In the foreground, women dance slowly in lush tropical foliage, their arms swooping gracefully, deliberate, unhurried. Behind them, a waterfall plunges into unseen depths, sending forth a spray of mist that gives the scene a cloudy, ethereal quality, but does little to mute the oversaturated colors of the vegetation and the dancers’ outfits.
A man removes a thin garrote wire from around his neck. He reaches into his clothes and pulls out a gold medal, which glows like a halo, and presents it to Anwar Congo, dressed in black, who stands among the dancers, his features comically relaxed in artificial benevolence. The man thanks Congo for sending him to heaven, and they clasp hands and raise them high as the music swells. The song is “Born Free.”
We cut to Congo watching the scene on a monitor. “I never imagined I could create something so beautiful,” he says.
Congo is a gangster (the Indonesian word for “gangster” is “preman,” from the English “free man,” which explains the “Born Free” reference, sort of) and he choreographed this nightmarish spectacle for “The Art of Killing,” director Joshua Oppenheimer’s unprecedented “documentary of the imagination.” Oppenheimer’s film, which focuses on perpetrators of the mass murder of suspected Communists in Indonesia during the 1960s, gave death squad leaders in the province of northern Sumatra the chance to reenact and interpret their acts of killing through film scenes that range from frank depictions of atrocity to genre-tinged hallucinatory perversions of American cinema tropes.
Congo and his gang of preman were “movie theater gangsters” in the 1960s. They hung out at theaters scalping tickets to Hollywood films. When the Communist purges started, they took up the dirty work of carrying out the slaughter, and they lived even then in a dream world, murdering happily with Elvis on their minds, inspired in technique by classic gangster films.
The waterfall scene and Congo’s reaction to it tempts us to laugh — partially at this gangster, who seems genuinely pleased with his work, and partially in disbelief. Even as we laugh, if we can manage to in our discomfort, we see Congo’s stifled, shriveled conscience trying to drown itself in music, dance, and flamboyant embellishments. The grander these become, the starker the lie becomes — to him and to us.