The Act of Killing (2012): “My conscience told me they had to be killed.”

MV5BNzQ0NDA1ODQ3NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjQwMzk0OA@@._V1_SX640_SY720_Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2013) is a surreal documentary about a dark time in Indonesia’s history. In 1965 to ’66, an anti-communist purge occurred all throughout the country, as a new president was elected and the country’s Communist Party was decimated. Death squads were responsible for killing one million communists and ethnic Chinese. The focus of this documentary, ex-death squad leader Anwar Congo, was personally responsible for the deaths of approximately 1000 people in Medan, North Sumatra. Nowadays, Congo is a loving grandfather who leads a fairly quiet life in comparison. The film follows the director’s challenge to Congo to represent his activities in the death squads on film, in any manner he chooses.

This documentary is very difficult to watch. There were moments where I felt physically ill; specifically, whilst watching Congo and his friends bragging about how many people they were responsible for murdering, and the methods in which they committed their crimes. The frank manner in which they discuss their previous activities is actually quite shocking. I almost couldn’t believe it at first. The people in this film are proud about what they’ve done, and they’re very honest about it. It’s beyond understanding that Congo and others haven’t been brought to justice – until you learn (very briefly) about the political issues that allowed their actions to be ignored and gone unpunished in the past, and celebrated in the media in the present.

The film follows Anwar Congo, and also his friend Herman Koto, who is a local gangster and paramilitary leader in the Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth) – a military-style organisation that sprung up out of the death squads in the 60s, and are often involved in illegal activities. Koto regularly serves as the comic relief in darker moments, being a naturally exuberant larger guy who often dresses in drag during the reenactments of crimes. We also briefly meet Adi Zulkadry, a fellow ex-death squad leader whose take on the philosophy of war crimes marks one of the more sinister moments in the film. This group of characters are all very interesting in their own way, and we are given quite a good amount of insight into each of their psychologies. I believe this film works best as an insight into the psychology of evil acts. Each character is more than happy to explain what they did and why they did it, which makes this documentary a very unique watch indeed.

Where The Act of Killing is also unique is the film-within-a-film element. Oppenheimer challenges Congo to re-create his exploits in the 60s through the medium of film, in order to fully represent his history and have a record of it for future generations. Initially, Congo chooses to construct scenes by borrowing from his favourite films of the Wild West, and from noir films, to tell a straightforward story. As the film goes deeper into his psyche, and into the nightmares that have resulted from his past, the representation of his exploits becomes more symbolic and surreal. The reenactments are, by and large, incredibly bizarre, and can range from disgusting and graphic to incredibly beautiful.

This film is also notable for its editing and cinematography. The transition between the documentary format and the offbeat reenactments of interrogating and killing communists makes for compelling viewing. The director’s cut of the film is roughly two and a half hours long, and there were moments that probably could have been trimmed down in order to have a more streamlined film. However, I felt that even the moments that could have been cut added to the overall impact of the film. As a character study of Anwar Congo and friends, even the duller moments are an insight into their current-day responses to their previous crimes.

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I’m not going to include any spoilers in this review, but I will say that by the end of the film, we see a different side of Anwar Congo. The only parallel that I can use to describe it would be the context of a counselling relationship. As he gets more and more of his history out of his system, as he is confronted with his past through the reenactments and purges more and more of his feelings surrounding the death squads, a new awareness of himself emerges. Initially, Congo speaks so freely and happily about murdering people, gleefully demonstrating how he used a wire for the best method of killing. There are no glimpses of remorse. However, also at the beginning of the film, Congo chides his grandson for breaking the leg of a chicken and tells him to apologise to the chicken and treat it more gently in future. By the end of the film, these two sides of his personality begin to integrate in a captivating way.

I have a number of criticisms, however. I wish that the film had included more historical context for the death squads and general political turmoil of Indonesia in the 60s. I studied that era of history in my Indonesian language classes at school, so I was aware of the context of the death squads in Indonesian history already. But it would have been interesting to hear Anwar Congo’s and Herman Koto’s perspective on that, and I think it would have helped to place the story within a larger political whole. The death squads happened everywhere, and to remind the audience that this is just one perspective on them would have been a very salient point to make.

I also feel that it’s problematic to give people like this, people who are clearly unapologetic for their crimes against humanity, a soapbox on which to boast about their exploits. I am a huge fan of freedom of speech, but I wonder where the line is drawn between giving these people freedom of expression, versus being completely disrespectful to the victims of the ’65-’66 massacres and their families. It is of some consolation that the film has brought attention to a campaign for the government of Indonesia to apologise to those affected by the massacres – however, as the ex-death squad leaders in the film clearly state, that’s the government saying sorry, and they don’t have to personally have anything to do with it.

