The Act of Killing (2012)

  • Time: 115 min
  • Genre: Documentary | History
  • Directors: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn
  • Cast: Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Syamsul Arifin


A documentary which challenges former Indonesian death-squad leaders to reenact their mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers.

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  • The 1960’s saw great political upheaval in Indonesia, with then-President Sukarno being overthrown by Suharto, and the Indonesian Communist Party finding themselves the subject of a widespread propaganda smear campaign. Death squads were created to systematically wipe out the Communist party and anyone suspecting of sympathising with the organisation. Between 1965 and 1966, it is estimated somewhere in between of 500,000 and 1 million Indonesians were murdered in a massacre widely ignored by Western countries. Shockingly, the heads of the death squads still hold power and influence in their country, with many now employed as high-ranking military officers.

    A straight-forward documentary covering the topic would have no doubt been a powerful and upsetting experience, but director Joshua Oppenheimer, along with co-directors Christine Cynn and somebody listed as ‘Anonymous’, have rejected this approach and, with The Act of Killing, have subverted the genre entirely. Obviously appalled at the countries failure to highlight the atrocity and punish those responsible for the crimes committed, Oppenheimer has instead opted to give the killers the opportunity to tell their own story. Yet rather than talking-heads juxtaposed with archive footage, Oppenheimer gave them a film crew and the freedom to depict their acts in a movie of their own making. The results, quite frankly, are utterly astonishing.

    Portraying their war crimes in a variety of genres that range from musical numbers and film noir to westerns and bizarre dream-like sequences, their cinematic vision is naturally cheesy and poorly handled, complete with bad acting and stodgy dialogue, with one gangster over-eager to dress in drag in an effort to lighten the tone (and succeeding in the process). However, Oppenheimer isn’t interested in the final product (which we don’t get to see), but how the film-making process affects those involved. At first, these killers, rapists and torturers are utterly loathsome, demonstrating absolutely no remorse whatsoever about their actions. One, Anwar Congo, gleefully displays his efficient method of murder, which involves strangulation by wire, while another boasts to his friends about the delights of raping a 14-year old girl.

    Yet Congo, who is viewed as a sort of celebrity in his country, starts to reflects on the pain and suffering he has caused. In one scene, he plays a victim being interrogated while tied to a chair. When the wire is tied around his neck, the experience has a profound affect on him, sitting motionless in silence as his friends look concerned and baffled. He later watches it back, transfixed, and starts to break down. The Act of Killing is careful not to sympathise with its subjects (Oppenheimer quickly points out to Congo that his victims’ experience would have been far worse), but at least tries to understand them. It’s less about the atrocities Indonesia experienced than the act of killing itself, and what could possibly drive anybody to such cold-blooded barbarity. It’s a powerful and moving experience like no other movie I’ve ever seen, and it is no overstatement to hail this as one of the greatest documentaries ever made.

    Rating: 5/5

    Read more reviews at The Wrath of Blog

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