The Act Of Killing

The Act of Killing photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe Act of Killing is hard to watch, espeically when you know the history behind it. By the early 1960s President Sukarno’s support and protection of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was to the objection of the army and Islamic groups. In 1965, a group calling itself the September 30th Movement tried to overthrow the government. The attempted coup d’état was countered by Suharto-led troops and was blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party. This led to the destruction of PKI and Sukarno’s replacement by Suharto himself. Suharto’s anti-Communist stance won him the economic and diplomatic support of the West during the Cold War. However what wasn’t widely reported was the subsequent suppression.

Estimates vary, but in the weeks following the coup from 1965 and on through 1966, somewhere between 500,000 to 3 million alleged communists were murdered. The victims, which included ethnic Chinese and intellectuals, were basically anybody the government decided they didn’t like. They were simply labeled a communist to make the carnage more acceptable. That’s the history behind this chronicle, but it’s not the focus. No this presents the boasting of the actual thugs who were directly responsible for the massacre of millions of souls by their own hands. These self styled gangsters point out that the word ‘gangster’ means free men. Free to rape torture and murder in the name of suppressing communism.

The Act of Killing is a documentary based on over five years of filming. Petty thugs Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry were scalping movie tickets before they were promoted to leading the most notorious death squad in North Sumatra. One of director Joshua Oppenheimer’s conceits is that he has those responsible reenact their killings utilizing a variety of different film genres: western, gangster, musical. Herman Koto is another hooligan that is heavily featured in these replications. Hefty in size, he repeatedly performs in drag wearing a tight satin gown. Other more serious large scale productions take place on the very same killing fields where the bloodshed occurred. These include small children and extras ostensibly descendants related to those murdered. The concept is shocking enough and the resulting display is even more surreal.

These aren’t even the most successful parts of The Act of Killing. There are moments here that will leave you absolutely dumfounded. I’m struck by a scene where Anwar Congo demonstrates how he strangled his victims with wire to avoid spilling too much blood. As he watches it back on a TV monitor, he complains that he shouldn’t have worn white pants during their reenactment. In another scene he instructs his grandsons to apologize to some baby ducks they accidentally hurt while handling. Later Congo wraps a wire around his own neck and asks Koto to tug on it in order to mimic what he did. “Josh, is that how my victims felt?” Congo asks the filmmaker. (long pause) “Well I’d say they felt much worse because while you were pretending, they knew they were going to die.” By the end, Congo gets the dry heaves as he is supposedly coming to terms with what he did. I didn’t buy the sincerity of that gesture for a second, but it still doesn’t make his “performance” any less telling.

The Banality of evil is a term coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt meaning that evil occurs when ordinary people are put into corrupt situations that encourage their conformity. The phrase was used after he witnessed the trial of high-ranking Nazi Adolf Eichmann who seemed to him as the most mundane individual whose heinous deeds were orders dictated by the state. That idea floats throughout this documentary particularly when Congo happily speaks as if he is a hero because his behavior was backed by the government.

The Act of Killing is one of the most disturbing films I have ever seen. I suppose there are at least two responses one could greet Joshua Oppenheimer’s examination into the mind of these killers.

•    Reaction #1 These people are monsters and director Joshua Oppenheimer is unfortunately giving them indefensible attention.

•    Reaction #2 The only way to have the murderers open up like this is to make them believe that they are being celebrated. In this manner, the director allows the death squad to expose themselves for what they truly are.

I’ve had time to reflect and I’ve come to the conclusion that I side more with reaction #2. At times the documentary can be a bit obtuse as it’s not always clear where Oppenheimer is going. But ultimately what comes through is that this shines a light on a pernicious evil that has gone unaddressed for far too long. It refuses to look away and while providing a voice for the murderers, it indirectly provides a voice for the incredible number of people whose lives were ended. Not only were these perpetrators of mass violence never prosecuted for their crimes, but many Indonesians view them as heroes today. Conversely this also shows that many citizens continue to live in abject fear of them as well. This chapter of Indonesian history has been mostly shielded from public view. It’s good this document exists. I’m glad that I saw it. Now I never want to see it again.

