How do you recreate the horrors of the past without them seeming distant, like stories, or oddly irrelevant? That’s the challenge for Joshua Oppenheimer’s powerful and compellingly weird film about the legacy of genocide in Indonesia. Most of the killings (somewhere between 500,000 and 2.5 million) took place in the mid-1960s and were part of an anti-communist purge by the powers who still rule the country. The killers are not only still alive and unpunished – they’re heroes to many.
It’s this absence of closure that Oppenheimer is fascinated by. It’s why he decides – and is able – to make the killers his focus. He’s on the hunt for a lingering spirit of murderous or criminal corruption, and it’s a journey that throws up some of the most extreme characters ever seen on film.
Take Anwar Congo, an elderly petty criminal or ‘gangster’, as he calls himself, who in 1965 was one leader of a death squad that killed communists. Congo and his strange, oversized henchman Herman talk freely, smiling, about the murders they committed. Oppenheimer gets them to reconstruct their crimes (crimes in our eyes, but not in theirs or the Indonesian government’s). First they do this in scrappy locations, wearing their own clothes. Later, more surreally, they dress up as old-style Hollywood gangsters in settings familiar from the movies.
There are even stranger scenarios. Perhaps the oddest is a soft-focus, kitsch musical-style dance scene at a waterfall where the ghosts of Congo’s victims thank him for sending them to heaven. Near Congo is his ponytailed pal Herman, dressed as a woman. It creepily upends ideas of beauty or ugliness – and that taps into the wider power of the film. It captures the sly distortion of meanings: one man’s defeat is another’s victory, just as one’s dream is another’s nightmare.
The questions are endless, and Oppenheimer holds back a lot of information about the history and politics, leaving us to assume or guess. It’s the contradictions that are most provocative. Congo, it appears, can empathise with his victims, and the reconstructions seem to break him. As he retches, we wonder whether it’s the ghosts of his past rising as bile. But then he shows his grandchildren the reconstructions without a trace of shame or regret. If Oppenheimer’s aim is to question and investigate what life the past has in the present, he has succeeded in a staggeringly original way.