The Act of Killing (4 stars)

The Act of Killing

Documentary confronting the perpetrators of Indonesia's mass killings of the 1960s

It’s estimated that the Indonesian military dictatorship in the mid-1960s was responsible for the killing of more than half a million suspected ‘communists’, following an attempted left-wing coup. American filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s remarkable 'documentary of the imagination' explores this genocidal violence, but not by the traditional method of combining archival footage and talking heads interviews. Instead he allows former members of the Pancasila Youth death squads, in particular a petty gangster named Anwar Congo, to re-enact fictionally their acts of killing in the manner of their favourite films, whether it be noirish thrillers, kitsch musicals or even Westerns.

Unlike the perpetrators of genocide in documentaries such as S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine and Enemies of the People, Anwar and his paramilitary colleagues did not serve any jail sentences: they are treated today as heroes in their society, and freely boast on television shows about their massacres. A trim and nattily dressed septuagenarian, Anwar seems only too happy to demonstrate the most efficient way to garrote his victims on a roof terrace opposite the cinema he used to frequent.

Opppenheimer’s high-risk strategy of avoiding historical analysis and giving the film over to bragging mass murderers pays huge dividends. For in the process of his cinematic recreations, which he even shows at home to his grandchildren, Anwar undergoes an unexpected emotional reckoning. The director has said that in making The Act of Killing he went 'looking for evil and found ordinary human being'. But be warned: the images and sounds of Anwar repeatedly dry retching in the final reel have a haunting power, whilst the number of anonymous names in the credits demonstrates the profound risks Indonesian citizens took when working on this film.

Limited release from Fri 28 Jun.

The Act of Killing Trailer

The Act of Killing

  • 4 stars
  • 2012
  • Denmark / Norway / UK
  • 1h 55min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Joshua Oppenheimer/Anonymous/Christine Cynn
  • UK release: 28 June 2013

In this remarkable 'documentary of the imagination', American documentarist Oppenheimer invited former Indonesian death squad members to perform fictional recreations of the many state killings they performed in the 1960s. In doing so, one member unexpectedly confronted the true horror of his own crimes, giving the film…