21 Responses to “The Act Of Killing”

  1. I agree, this was very difficult to watch. I had a hard time, but could not look away. These guys were horrible. They retold these stories like they were proud of what they’d done. It shocks me that these people are walking around free today. These crimes against humanity were horrendous. The movie makers had a lot of guts to film this. 4 stars


    • The number of people that were murdered coupled by the fact that the perpetrators are still alive and celebrated is incredibly unsettling.

      Because what they did was legal, i.e. supported by the government, there were no repercussions for what they did. It makes you question how murder is justified by countries, including our own.


  2. I really really want to see this because I continually hear it’s one hell of a character study. From what I’ve gathered as well, Reaction #2 sounds to be the one I hear the most. That, and the fact these guys were celebrated, they don’t know that what they did was so morally wrong. I’ll have more thoughts once I catch it.


    • I avoided it at first but it shows up on so many critics’ Top 10 lists for 2013, I finally had to check it out.

      It’s unsettling but I think it’s good the story has been made more public. I will never forget this.


  3. Nice review. I’ve been eager to catch this one but I feel I need to be in the right frame of mind. Not exactly easy subject matter to digest.


  4. Mark,

    Thanks for the warning. Here’s where the movie critic (you) earns his keep, sacrificing himself for the sake of his audience.

    This sounds like the Jerry Springer approach to enlightenment. Get a bunch of publicity-hungry coo-coos, sit them down in front of a camera and let ’em go. True, false or in between — who know, who cares? The more depraved they get, the more the audience for this kind of thing is going to gobble it up.

    Me though, I think I’ll take a pass. For all its quirks and limitations, there is a reason that history gets written the way it does.


  5. Your last two sentences are how I (and pretty much pretty everyone who has seen it) feel about this film. Spot on review.


    • It’s affected a lot of people. When the movie was released last July here in the U.S., I heard praise. However it didn’t prepare me for the universal acclaim the documentary received at the end of the year. It’s one of the most frequent fixtures on critics’ year end Top 10 lists.


  6. I’ve only heard praise for this documentary, I hear its very tough to watch. And I thought Blackfish was hard to watch, I bet this is ten times worse.


    • Those two films are both possible nominees for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars this year. Blackfish is very good. The Act of Killing is one of the most disturbing documentaries ever made.


  7. Brilliant review Mark, particularly as you encompass the two possible reactions to this doc. Having not seen it, I’m inclined to go with #1 because I just don’t think these evil men deserve my attention. That said, that’s sort of reactionary, so maybe I should allow myself to sit through it. Just once.


  8. From what I watched of this, it did seem quite disturbing. I seen the wire part you mentioned, and my jaw literally dropped when Anwar complained that he wore the wrong pants. This reminded me that I started watching this on Netflix on Saturday, paused it, went out, and forgot to go back.

    Anyways, it was quite awful how he was dancing, full of happiness, right after telling a horrible story. Ruined so many lives, but gets to live quite well.


  9. Great review. And agreed. This film is powerful, moving and well made. I too side with interpretation two, because the film so convincingly demonstrates the banality of evil.


  10. I’m with you Mark. Glad I saw it, but never want to see it again. When I finished The Act of Killing, I felt like I could use a shower. Throughout the film, I never felt like reaction #1 you mention was even a possibility. I always felt like Oppenheimer was speaking for the dead. I also didn’t believe that Congo’s dry heaves were a performance. To me he seemed literally disgusted with himself and all of his bad deeds dredged up over the course of shooting. I thought this was the best doc from last year until I saw Narco Cultura. That one is even more chilling, if you can believe that, because it actually shows bodies instead of just talking about them.


    • I simply don’t believe that a man could physically murder 1,000 people with his own hands and then get the dry heaves because all of a sudden he feels sad now almost 5 decades later.

      We are looking into the face of pure evil. Pretending to have a conscience is the least of his offenses.


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