top of page
  • Benjamin May

The Act Of Killing (2012) Review

On the first of October, 1965, members of the Indonesian National Armed Forces launched a coup d'état. Although it eventually failed, the coup resulted in the deaths of six Indonesian Army generals and set the stage for President Sukarno’s eventual displacement, ushering in General Suharto’s autocratic regime. Under Suharto’s rule, a staggering number of alleged communists- including Sukarno's supporters, members of labour and farming unions and Chinese Indonesians- were brutally killed. Backed by the U.S., the responsible paramilitary groups- namely Pancasila Youth- remain influential to this day.

Between the years of 2005 and 2011, director Joshua Oppenheimer traversed Indonesia, interviewing members of Pancasila Youth about the mass murders they partook in. He discovered a disturbing lack of remorse among them, with many recounting their deeds with unsettling nonchalance. Anwar Congo, a prominent figure in these events, as well as his right-hand man Herman Koto, collaborated with Oppenheimer to reenact the killings they participated in; a process with unexpected consequences for all involved.

‘The Act of Killing’ is a fascinating documentary, exploring a particularly dark passage in human history. Oppenheimer captures not just a vivid portrait of Indonesia, exposing how the gangsterism of Pancasila Youth is pervasive from the top down, but also examines themes that resonate outside of the film’s context. He delves into the psychological impact of mass killings- of genocide- on both the perpetrators and society at large, highlighting the complex interplay between personal guilt, collective memory and national identity.

The film shows that the psychological effects of the mass murders extends far beyond the immediate aftermath, revealing the deep scars left on the psyche of the killers, manifested in a complex mix of denial, bravado and, at times, haunting remorse. Oppenheimer’s lens captures the dissonance between the perpetrators’ self-image as heroes and the brutal reality of their actions. As Congo and his comrades reenact their past violence, they begin to exhibit signs of moral injury- a term used to describe the internal suffering that results from doing something against one’s moral code.

Furthermore, the documentary also touches on the broader societal impact of such atrocities. It shows how a culture of impunity and the glorification of violence can distort collective memory, leaving a nation to grapple with an unresolved and painful past. The chilling ease with which the killers recount their stories reflects a society still coming to terms with its history. Oppenheimer’s work serves as a powerful reminder of the long shadow cast by acts of violence and the importance of confronting the truth for both individual healing and societal reconciliation. The reenactments become a conduit for the killers to face their own humanity and, perhaps, for the audience to reflect on the capacity for cruelty that lies within society at large.

The cinematic journey Oppenheimer takes viewers on is a stark reminder of the international political dynamics of the era, as well as the chilling ease with which such violence can become normalized. Moreover, Oppenheimer’s film demonstrates the transformative power of cinema, as the recreation of past atrocities compel the killers to confront the reality of their actions, leading to unexpected moments of introspection and realization.

Cinema is shown to be a bridge between history and present-day, between reality and memory. Oppenheimer uses the medium not just to document but to provoke, to stir the conscience of both his subjects and his viewers. The reenactments serve as a surreal stage where the killers, often seen as larger-than-life figures within their communities, are confronted with the human cost of their actions. This process reveals the medium’s ability to challenge perceptions, to bring the abstract horrors of history into sharp, personal focus.

As the killers step into the shoes of their victims, the audience witnesses a rare occurrence: the blurring of lines between perpetrator and victim, the collision of past and present. It’s a testament to the power of cinema to not only tell stories but to also initiate a dialogue, to heal and, perhaps, to transform. Oppenheimer’s documentary shows how film can be employed to navigate the complex terrain of human morality and to illuminate the paths towards understanding and redemption.

Central to the documentary are the figures of Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, whose chillingly candid accounts of their roles in the killings provide a human face to the historical atrocities. Congo, in particular, emerges as a complex character, at once remorseful and defiant, haunted by his past yet also strangely boastful. His journey reveals him to be a man grappling with the enormity of his actions, offering viewers a disturbing glimpse into the psyche of a perpetrator. Koto, meanwhile, serves as both a comrade and a foil to Congo, providing a contrasting approach to the reenactments. His demeanour oscillates between that of a remorseless gangster and a man seeking redemption, embodying the contradictions that run through the entire narrative.

Oppenheimer’s cinematography is as bold and unsettling as its subject matter. The camera work is intimate, often uncomfortably so, bringing the audience face-to-face with the men who committed truly heinous acts. The use of vibrant colours and surreal staging contrasts sharply with the grim reality of the stories being told, creating a disorienting effect that mirrors the moral disarray experienced by the killers themselves.

The film’s visual language is not just about aesthetic choices; it’s a deliberate strategy to engage the audience on a visceral level. Scenes are framed in ways that force viewers to confront the banality of evil, to see the ordinariness of the men who carried out unthinkable crimes. It’s a powerful reminder that history is not just a series of events, but a collection of personal stories, each with its own perspective and, indeed, pain.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s ‘The Act of Killing’ is a seminal work in the landscape of documentary cinema. Reminiscent at times of Kazuo Hara’s ‘The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On,’ or the work of Werner Herzog, it is a powerful piece that leaves a lasting impression. It pushes viewers to face harsh realities about humanity, prompting deep reflections on guilt and justice, while also using cinema to reflect and challenge, ensuring its lasting impact as an agent for understanding and change. It is, in short, a masterpiece.


bottom of page