A film like “The Act of Killing” is almost indescribable. It is strikingly unique and it certainly can’t be labeled or put in a box. Director Joshua Oppenheimer calls his film a “documentary of the imagination”. It’s bizarre, unsettling, and at times impossible to comprehend. It’s horrifying, repulsive, and unflinching in its focus. It’s an overused statement but “The Act of Killing” is unlike anything you have seen before and digesting what we are fed isn’t all that easy.
To understand this documentary you must first look back to 1965 in North Sumatra, Indonesia. A splinter group’s failed coup d’état led to a military takeover of the government. The new leadership blamed the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and soon sanctioned the wholesale massacre of communists across the region. But the killings weren’t restricted to alleged communists. There were also brutal mass murders rooted in racism and religion. It is said the killings have been overlooked in most Indonesian history books and by the international community, yet a CIA report called them “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century”.
With that historical backdrop in place, the film spotlights some of the authors of the murders and we are told of their atrocities from the men themselves. Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry went from movie theater ticket scalpers to heads of military death squads responsible for thousands of brutal killings in 1965 and 1966. Even more appalling, they have never been punished or even found guilty of any crime. In many ways they are celebrated among the ignorant or sympathetic. These are the men we spend two hours with in “The Act of Killing”. Their words, their candor, their lack of remorse, their impunity. These men openly discuss their parts in the anti-communist purge in uncomfortable detail and often with smiles on their faces.
These men also have an unusual infatuation with western cinema which finds its way into the movie on several occasions. They constantly refer to themselves as ‘gangsters’, a term stemming from their love of American gangster movies. But it also seems that some of their real-life killings were patterned after these films. Anwar especially seems to treat the title of gangster as a badge of honor.
But their love for movies also plays into the stories they tell. Throughout the documentary we listen in on pointed and detailed recollections of some purely evil murders. But these men also tell their stories through dramatic reenactments for the cameras intended to glorify their atrocities. Their scenes borrow from their favorite mob movies, westerns, and musicals. It’s these uneasy sequences of boastful self-aggrandizement that reveal the true evil dwelling within these people. As we get deeper into the movie the reenactments become more bizarre and surreal possibly a result of Anwar’s desire to squash any feeling of guilt that may be surfacing.
It took Joshua Oppenheimer over five years to make “The Act of Killing” and during that time he accumulated 1200 hours of footage. The result is a potent exposé that unveils one of the darker secrets of our world. I knew nothing of this horror which made the film all the more enlightening and disturbing. At times I did feel disconnected from the more absurd and unintelligible mini-productions from Anwar and company. But there are far more times where I sat in silent shock due to what I was watching. This is audacious filmmaking and there are several scenes carved into my memories. I would be surprised if others didn’t have that same experience.
Great review Keith of a very, very tough movie indeed. I did have a similar experience but it rubbed me entirely the wrong way. I actually found the final product quite offensive. With the exception of *maybe* Anwar, no one shows any hint of remorse, so this film gives them even more fuel for justifying their actions. It kind of made me sick.
I just read your your review as well. We really did see it two different ways. I do see your points about how it may appear to certain groups. But I do think this is one of those examples of giving them enough rope to hang themselves. But I certainly respect your views on it. It is a difficult film.
That was very well said Keith. At the very least, I think those of us who have experienced this can agree that this is a very divisive piece of cinema. I do respect Oppenheimer for undertaking it, no matter what my ultimate impression was.
I totally agree. These men do not come off looking meritorious. Nor do they get glorified in anyway.
The film judges them from frame first to frame last, and they make it very easy to do.
I’ve equated it to giving them enough rope to hang themselves. They do that in this film.
Nice review, Keith. I’ve only heard great things about this documentary, it’s rousing response from the audience. Your word “audacious” is the word I would use to describe it.
It’s powerful indeed and it’s one of the most bizarre and unbelievable things I’ve seen. Evil on display.
What a real eye opener this one was. Don’t think I’ve ever been so dumbfounded watching anything before. It’s a difficult watch but it’s something I think more people need to see. Nice review man.
Thanks man. Troubling indeed. Hard to believe what you’re watching at times. Truly disturbing but also enlightening.
I am dying to see this. It sounds like a fascinating piece of cinema.
It really is Abbi. Hope you can see it soon. It’s unlike any doc I have seen.
Hi Keith, I’m really glad you saw this film and appreciated it. It’s harrowing to watch but also quite innovative in the way it was made. The perpetrators’ unusual infatuation with western cinema adds to the surreal factor. As you know, this is quite a personal film for me, having grown up being brainwashed by Indo government that PKI (Communist Party) is evil, horrible, etc. as if to justify the gruesome mass murder that they’ve done. I think seeing how casual these men describe the atrocities is the most disturbing part about it, and yes, in no way did Oppenheimer glorify these men. In fact, since they’re speaking Indonesian, I could hear him talk back to these men as he was filming, it’s truly fascinating and I knew that having chatted with him in person, this came from the heart. He was truly moved by the victims and he wanted to show the world what has never been brought to life before. Thank you for this.
Thanks so much Ruth. As I mentioned, I often found myself sitting in silent shock. It completely astonished me. Frankly I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from these people. And I think the fact that the movie is told in their own words makes it all the more piercing. I felt uncomfortable but I also felt ashamed that I knew nothing of these atrocities. I watched the film with my wife and we both had the same reactions.
I said somewhere else that the film gives them enough rope to hang themselves. I think that’s a very accurate portrayal. There is no remorse and there is no shame. In fact, these people are so proud of their actions that they choose to tell them through movie scenarios. Yet in doing so they are indicting themselves. They are showing their own guilt and I feel it was very revealing.
I can only imagine how this film affected you. It’s certainly bold filmmaking and I greatly appreciated it.
“…the film gives them enough rope to hang themselves” Yes that is an accurate way of thinking of it. You’ve read my interview with Oppenheimer, right? He told me that what the perpetrators were boasting and telling things that was far more incriminating than anything the survivors could’ve said. And that’s what the victims thought they would do, that’s why they’re the ones who steered Oppenheimer to do the film from the perpetrators’ point of view instead.
I just listened to the interview again, Oppenheimer is a brave and smart man and definitely NOT a fool like another blogger has said.
He’s definitely not a fool. Brave and bold perhaps but no fool. This film really took hold of me. I couldn’t believe I knew nothing of these events. Shame on me for being so well-versed on my favorite football team and Humphrey Bogart movies yet knowing little to nothing about this. I absolutely love when a film challenges me like that.
Very keen to see this! I know I’ll get round to it at some point – it sounds incredible.
It’s bizarre and unsettling but it was also highly educational for me. It’s a disturbing truth that needs to be heard. Hope you get to see you soon.
I have watched this, but it has been one of those films that I have a draft with only the title written. Have not decided how I am going to write it, but I know it will be positive. It is truly fascinating to see how these men committed such acts, yet feel nearly no guilt. Disgusting, but interesting. Well written review for a tough to watch film.
I’ve been meaning to watch this, though it’s not exactly easy material to see. Nice review.
Thanks. It’s definitely not easy to watch but it’s well worth it. Very bold and compelling doc.
Good review Keith. It’s a pretty disturbing look at some very messed-up people, but it doesn’t shy away from getting into the dirty, gritty and graphic details of what these guys did, and how they’re still coping with it today.
Thanks man. It’s hard hitting and shocking. Very well made flick.