Oppenheimer says his film helps expose the “dramaturgy” of journalism; it says something not only about the storytelling structures through which Congo and his peers process reality, but also those through which journalism processes reality. There is a similarity between journalistic storytelling and Hollywood narratives that present a tidy moral universe of good guys and bad guys, and conflicts that are resolved by the end of the story—a narrative structure that’s as artificial as the façades it pretends to circumvent. It’s become a stock criticism of Oppenheimer’s approach to say that he risked reinforcing the killers’ version of events, but journalistic efforts to get around a façade often end up trapped within the same parameters of debate established by the artifice. A film about the massacre that presented long-suffering victims and unrepentant killers would have played into the same simplistic logic that had already made most Indonesians uninterested in examining the situation.

Oppenheimer understands the appeal of this kind of story. “Within that narrative structure,” he says, “is both a legitimating sense that we are rational and good in contrast to the evil being exposed by the piece, and also the notion that we are hearing something for the first time, reinforcing our own sense of innocence.” The real exposé, he contends, is in showing us things we already know, stories we’ve heard or told ourselves many times, “and forcing us to say, ‘I knew that. Oh, shit. What does it say about me that I knew that?’ ”

While it’s far from a Hollywood ending, Congo’s participation in the film brought him to a similar self-realization. In the film’s final scene, Congo is shown on a rooftop where he performed many of his executions. He launches into yet another self-justification to the camera, but then stops short and begins to gag. He tries to compose himself, then gags again, a frightening mirroring of the victims he strangled in this very place.

Whether this moment is an act of contrition or just one more performance is debatable, but the debate is sort of beside the point. Congo’s reaction represents a realization that the massacre could be seen as something other than an act of heroism. Oppenheimer’s interpretation is that the moment shows Congo “choking on the terror that comes when you look at the abyss between yourself and your image of yourself.” Defining journalism as an effort to expose that gap seems highly compatible with more traditional notions of journalism’s mission.

Maybe the most interesting thing about The Act of Killing is that it has forced this realization not just on Congo, but on Indonesian society broadly. It’s hard to imagine a work of traditional journalism having a similar impact on a nation. Oppenheimer says the film has come to Indonesia like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes, exclaiming that “the King is naked.” It has presented the story of the massacre so forcefully, and in the words of the killers themselves, that this gauzy national myth is now a reality that demands a reckoning.

While The Act of Killing has since been shown publicly in Indonesia, the editors of Tempo, the country’s largest newsmagazine, watched it at a closed screening in Jakarta in 2012. The magazine’s reporters and editors had never before addressed the killings from the perspective of the victims, but the film inspired them to send 47 journalists across the country to gather evidence. On October 1, 2012, Tempo published a double issue on the massacre. According to Oppenheimer, this “set the tone for the Indonesian media. And now the country’s leading historians, filmmakers, artists, writers, educators, journalists, and human-rights activists are saying ‘We have to deal with it.’ ”

Writing in Tempo, one critic said, “The Act of Killing is the most powerful, politically important film about Indonesia that I have ever seen. The arrival of this film is itself a historical event almost without parallel.”

Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer.