Re:View – ‘The Act Of Killing’

The Arts


After a year of watching the most infantilising rubbish I have ever seen produced by a major nation, and feeling on the verge of abandoning Hollywood cinema for good, along comes a film so unique and incendiary that I watched it with my mouth literally hanging open. Its a film that requires you to stand your worldview on its head before you can make sense of this Alice In Wonderland nightmare.

Indonesia, a country of some 238 million people, the world’s fourth most populous, is effectively ruled by gangsters. In 1965-6 their paramilitary wiped out over a million of their own residents whom they suspected of being communists – anyone they didn’t like the look of, from shopkeepers to intellectuals, were tortured and slaughtered.

Afterwards there were no recriminations, no Hague trials. The near-fascist government and its militia had been put in power with the collusion of the West, and continued in power, where they remain until today, proudly called themselves gangsters (wrongly translated by them as ‘free men’), randomly shaking down the population for cash and getting involved in illegal activities from smuggling to environmental destruction without fear of recrimination. Their elections are rigged, their votes are bribed and their rally attendees are hired to cheer.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer and an international film crew, together with producers including Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, sought out the gangsters who committed the atrocities and asked them to do something very unusual. Seeing that they were still going around boasting of their crimes, and had grown up on Hollywood movies, would they like to film their stories, told in any style of movie they liked?

The result is so astonishing and disturbing that I can’t imagine anyone seeing this will ever be able to forget it. At the centre is a character study of Anwar Congo, a man who bears an alarming resemblance to Nelson Mandela. Always accompanied by his giant baby-like bodyguard/accomplice, he and his pals dress up and restage the throat-slittings and strangulations, demonstrating how to kill someone with wire, then showing their resulting film to their grandchildren. They gleefully choose film noir, horror movies and musicals to restage their crimes.

All this would be unbearable if not for the strain of surreal comedy running through it, as Congo frets about how his false teeth will look on-screen and his sidekick dons staggeringly inappropriate pink drag. Everyone has a good laugh burning villages (with the unnerved villagers playing themselves) and ‘only raping the pretty ones’.

That this is a deeply uncomfortable experience is never in question. At first, though, I had concerns about the ethical validity of the approach; would it merely propagate and validate the actions of unpunished murderers? This fear fades as the film becomes, quite literally, a battle for Anwar Congo’s soul. If one man can be made to recognise his accountability, could there be a gleam of hope for mankind?

Indonesia has bypassed the humanising process of democratisation, and expects nothing from its leaders to the point where the population actively request bribes from its politicians. What chance is there of making a man who cheerily admits to killing hundreds feel any kind of remorse or responsibility?

Oppenheimer calmly bides his time, allowing the gangsters to have fun, quietly leaving his camera on. Congo’s neighbour, a man whose own step-father was slaughtered, shifts uneasily in his chair as he portrays a garrotting victim, clearly tormented to tears by his situation.

But the most harrowing moment comes at the end when Congo metaphorically and physically empties himself as, like Hamlet’s mother, he admits ‘Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul; And there I see such black and grained spots As will not leave their tinct.’ It’s a unique 8-year-gestating experiment that was rightly honoured at Cannes with the Special Jury Award.

There’s a director’s cut with Q&A touring, and you can find out more here. The film is still playing in London but according to iMDbPro does not appear to have been shown in America outside of festivals. Why? See the post above this tomorrow.


3 comments on “Re:View – ‘The Act Of Killing’”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    I worked in Indonesia for seven and a half years, beginning in July 1972, which is not so long after the period described in the film. In the mid-Sixties the mostly Chinese were brutally treated, and a amazing and stunning number people were killed, by “native” Indonesians, who hated them and other “wealthy people” for their clannish and frequently tong-like business practices.
    While no amount of “explaining” can justify, or should justify, the mob killing and eviction of the Chinese (and other foreigners)from their companies, jobs, and homes, I feel I must note that to a significant extent, and unfortunately, the Chinese business community in particular had for decades, if not centuries, been seen to be “bleeding” the indigenous Indonesians without suffering any consequences and were roundly hated for it.
    What happened was set off by a “spark” – spontaneous combustion – and there followed a lengthy and frightening countrywide mob revolt (running ‘amuck’) that went unchecked until the mob’s violence had burned down. The Indonesian Government in Jakarta then, as somewhat now, was weak, disinterested, and corrupt. This is a huge undeveloped. or developing, country where there is a long tradition of the “ins” having the best of it and the “outs” having nothing or next to. (Similar to most governments, non?)
    What I think this film must document is a group of individuals who operated within the cover of a greater mob. I am sure there were many such, there always are, in troubled times and while I am equally sure their neighbors know who they are, finding them and bringing them to justice would be a herculean task – unless they make a movie!. These guys in the film should now be caught, but I bet they would mostly get off, after all they themselves appear to have believed they were making a movie, a fictional story.
    This is a film I want to see and in the interim I will reread the excellent “The Year of Living Dangerously”, which covers the same period as the film.
    Cheers. It is the 4th of July here, so I’m off to unpacking the fireworks for tonight.

  2. andrea yang says:

    Sounds fascinating and disturbing. Not sure I could bear to watch it.

  3. Sam says:

    Chris – The good people at Drafthouse Films ( are releasing it in the US – think you’d really like their approach to films. They’re also behind Fantastic Fest etc

Comments are closed.