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'Act of Killing': Documentary spotlights Indonesian genocide inspired by Hollywood films

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A scene from "The Act of Killing" is shown. (The Act of Killing)

A new bone-chilling documentary, called “The Act of Killing,” takes viewers to the dark parts of Indonesia, where death squad leaders are lauded as great heroes, as they happily model their real life murders after the American movies they always adored.

The film, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and executive produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, trails a native named Anwar, who was recruited to become a top-tier death squad leader when the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965. Before that, Anwar worked as small-time gangsters who sold movie tickets on the black market. After he is recruited, he spends his time assisting the army in executing more than a million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals. From his movie-ticket roots, Anwar and his circle of friends became devoted fans of James Dean, John Wayne and Victor Mature. They style their murders after their Hollywood idols, desiring to be just like those on-screen gangsters.

“This was such an outlandish and disturbing idea that I, in fact, had to hear it several times before I realized quite what Anwar and his friends were saying,” Oppenheimer told FOX411’s Pop Tarts column. “He described how he got the idea of strangling people with wire from watching gangster movies. In a late night interview in front of his former cinema, Anwar explained how different film genres would lead him to approach killing in different ways. The most disturbing example was how, after watching a ‘happy film like an Elvis Presley musical,’ Anwar would ‘kill in a happy way.’”

These days, Anwar has slews of supporters as the founder of an extremist paramilitary organization – an organization so powerful and revered that its leaders include government ministers who gleefully exult about corruption, election rigging and acts of genocide.

“Normally perpetrators are apologetic, but these ones are still in power and have never been forced to admit that what they did was wrong. The boasting shocks us at first, it is a desperate attempt to convince themselves that they were right,” Oppenheimer told FOX411’s Pop Tarts column. “The tragedy is that once you have killed once and gotten away with it, the justification becomes celebration and the evil continues. The film documents this downward spiral of corruption.”

But Anwar saw Oppenheimer’s cutting documentary for the first time in November, and for the first time, that self-satisfying smile was gone.

“He was very emotional and quiet. He said it was an honest film and that it ‘shows what it’s like to be me,’” the director recalled.

Oppenheimer was joined in the filming process by a co-director, who asked to remain anonymous.

“I worked with Joshua to make ‘The Act of Killing’ in order to help myself, other Indonesians, and human beings living in similar societies around the world, to understand the importance of questioning what we see, and how we imagine,” said the filmmaker. “How else are we to envision our world in a different way? I must remain anonymous, for now, because the political conditions in Indonesia make it too dangerous for me to do otherwise.”

“The Act of Killing” is now playing in select theaters.  

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