When Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing came out in the summer of 2013, few had seen anything like it. In 2002, Oppenheimer set out to chronicle the victims of Indonesia’s brutal regime change, which took place in 1965 and 1966. The coup threw a pro-Communist regime out of power and installed the US-backed President Suharto in its place. Suharto spearheaded a national campaign to purge itself of Communists that resulted in one of the grizzliest genocides of the 20th century: suspected sympathizers were gutted, beheaded, and sexually mutilated. Perpetrators drank their blood by the glassful in a superstitious attempt to ward off insanity, and victims’ bodies were left in the streets or dumped in mass graves. When it was all over, half a million people were dead; nearly 2 million were locked away in concentration camps.
What Oppenheimer discovered was that not only were many of the perpetrators still in power 50 years later — individuals who freely boast of slaughtering hundreds — but they were championed as national heroes. So Oppenheimer pivoted toward the killers, casting them to recreate their deeds in a Hollywood-style film. It was an unorthodox conceit, but for the first time in half a century the killers were forced to confront their own crimes in a perverse sort of play therapy. NPR’s Bob Mandello called The Act of Killing “a virtually unprecedented social document”; it garnered an Oscar nomination and won a BAFTA for best documentary.