'The Act Of Killing' Reinvents The Genocide Documentary

Photo of Sam Spencer
12 January 2017

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing tells the story of the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide in a way that is both compelling and deeply chilling.

Put simply, The Act of Killing is a behind the scenes look at the making of a film. A violent film, with interrogation, murder and gangsters. A film of which Anwar Congo, the man invited by Oppenheimer to make it, proudly boasts, ‘We can do something more sadistic than you see in films about Nazis’.

This could be a description of any number of gangster films slightly on the wrong side of bad taste. However, this iconoclastic documentary recounts a true event: the massacre of over 1,000,000 people who were decried as communists and killed by what the film calls ‘paramilitary and thugs’ in Indonesia in 1965. More interesting still, the film is made by, and stars, the killers themselves, who recreate their own crimes for this film with a hyper-violent glee that is truly terrifying.

Clearly, then, this is a documentary like no other, far more influenced by the tragedy of Hamlet than anything we have seen from even the finest directors working in documentaries, including this film’s two executive producers Errol Morris and Werner Herzog. In fact, the comparison to Hamlet is crucial to a true understanding of this film. In essence, The Act of Killing is a playing out of the possibilities of ‘the Murder of Gonzago’, the play-within-a-play at the centre of Hamlet.

Where Hamlet gets a band of travelling players to re-enact the history of his father’s murder, Oppenheimer takes a conceptual leap forward and gets the perpetrators themselves to re-enact their own crimes. In fact, this is perhaps the most chilling element of the entire film: that whereas the cold-blooded killer of fiction Claudius has to be tricked into revisiting his past bloodshed, the makers of the film-within-a-film in The Act of Killing recreate their pasts happily. Sometimes, reality can be far more evil than even the greatest villains of stage and screen.

Not that these stage and screen heroes and villains do not loom large in The Act of Killing. Congo at one point says that how he acted as an executioner was directly influenced by watching the films of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and John Wayne, and goes on to say that he chose his method of execution (by wire) because ‘they always kill with wire in gangster films’. Black and white separation between the good guys and the bad guys, which in films is show as a logical ordering of the world, is here shown as the dangerous distinction it really is, as the the paramilitaries take this as a cue for their slaughter on an unprecedented scale in the name of the quashing what they see as the ‘villain’ of communism, which quickly became shorthand for anyone who disagreed with the ruling order.

After highlighting this, Oppenheimer himself cleverly avoids falling into the same trap for his documentary, resisting what must have been a strong urge to paint the executors in broad terms as purely villains like the cartoon Nazis we see in so many films, the most recent example being Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Although the paramilitary and gangsters are hardly given a free ride, Oppenheimer also gives us fascinating insight into the guilt and coping mechanisms that come, metaphorically speaking, after the credits roll.

He says of one of the killers ‘by calling it war you’re not haunted [by your role in the atrocities]’, and the film revolves around Congo’s methods of coping with what he is done, leading to a harrowing scene at the close of the film where the persona he has built for himself over the years finally cracks, and it is so tragic a sight we as an audience find ourselves empathising with the man even despite of all he has done. With this, the message is clear: film has the power to override our emotions of morals, and it is important to be aware of the process.

In this way, the documentary is as much about ‘act’ as it is about ‘killing’, and through this a dark truth is discovered. The film implicitly argues that a figure like 1,000,000 dead is actually incomprehensible, not only to us as viewers of this film but also to those involved, and it is this incomprehensibility that allows those involved to continue with their lives after committing unspeakable crimes.

In fact, The Act of Killing is all about ‘act’ as a kind of self-deception, arguing as it does that humanity is able to deal with its misdeeds because it can deceive itself about them. This is most obvious in a scene late in the film which uses some of the footage from this film-with-a-film. The setting is heaven, and the killers have their victims actually thanking them for killing them in this scene as it saved them from the evils of communism. What is most disturbing about this is that it a beautiful scene, set amongst the jungles of Indonesia, and we as viewer are shown that this is genuinely how many of the people involved in the genocide actually feel about it.

This only scratches the surface of what is an incredibly rich film that is able to subtly deal with monumental issues, highlighting and suggesting points of view to us without ever being truly didactic about them. The Act of Killing is equal parts disturbing and stunning, a masterpiece of documentary film making, and an essential watch.

Equally essential is the film’s sequel and companion piece, The Look of Silence, released in 2014. This time, Oppenheimer shifts his focus to the victims of the Indonesian genocide rather than the perpetrators, crafting a powerful and empathetic film that explores themes of grief, guilt, and retribution. He follows the youngest son of a family deeply affected by the tragedy as he seeks out and confronts his brother’s known killers, most of whom still hold positions of power. It’s a harrowing exploration of the palpable tensions of modern Indonesian society, where those who murdered a member of your family can live just around the corner. Like The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence has received rave reviews and won multiple awards at prestigious international festivals.

Viewed together, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence present a multidimensional, fully realized portrait of a culture still reeling from horrific tragedy. Oppenheimer tackles the difficult subject of genocide with a stark yet sensitive hand, forcing viewers to question the roles of both victims and criminals. They may not be easy viewing, but Oppenheimer’s documentaries are necessary meditations on the unimaginable, and will stay with audiences long after the credits roll.

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