The Act of Killing (2012)

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, co-directed by Christine Cynn and Anonymous. Final Cut for Real, DK.

The Act of Killing is a remarkable film — original, gripping and unsettling.

It follows former leaders of the Indonesian death squads as they explain and re-enact their crimes. It is estimated that between 500,000 to one million people were accused of being communists and killed in 1965 and 1966. The killers featured have not been punished and in some circles are celebrated for their roles in the massacres.

A major criticism made of The Act of Killing is its lack of context. The film opens with a very brief explanation of the mass killings, presented as text on-screen. But the focus is on the killers themselves — what they did, how they justify it and the position they inhabit in modern Indonesia. Director Joshua Oppenheimer has argued that The Act of Killing was never supposed to the an exhaustive account of the events of 1965, which is fair — that would be a very different type of documentary. But for those unfamiliar with the part of Indonesian history in question, it may have been useful to include at least a little more information, if only to avoid confusion and enable a greater engagement with the story.

One of the strengths of The Act of Killing, and it has many, is its ability to look very quietly and clearly at the mass murderers as they tell their own stories. The production and camerawork are unobtrusive and at no point are these men labelled evil or psychopathic. But they willingly expose their actions to the public gaze and the effect is chilling.

Just what victims’ families must have thought when they saw the murderers’ reenacting their crimes is addressed in a companion film, The Look of Silence.