Humanizing Murder; Thoughts on “The Act of Killing”

Shefali Murti
Writing 150 Fall 2020
3 min readOct 31, 2020

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Image taken from “The Act of Killing”

I recently watched “The Act of Killing” directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, and it is a documentary unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It was visually confusing — both stunning and gruesome — and the emotions it invokes are very jarring and conflicting. This documentary is about the mass killings in Indonesia in 1965–66, but what is so intriguing and troubling about it is that it’s telling the stories of the murderers, of the death-squad leaders. Not only is the art of the film unique and beautiful (which is unexpected considering the content of it), but the filmmakers actually let these acclaimed leaders reenact/re-stage their most memorable murders in whatever way they pleased, which were very jarring, gruesome, and raw scenes. You’d think that this makes the actions of these men seem even more violent, awful, and inhumane in the audience’s view. However, right from the beginning of the film, the perpetrators are treated as any other normal, everyday, good person; they are humanized, rather than villainized. This in itself has a very jarring effect, because where we should feel disdain and horror towards these individuals, we almost feel sympathy and remorse.

I wonder, though, about the ethical implications of allowing this to happen. Asking the executioners to re-stage their most prized murders seems like encouraging them on and further praising them for these actions deemed inhumane and horrifying. So what is the value in the way these filmmakers created this documentary? Essentially, “The Act of Killing” requires us, the audience, to genuinely look at the stories, emotions, and actions of the perpetrators. By treating them as a protagonist, the directors create a sense of normalcy and a connection between the audience and the perpetrators, likely in order to express the idea that they are also humans, they also used to be just like us. The film is forcing this horrifying yet riveting connection in order to pose the question of, do all humans have the ability to commit such acts of violence?

R. Douglas Fields discusses the idea that “Humans are genetically predisposed to kill each other.” In his book Why We Snap, Fields says: “Our violence operates far outside the bounds of any other species. Human beings kill anything. Slaughter is a defining behavior of our species. We kill all other creatures, and we kill our own.” This idea is not something the general human population wants or chooses to think about, because it would just be criminalizing ourselves. I, for one, certainly do not want to think of myself in association with killing. But this idea is fundamental to human nature, no matter how atrocious and shameful it seems. This documentary is forcing these confused feelings, forcing this introspection, and forcing a discussion of this, so that we, as a society, re-evaluate our assumed general lack of relation to killing.

Works Cited

Fields, R. Douglas. Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain. Dutton, 2016.

Oppenheimer, Joshua, Signe B. Sørensen, Brink J. Ten, Christine Cynn, Anne Köhncke, Michael Uwemedimo. The Act of Killing. , 2014.

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