American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Killing is not necessarily a cold business, and killers are not necessarily cold-blooded. "The Act of Killing" introduces us to several Indonesian mass murderers who could be movie stars. They jump at the chance offered by this documentary's maker, Joshua Oppenheimer, to make their own movie, a chronicle of their years carrying out an anti-Communist purge that claimed over a million lives in 1965-66. When the military recruited them as muscle, they became the most feared and sadistic of the liquidators. But they did it all in style: Notorious killer Anwar Congo points to a black-and-white photo of young man who looks like a sleek hybrid of Charles Bronson and Smokey Robinson: "That's me. I'm wearing a plaid shirt, camouflage pants, saddle shoes…" He advises the film's costumer not to dress him like that for the massacre scenes. "I wore jeans for killing. To look cool, I imitated movie stars."
Still fit and spry in his sixties, Congo uses the film to confront facts long denied publicly and long sublimated personally. He and his pals believe that no court, from local authorities to the International Criminal Court, can prosecute them for their crimes 40 years after the fact. This gives them the confidence to deliver unguarded performances for their movie and offer astonishingly candid testimony for Oppenheimer's. Yet almost every night, Congo says, some of the hundreds of victims he killed with his own hands visit him in his dreams.
One of the more excruciating recurring motifs here is the sight of present-day civilians doing their best real-life acting whenever these gangsters are around. Indonesia may have returned to a semblance of democracy after strong man Suharto's resignation in 1998, but the murderers still control politicians and business leaders.
And the people still fear them. Chinese shop keepers and market vendors who are old enough to have been around when their people were indiscriminately included in the purge are forced to smile wide while handing protection money over to Safit Pardede, arguably the vilest of the gangsters in the film. (Later on, while taking a break from filming a reenactment of a village massacre, he reminisces wistfully with his buddies about raping fourteen year-old girls. "I'd say, 'It's gonna be hell for you but heaven on earth for me!'") Such moments made me wonder whether I was watching yet another reenactment, since it seems pretty crazy for a thug to openly admit crimes on camera.