Film Review: The Act of Killing

In the 1960s, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military. Anyone siding with the government was branded a ‘communist’ and was killed. Anwar Congo was one of the men responsible for the killings and, along with some of his cohorts, re-enacts the killings as dramatic works of fiction

I don’t think it’s too much of a sweeping statement to say that everyone’s aware of the events of World War II and the Nazi’s genocide of the Jews. But I’d put a good deal of money on not many people knowing that virtually the same thing happened in Indonesia in the 1960s. I certainly didn’t.

There’s no two ways about it; The Act of Killing is an incredibly difficult watch. I can’t think of any other film that has literally left me open mouthed and dumbfounded at what I was watching, and much of that is because of the way director Joshua Oppenheimer (you can read an excellent interview with Oppenheimer here) has chosen to go about telling the story.

Getting Anwar Congo and his sycophantic sidekick Herman Koto to re-enact the killings on film and create dramatised versions of the events is a work of absolute genius and serves only to further highlight their atrocities. They create scenes covering various film genres including gangster films, westerns and musicals, each twisted and disturbing to watch as they laugh and joke their way around the subject. Oppenheimer doesn’t need an agenda here; just letting it play out as it does tells its own story.

The casual, almost banal, way they talk about the killings is really quite startling. They proudly hide nothing and openly discuss killing hundreds and thousands of people as if swatting a troublesome fly. For example, when watching one of the scenes back in which he demonstrates his favourite method of killing, Anwar becomes visibly uncomfortable. However, we soon learn that it’s because he realises he’s wearing the wrong kind of trousers on the film to those he wore in real life. That’s the level of casual sadism we’re dealing with, and that’s just one example of many.

There has been some criticism levelled at the documentary in that it doesn’t address the role the US played in the killings, effectively supporting what was happening at the time. However, Oppenheimer has simply chosen a different route to take with the film and that’s his prerogative. It would simply be impossible to cover this topic from every angle, and those wanting more details should take it upon themselves to do some research.

This is by no means a comprehensive account of the killings but is more than enough to provide a truly horrifying snapshot into events that have somehow gone largely unreported. The Act of Killing is eye-opening, shocking and most of all important.

Pros

  • Incredibly inventive way of telling the story
  • An important historical event gaining wider coverage
  • Illuminating interviews with the subjects

Cons

  • Some slight production value issues

5 pigeons

5/5 pigeons

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40 thoughts on “Film Review: The Act of Killing

  1. jjames36 says:

    Can’t wait to see this. Haven’t gotten my hands on it yet, but as soon as it’s available I’ll be watching it.

  2. theipc says:

    This sounds like a rough watch….

  3. keith7198 says:

    Wow. Tough movie but a very intriguing one. I’ll keep me eye out for it. Solid review!

  4. Mark Walker says:

    Excellent write-up Chris. I’ve read so many glowing reviews on this one and really want to see it. Sounds like a rough ride though.

  5. Popcorn Nights says:

    Sounds fascinating Chris – I’ve read a bit about the film and have seen it pop up in a lot of end of year lists so am keen to see it. Nice review.

  6. ckckred says:

    Nice review. Ever since I first heard about the movie, I’ve wanted to see it. Your high rating makes me more eager to see it.

  7. V says:

    Interest and curiosity definitely piqued for this one. Great review, really does sound as fascinating as others have said.

  8. Great write up of a truly astonishing and brilliant film. Everyone should see it. Possibly the best film I’ve seen this year… that’s a list I really need to put together 😉

  9. ruth says:

    Brilliant review, Chris! Glad you finally saw this and thanks for linking to my interview post. Btw it’s Joshua Oppenheimer not Joseph 🙂

    This is an especially hard one to watch for me given that I was subjected to all the propaganda about anti-communism growing up, which are basically the victims that Anwar & co. slaughter in the 60s. “The casual, almost banal, way they talk about the killings is really quite startling” Yes indeed, it was utterly disturbing to see Anwar described the atrocities. And not just him, there’s also that scene where Adi was describing such heinous acts whilst casually walking around the mall w/ his family! I bet it was pretty traumatizing for Joshua making this, but it was quite eye-opening and I’m thankful that he made this documentary.

    • Thank you Ruth, very kind 🙂 And thanks for the heads up, I’ll change that now!

      This must have extra significance for you, and be really difficult to watch. It must also make it more interesting at the same time, but also probably infuriating, emotional and a bunch of other emotions. It really did shock me how casual they were discussing everything. The way one of them talked about killing his girlfriend’s dad as if it was the most natural thing in the world. So disturbing.

  10. Oh wow! Great review as always Chris! I found the DVD sold during one movie fest in Jakarta but i kinda scared to watch it. Of course with all the best-film list this year i feel like i need to deal and just watch it.

  11. “Some slight production value issues”

    Would you mind expanding on that?
    Nice review though! I’m not normally a big documentary fan, but this looks incredibly fascinating. With this and Blackfish, it looks like its going to be a good year for documentaries.

    • Yeah sure, it did look a little amateurish at times in terms of how it was put together. For example, it didn’t seem like it was filmed on the best camera and there were some loud spikes in sound at times but those are very small issues. There really have been some great documentaries and I’m sure plenty more I haven’t seen yet.

  12. lauren says:

    Hi I’ve nominated you for the Sunshine Blog Award, to accept it and follow the rules go to http://mykindofmovie.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/sunshine-blog-award/

  13. sati says:

    I haven’t seen it yet despite of the buzz. I’m in the happy mood now and I’m tying not to wreck it 🙂

  14. Just can’t find the time to watch this, desperately want to though. This is a great review Chris, I’m guessing it will feature highly on your end-of-year list?

  15. Tom says:

    Wow. I must see this. I think it’s more horrifying to realize how overlooked this event in human history apparently is/was, because this is also only the second time I’ve read anything about this. Five pigeons?? Damn. That’s a lot of pigeons. Must be worth it!!!!

    • I don’t give the full five pigeons very often man! 🙂 you’re spot on there, it was how overlooked this whole thing has been that really dropped my jaw. If this had happened in the US or Europe it’d be well known, which is shocking really. This is a must watch bit a difficult one for sure.

      • Tom says:

        Schindler’s List – level difficult? Worse?

      • Well I’m gonna have to come clean and say I’ve never seen Schindler’s List, it’s literally my biggest movie blackspot. I’d imagine this is difficult for different reasons though, as you don’t actually feel much for anyone in it but it’s just so unbelievably shocking.

  16. Nostra says:

    Amazing documentary which has ended up in my top 10 for 2013. Very difficult to watch indeed and it did inform me about something I was not aware of. Shocking, but I’m happy it was made as sometimes a light needs to be shone on the dark pages of history.

  17. table9mutant says:

    Great review. 🙂 But I know I wouldn’t be able to handle this one. :-/

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