Amateur Dramatics + Genocide = The Act of Killing (2012)


Joshua Oppenheimer’s astonishing The Act of Killing was voted many critic’s top film of 2013. It is a documentary quite unlike anything made before – the film maker tracked down surviving members of Indonesian death squads from the Sixties, and persuaded them to re-enact the murders they committed. Instead of the usual mixture of talking heads and archive footage, however, Oppenheimer encourages them to make their own film, and replay the crimes in the style of their favourite movies – gangster, cowboy, musical, etc.

Over the past year I’ve watched loads of documentaries, and have come to the conclusion that documentary film makers are among the most egotistical. I can handle a certain degree of arrogance, because I think if you are an artist, then how can you expect the audience to be interested in your work if you don’t believe in yourself and what you have to say?

This egotism becomes problematic in documentaries when the subject is something serious. I switched off from Michael Moore’s point of view when he started grilling a clearly befuddled, elderly Charlton Heston in Bowling For Columbine, deciding Moore was so rabidly Liberal that his point of view couldn’t be trusted any more than his right wing targets.

One of my favourite directors is Werner Herzog, a man given to self-aggrandising, philosophical voice overs in many of his films. He gives the impression of a man in a staring contest with the cold gaze of an impassive universe, and fancies his chances of beating it. But I became similarly uneasy in Grizzly Man, his documentary about Timothy Treadwell, a troubled, deluded man who believed he could commune with the grizzly bears of Alaska, only to meet a predictably gruesome end.

The film features a scene where Herzog jumps in front of the camera to listen to the audio of Treadwell and his girlfriend being savaged to death by a bear. One of Treadwell’s friends is in possession of the tape, but claims not to have listened to it. Herzog listens gravely, then advises that she should never listen to the tape and should destroy it.

My issue with that scene is that the tape is the whole thing – it is a recording of two people’s final moments. But Herzog uses it to put himself front and center: to show how brave he is to listen to it, to show how magnanimous he is in his recommendation to the deceased’s friend, and to show how responsible he is a film maker to not use the tape in his film. The point is, though, if Herzog hadn’t chosen to bring the audio to our attention, the audience wouldn’t know about it, and at that moment, the film stops being about Treadwell and starts being about Herzog the Big Man instead.

That’s a lengthy example to use at the beginning of a review, but I’ll come back to it later when I try to explain why The Act of Killing left me with such a bad taste in my mouth, and why I believe the film lurks in ethically dubious territory.

The Act of Killing focusses on one killer in particular, Anwar Congo. Congo is a family man, calm and good-humoured, and is personally responsible for around 1000 killings as the government employed Indonesian gangsters to help purge the Communist threat – ie. anyone who challenged their power. In an early scene, Congo explains the best way to murder someone without it getting too messy: tie a length of wire to a post, wrap it around your victim’s neck, and pull hard on the other end until they’re dead. Then he does a little dance.

So much of The Act of Killing buggers belief, as Congo and his friends coolly boast about how they killed “happily” after strolling out of the cinema, dancing across the street to the tunes they’d just heard to execute another enemy of the state. As the film progresses, the re-enactments become more elaborate and surreal, as the gang don gangster outfits and cowboy hats to replay their greatest moments.

The paramilitary organisation that found its genesis in the death squads is still extremely powerful in Indonesia, and includes many powerful government figures in its number. The killers have never been brought to justice – there has never been the kind of reappraisal of their actions like in Germany after the Nazi atrocities, or in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge. Therefore these killers are still revered as heroes and celebrities – in a dystopian moment on a chat show, the murderers receive rapturous applause, while the host smilingly agrees: “God hates Communists”, and discusses methods of murder.

It gets worse. One man boasts about raping young girls. A musical number, set incongruously to Born Free, features one of Congo’s victims thanking him for executinghim and sending him to heaven. If you didn’t know it was a documentary, featuring real people re-enacting real events, you might think it was some ultra-dark satire.


Oppenheimer coaxes these real life killers into making a film about their crimes. During the process, Congo begins to accept what he has done is wrong. He already admits to having nightmares about the murders. In a late reversal of roles, Congo gets to play the victim, and has a violent reaction – finally he gets to fully empathise with his own victims.

Through the process, Oppenheimer manipulates one old man to experience the process of acceptance, guilt, empathy, and gradual road to atonement that takes whole nations many decades to go through. It is a brilliant experiment, and the results are startling – but who is Oppenheimer to make these decisions?

The director keeps himself off camera, never explains his motives. We spend lots of time with Congo and his gang, see the process of their appalling home movie. We don’t get to see the conversations between Oppenheimer and the killers about the process. The whole experiment comes across as so cruel and calculated, so manipulative and gloating, that without Oppenheimer’s presence you have to wonder about the man himself – is he some kind of sociopath?
The enormity of Congo’s crimes is so big that I think it would be responsible of Oppenheimer to step in front of the camera from time to time, or at least give a voice over, to show how he is feeling about all this. The man spent six years in the company of these killers, so I think it would be good to find out what he felt about the process.

I felt that Herzog’s intervention in the earlier example was unnecessary and rather inappropriate, but in a situation like the making of The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer’s presence would not only be helpful and appropriate, but essential. This is a documentary director at his most omniscient, making a film so recklessly vigilante in its intentions, casting himself as judge, jury and executioner as he goads these uneducated killers into incriminating themselves on film.

You might think that Congo and his pals committed acts so dreadful that they got what was coming to them, but that’s not justice. I couldn’t help but think of Saddam Hussein, the right man executed for the wrong reasons, and Bin Laden, a bad man whacked in similar fashion by the American government in a style reminiscent of mob hits in a gangster movie. When someone commits acts of unspeakable evil, it is necessary for “us” to extend the utmost courtesy in bringing them to lawful justice, otherwise we end up just as bad as the bad guys themselves.

It must be hard to make a film completely neutral about atrocities in our post 9/11 world. Perhaps the most neutral film I can think of is South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police, which got a muddled reception from many critics because it not only took the piss out of gung-ho American foreign policy, but the bleeding heart Liberal reaction to it aswell.

In the end, The Act of Killing failed for me because it stopped being about the subject, and revealed more about the Western world’s sanctimonious, above-the-law reaction to the threats beyond its gates – off with their heads, guilty until proven innocent. And while these superior attitudes persist, there will be no chance of reconciliation or peace in the world.


The Act of Killing should be approached with caution. It is at least half an hour too long, and will be deeply upsetting for some viewers. While I believe it is a necessary film, it is necessary for the wrong reasons.


About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 03/01/2014, in A, Documentary, Film, Movies, Reviews, War and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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