A documentary that challenges former Indonesian death squad leaders to reenact their real-life mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers.

Horror exposed on killers' terms in remarkably moving documentary.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL (OFFICIAL COMPETITION): Early on in Jason Oppenheimer’s rich and disturbing documentary The Act of Killing, there is a scene where a man is trying to recruit extras for a film he is making. The place is a market in Indonesia. The man is called Herman. In less PC times, one would not hesitate to call him fat. Still, there’s something welcoming even comforting in his enormous father-Christmas belly. His face is round and smiley, animated and alert. As he strolls through the crowded corridor of stalls, he seems a friendly and welcoming figure; he walks holding hands with a little girl, perhaps a stranger, maybe a relative, and, in his other fist, he cradles a very large black automatic pistol. Herman is a mass murderer. He was one of many killers who took part in the systematic slaughter of anyone Indonesia’s military government claimed a communist in the post-1965 revolutionary era that left over one million dead.

a kind of thought-experiment

In his youth, Herman was a movie fan. He adored Hollywood 'killers’ – like John Wayne or Al Pacino. Herman and his cohorts were called 'gangsters’ – sometimes with horror and disdain, and sometimes proudly. They mimicked their screen heroes – copying clothes and haircuts and worked themselves up to commit a kill by watching movies so they undertake the task 'happily’. These days, whenever anyone asks Herman and his pals to defend the 'gangster’ moniker, they claim it means 'free-man’.

Herman’s history, we are made to understand, is well known amongst the population. It makes him a kind of celebrity. And if people are frightened of him and his fellow killers, Oppenheimer does not allow that fear to intrude.

As to reprisals from those surviving relatives whose families were slaughtered years earlier by Herman and his pals, well, that suggestion is the stuff of black comedy here; in an Indonesia where such killers are routinely lauded by government and can do talk shows in celebration of their deeds, it seems their personal security is something of a national monument.

Herman, it turns out, doesn’t have much luck in finding people for his film. He wants to recreate the scene of a real-life massacre – notorious in recent Indonesian history – where women and children were slaughtered in ghastly numbers. This frustrates Herman. He’s proud of his past. This movie he’s making means a lot to him. He wants to be remembered for what he did, since he hopes to be elected to parliament.

Still, he wants to do the remembering for everybody else too. Eventually, Herman gets to stage his massacre; he uses his own relatives to play the victims. After the sequence wraps filming, we see Herman wiping the eyes of a tiny child who cannot stop crying after enduring the 'fake’ horror: 'Stop it," Herman coos gently to her, 'you’re embarrassing me."

The Act of Killing is a kind of thought-experiment. Its premise asks: What would happen if murderers were required to re-enact on film, their acts of killing? What could be learned if the re-actions were filmed? This exercise is to be done with total transparency and with the unconditional co-operation and consent of the criminals. Unapologetically serious and cerebral, Oppenheimer’s pitch lays open a spectrum of fascinating and queasy possibilities – psychological, emotional, cultural – and of course, in cold print, this sort of project appears as perhaps an ethical death trap, since it allows the possibility of glamorising killers. That does not happen. Instead, Oppenheimer’s film, co-directed by Christine Cynn and 'Anonymous’, lay open the complex psyches of the characters. These men and their pals were not unmoved by what they did – many self-medicated, many went mad. And, sadly, unsurprisingly, many enjoyed it.

No victims are interviewed. No archive is used. And Oppenheimer’s style throughout is consciously, deliberately mystifying. This is living history as a surreal pageant. (There’s a musical number where Herman plays a diva songstress in drag.)

Often we’re plunged straight into a moment with no narration and only minimal titles to offer some form of orientation. Talking heads and direct-to-camera stuff is kept to a minimum; the style, essentially observational, is demanding but it’s rewarding too. We’re forced to meet these men on their own terms and that makes for a strange trip (and a long one: the director’s cut that premiered at the SFF last night clocked in at a tad under three hours).

Paced as a deliberate stroll, nothing about it feels fat or redundant and Oppenheimer’s taste for bizarre imagery makes the film’s peculiar mystique devilishly difficult to describe. But let me put it this way: Errol Morris and Werner Herzog mentored the project and their taste for the eccentric in all forms and manners saturates every frame here. And Oppenheimer has a similar gift for the poetic non-sequitur; I won’t soon forget the sight of some wild simians, captured in situ here, gobbling on the fake gore left behind after the massacre re-enactment. In this world, that’s an image of a kind of cruel innocence, which is hard to top.

Oppenheimer met dozens of killers before ultimately recruiting Herman and his other main character Anwar Congo. Thin, articulate and far more candid and emotionally vulnerable than his pal Herman, Anwar, who fancies himself as a Sidney Poitier lookalike, ultimately emerges as a conflicted and troubled man, who has never quite come to terms with his murderous past. Early on, he shows us, all smiles, the place – a tiny compound of concrete and wire – where hundreds were killed. Draining the blood was a problem. There was too much of it. So they worked out a system to murder with a minimum amount spilled. Later, Oppenheimer has Anwar return to this spot and he’s so overwhelmed by remorse and memory, he retches.

Oppenheimer explains his film as not a documentary of a 'real’ thing, but a 'documentary of the imagination’. Using cinema, he’s squirmed his way into the shadowed crevices where killers reside and finds a darkness that is no longer impenetrable. The Act of Killing for all its horror suggests it’s possible for humanity to be rescued from this abyss.