The Act of Killing is an unpleasant, visceral experience. Not that it’s a bad film, or that the quality is poor – quite the contrary. It is a stunning film. It’s just that the content and characters are so reprehensible that they make you feel ill. This film is not for the faint of heart or stomach. I’m usually okay with violence and gore, but the ways in which Congo and his colleagues brag about killing people is sickening. By the end of this film, you’ll feel like a wrung out sponge. It is a truly amazing work on the psychology of evil and is essential viewing for anyone interested in human rights on a global scale.

4.5/5
Watch the trailer here.

Watch the film at Amazon!

36 comments

  1. Great review. I also just reviewed this one, and ‘liked’ it every bit as much, if not more, than you.

    In response to your criticisms . . . I do not think it needed to provide historical information. I know little about Indonesia’s death squads, but Oppenheimer clearly communicated their pervasiveness and impact on modern Indonesian society. He didn’t need to give me a great deal of historical background, because he provided enough modern day context to ensure I comprehended the broad strokes.

    I will also say I do not think this movie gives a soap box to the killers. It makes them think that’s what they’re getting, but, in truth, it is judging them from frame first to frame last. Oppenheimer’s emotional reserve as Congo is dry heaving in front of him goes to show us . . . these men cannot be forgiven. What they did was unforgivable.

    And then dares to ask this terribly uncomfortable question: how different are we from them, really?

    Which is to say . . . I call this one flawless. (I realize these are minor quibbles, by the way. You gave it 4.5/5 stars. Obviously, you think The Act of Killing very good, as well.)

    1. Noting the quotation marks, it’s definitely difficult to say that you like or love this film just due to the nature of its content! And yep, my criticisms are definitely very minor when looking at them in the context of the film as a whole. They didn’t impede on my enjoyment of the film, but were just niggling thoughts when reflecting on it. You’re right, it really is a technically flawless film. I’m really hoping it wins the Oscar, but I wonder if politics will get in the way.

      1. Politics could. So could The Square, another of the nominees and one that is almost as good.

        20 Feet From Stardom is less likely to take the award, I think, but it is also good enough that I wouldn’t be completely stunned if it does.

  2. Excellent write-up! I felt the same way. I couldn’t believe some of the things they said, so I guess it really is surreal in a way. However I think that it was necessary to let them have their “soapbox” just to have an accurate portrait of who they are and I think some of them even realized the absurdity of what they were saying through it. If this doesn’t win best documentary I’m officially done with the oscars 🙂

    1. Thanks! I’m really hoping this wins at the Oscars as well. Both this and Blackfish were my favourite documentaries of the year, by far! I can appreciate the necessity to get people like Congo to tell their story; people who are willing to explore it a little bit further and show insight into their actions and personal feelings. I really wondered whether it was necessary to give the same kind of outlet for people like the other ex-death squad leader at the burning village film shoot, the one who bragged about raping a child. That was just the worst!

      1. Agreed, that was the worst! I think if we want to understand human nature it’s necessary, no matter how ugly it gets, but I’m a bit of an extremist when it comes to stuff like this. The scary thing is that the “potential” to be as evil is in all of us.

  3. Another nice review, Anna.

    How the filmmakers got away with this film is a mystery in itself. And Adi Zulkadry’s opinion on war crimes is something I felt worth pondering about. It doesn’t justify what he did in the past but he was right when he said that War crimes are defined by “winners”, who were no less barbaric in their act, to be honest.

    1. Thank you! 🙂 I can’t believe they got away with it either. It’s no wonder that half the cast and crew were listed as ‘Anonymous’. That small moment with Adi Zulkadry was one of the highlights of the film for me. It’s tricky because as the audience, we want to prove these people wrong, but he’s technically correct in his assessment. It was very clever to show it at that specific point in the film.

  4. Good review Anna. Pretty messed-up movie, but at the end of it, it tries to make us wonder whether or not we could accept these people as “humans”, or just despicable wastes of life? Questions, questions. Decisions, decisions.

    1. Thanks! It’s definitely messed up. I think the fact that the film forces you to recognise the ugliness of history is secretly one of its strengths. You’re given all this horrible information and are forced to deal with it, not unlike Anwar Congo in those final scenes.

