims feel the fear that I did?” It seems a ridiculous question; an abhorrent and offensively belated realisation that he caused suffering. At this point the director makes a rare interjection: “actually, they would have felt much worse, because you knew that this wasn’t real, but they knew they were going to die.”

Film plays a huge role in the documentary. The perpetrators describe the influence of a propaganda film that they had to watch every year since childhood that demonised the Communists; and a criticism of the Communists was that they wanted to ban popular American films. The perpetrators only begin to see their past differently when they watch what they did through the distancing lens, and we watch them watching themselves ‘acting’ at being murderers. Its title, ‘The Act of Killing’, is appropriate.

It is not a film that attempts to justify what the perpetrators did, and despite the horror of what it reveals it does not feel disrespectful to the victims. The film is also an act of enormous courage by the Indonesian film crew, who are pointedly credited again and again as ‘Anonymous’ at the film’s end – these acts are part of Indonesia’s present as much as its past. The events of 1965 have been shockingly overlooked or accepted by a country riddled with institutional corruption and that still sees these murders as heroic acts of patriotism.

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Oppenheimer attempts to look deep into the darkest depths of human nature, and the result does not make for comfortable viewing. But The Act of Killing is truly extraordinary: moving, disturbing and unflinching in its examination of how mass violence happens, and its aftermath on both the victims and the perpetrators. There is so much to say about this film, so many ideas and arguments that need to be expressed, that my recommendation is simple: go and watch the documentary for yourselves. And when you emerge, blinking from the light, ask yourself the questions that we rarely demand of ourselves but that this film insists that we address. Above all, look around and consider that in different circumstances these bone-chilling men, and the people they murdered, could have been you and I.