This incredible documentary won 63 awards the year it was released. It's easy to see why.
1. This is probably the most psychologically complex and mind-boggling documentary I’ve ever seen.
2. In 1960’s Indonesia, there was a failed military coup. As a result, thugs and small-time gangsters were turned into paramilitary death squads. They roamed the country and killed millions of people who were suspected of being “communist”. Anwar Congo was the most feared leader of one these death squads.
Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer managed to make contact with Anwar, and asked him to recount his memories of that time. As the death squads are openly celebrated as heroes, Anwar eagerly agreed to make this movie.
3. The movie starts out with Anwar and his partner Herman openly boasting about the ways they tortured and killed people. The stories then turn to actual recreations of some of the murders and massacres. Anwar is sometimes glib (like discussing the best clothing to wear when you kill people), and sometimes regretful (such as when he admits that he usually didn’t close the eyes of the people’s heads once he cut them off).
4. Besides Anwar and Herman, we meet other people who were involved with the murders. They all have their own ways of dealing with what they’ve done. Many of them believe that the key to not be haunted by the ghosts of those they murdered is to never feel guilty.
5. This movie is really two movies in one. While Anwar and the other subjects think they're making a movie glorifying their role in the massacre of over a million people, Oppenheimer is really making the movie about Anwar and the regime that still can't be touched today.
6. In between the recreation of history, we also get a close look at the way Indonesia is run today – the rampant corruption, cynicism, and extortion. People love to explain repeatedly that the word “gangster” means “free man”. We come to understand that the death squads are part of an entire horrific pattern in the country’s psyche. This is normal life to them.
7. As Anwar recreates his “adventures”, he moves from playing himself to playing the victim’s role. Then he wants to act out the nightmares he has. The torture and murder scenes become increasingly elaborate. You can see him progress from self-important psychopath to trembling human being that questions everything he’s done. But he can’t apologize for it.
8. In the credits, the name "Anonymous" appears almost 50 times, because people working on the movie were afraid the death-squad killers would target them.
9. The movie is long, running almost three hours. It’s absurd, nightmarish, horrific, and amusingly surreal. It’s an unprecedented look at the psychology of mass murderers and the effects of trauma on those who cause it.
Note: in 2015, a companion film, called The Look of Silence, was released. You can find my thoughts about that movie HERE.