October 30, 2013 -- This film is a prime example of how art can succeed where textbooks and historical works sometimes fail. It is also an example of how Hollywood films can inspire murderers to kill thousands of people with style. I've never seen anything like this. It is an exposé of crimes against humanity on a vast scale, but at the same time it shows us the troubled soul of a killer.
In 1965 and 1966 anywhere from 500,000 to one million people in Indonesia were murdered by Indonesian army and paramilitary and gangsters after a failed overthrow of the government. You won't find this fact in Indonesian textbooks. Some textbooks that had some of these facts were burned by the government. There wasn't much made of these mass murders in the Western world because many of those who were killed were Communists and they were killed during the Cold War, a time of great hatred of Communists among the elites in the U.S.
The way this film exposes these killings is highly unusual, if not unique. Anwar Congo, one of the killers, went from selling movie tickets on the black market to personally murdering a thousand people during the time of the killings. Congo, who looks a bit like Nelson Mandela, is a big fan of Hollywood movies, gangster films, Westerns, John Wayne. Some of his friends are also movie fans. Some killers in the film, including Congo, also said they were inspired to kill people in the ways they had seen people killed in the movies.
The filmmakers approached them with the idea of making a movie about them in which they would re-enact scenes of murder and torture that they participated in, including the destruction of an entire village. They could tell their stories in the movie any way they wanted to, with songs, dances, fantasy, anything. They enthusiastically agreed to do this. It is the cinematic equivalent of giving them enough rope to hang themselves.
The killers freely admit what they did. The killings were tolerated, condoned and even encouraged by the Indonesian government who wanted to eliminate the political power of the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party). Not only did the killers escape any kind of punishment for all these murders, they profited by blackmailing ethnic Chinese businessmen. Scenes of blackmail are re-enacted in the film, along with scenes of murder. Congo demonstrates how he murdered people by strangling them with wire, or beheading them with a machete.
Some elements of the film are lost in translation. The film is Indonesian and English, with subtitles. The killers repeatedly equate the word “gangster” with “freedom.” That is a stretch in English, but as far as a contrast between Communism and Capitalism, you can't find a more pure, unregulated, Laissez-faire brand of Capitalism than that practiced by gangsters, such as drug dealers, for instance.
The other odd thing about the killers is that they are preoccupied with the desire to be both respected and feared. They repeatedly say that they, not the Communists, are the toughest, most determined, most effective killers. When asked if they fear retaliation from the children of the people they killed, they shrug it off and say they would “kill them all” if anyone tried to get revenge on them.
The killers take advantage of the offer to depict these events in any way they wanted to. This includes scenes with pretty girls dancing out of a giant fish sculpture. The most remarkable scene is filmed in front of a waterfall with Congo and his overweight friend, Herman Koto. Two of Congo's murder victims, back from the dead, remove the garroting wire from around their necks and place a golden medallion around the neck of Congo, while thanking him for killing them and sending them to heaven. Koto is dressed in full drag and the dancing girls sway to the music of “Born Free.” Well, you'd have to see this for yourself. It is beyond mere verbal description.
Congo is shown watching this bizarre scene on his home TV with great satisfaction. He has his grandchildren watch a scene in which Congo plays a torture and murder victim. Koto places the wire around Congo's neck. Hooded, Congo is told the wire is a medal he is being given as a reward. The wire is tightened and he feigns death.
Congo is a fascinating character. While some of the killers in the film show no remorse, Congo is haunted by the ghosts of his victims. He has nightmares about them. He is visibly troubled by these memories. When he plays the scene mentioned above, that of a torture and murder victim, he is visibly shaken. He says he experienced a little of what it was like to be a torture and murder victim. Another killer scolds him that he only feels this way because he has a “weak mind.”
One of the top political figures in the film is Yapto Soerjosoemarno, who is a leader of Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth) a group which supports the government and intimidates political opponents. This organization played a key role in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians. Yapto is one of the few people in the film who seemed to have some notion about how this film might be viewed by people who don't share his own extreme political beliefs. He seemed a bit dismayed in how enthusiastic his followers are in a scene where a village is destroyed and the villagers murdered.
This film is viewed in many ways. To me, it shows how religious (religion played a major role in the conflict) and political divisions in a nation can lead people to slaughter their fellow human beings in ways far worse than animals are slaughtered. To the killers, they liked this film for their own reasons. They seem to view themselves as heroes who helped save their nation from the Communist menace. While this film is not entirely coherent to Western eyes and ears unfamiliar with Indonesian language and history, it is a brilliant bit of film making, at once repulsive, fascinating, moving and bizarre. It exposes savage events which are finally seeing the light of a movie projector. This film rates an A.
Epilogue: This documentary film was directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and an anonymous co-director. There are a large number of anonymous credits in the film, evidence of the fear still felt by political dissidents in Indonesia. According to Wikipedia: “It is a Danish-British-Norwegian co-production, presented by Final Cut for Real in Denmark and produced by Signe Byrge Sørensen. The executive producers were Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Joram ten Brink, and Andre Singer. It is a Docwest project of the University of Westminster.”
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