  5. Popcorn Nights · · Reply

    Good review. I am yet to see it, which always makes me feel like I can’t say much more, but enjoyed reading and I am looking forward to seeing this. Sounds as harrowing as it is fascinating.

    1. Thanks! You definitely have to see it. It’s equal parts fascinating and utterly horrible.

  6. […] of Film My Mind Reels Through Film Film Grimoire Film […]

  7. Such an important documentary about some very dark pages in history I had never heard of. Great review and a deserved score.

    1. Thanks! You’re absolutely right – above all, this is an important piece of work!

    1. It is such a fascinating film. Have you seen this one?

      1. No, I’d not even heard of it. I feel I have to now after your write up.

  8. Interesting review yo. I think I recall hearing about this film a while ago and there was a lot of buzz about it at the time, I may have to give it a watch and see if it is as hardcore as people say. I’d like to think that I’m pretty sturdy when it comes to violent stuff, though if its anything too depressing or psychologically fucked up then I’ll be a bit worried lol.

    1. Thanks! 🙂 You have to see it! It’s quite graphic in its descriptions of murders, so I guess you could say it’s verbally rather than visually violent. It’s very tonally dark and psychologically affecting, but with occasional lighthearted moments. You’ll need a bunch of quiet thinking time afterwards. All in all an excellent film!

  9. Very nice piece. I posted a review of this today and share many of your same feelings. It’s disturbing and unsettling but it should be. It’s also a documentary that really educated me. IMO the best docs do that and I appreciated it for that.

    1. Thanks! Totally agreed. This is such a good example of a documentary fearlessly tackling a complex issue and succeeding on pretty much all levels.

  10. Great review, and I get the sense that I’ll have to muster up quite a bit of courage before I finally watch this film. It sounds like it’s even more trying than “12 Years a Slave,” and I’m still processing that one a little bit. Regardless, I think your last sentence says it all – reprehensible though the people in the film may be, it’s sure to be horribly fascinating from a psychological perspective.

    1. Thanks! 🙂 It does take a bit of courage to watch this one as it’s confronting from the get-go. It’s rare for a person who’s essentially a mass murderer to let someone in to their psyche and explore it as much as this film does. In that respect, it’s unmissable!

  11. Looks like everyone is following a trend here by reviewing this film! Including myself! I agree with your score, and it sure is a tough film to watch. I believe he gave these people the freedom, so that they would feel comfortable in telling their stories. You know, like a way of having them open up.

    1. Totally agreed. Imagine how different this film would be if the subjects all felt judged? They probably would have acted up even more than they already did, and Congo definitely wouldn’t have reached that level of self-insight. In that way, the freedom of expression the subjects were given is a definite plus.

      1. Exactly. That is why it kind of sucked when I read reports online that were criticizing the director, and calling him awful, or in similar terms anyways from what I can remember.

  12. […] Anna’s review of The Act of Killing […]

  13. Great critique Anna. As an Indonesian, this film definitely feels more personal to me. I grew up being brainwashed by the Gov’t into thinking communism is so evil thus everything/anything to do with it has to be destroyed. “There were moments where I felt physically ill…” I felt that way too, I don’t think I could watch it again. I hear ya about the historical context, even for me, I felt like it could’ve been explored a bit better.

    1. Thank you, I was really interested to hear an opinion of this film from someone who actually grew up in this context! It must have been such a strange experience watching this. I wish they’d explored the events that precipitated the witch hunt for communists and ethnic Chinese, but I also wonder if in doing so they ran the risk of justifying the crimes of Congo et al. Such a sensitive topic that would have been so difficult to approach in a balanced way, given the people involved.

  14. […] Documentary Feature: The Act of Killing I absolutely loved this film, even though it was so confronting. It stands out as probably the best documentary that I watched […]

  15. […] follow-up to director Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012), The Look of Silence (2014) is brutal but essential viewing. Grounded in history, The Look […]

  16. Reblogged this on FILM GRIMOIRE and commented:

    After watching Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence (2015) recently, I almost decided to revisit his preceding film, The Act of Killing (2012), to revisit where Oppenheimer’s focus on Indonesia began. But then I decided that I didn’t want to put myself through this supremely uncomfortable film again, even though it is an amazing documentary. Here’s my review on this very important film.

  17. I share your views on this one. It’s so tough to watch, yet it must be because of how superbly it is put together.

    1. Oppenheimer really does know how to put an amazing story together. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next!

  18. […] in a good way. As a result, the film also feels a little bit like another amazing documentary, The Act of Killing (2012); we’re watching an alleged perpetrator of violent incidences (ex-Scientology member Marty […]

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