Review: The Act of Killing (Oppenheimer, 2012)

Still from the movie The Act of Killing

I put off writing this review for a few days because I didn’t know how to approach it. I still don’t. Even while I was watching the movie, I knew I would have a tough time talking about it. But why? I think because it defies all expectations of its subject matter.

The Act of Killing is a documentary (nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar this year) following executioner Anwar Congo from the Indonesian killings of 1965-66, when over half a million “Communists” were massacred. In present day, many of the perpetrators of the killings have not only not been brought to justice but hold positions of power in government as well as in the 2.5 million strong Pancasila Youth paramilitary group. In the film, Congo is creating his own movie recreating his experiences from the time of the mass killings.

Watching the film was a surreal experience. I felt as if I were encountering a bizarre parallel universe where all my known moral structures had been dismantled and tossed aside. It was disorienting. The subjects were simultaneously human and inhuman. And slippery as fish. From an objective perspective, it was fascinating to watch the human mind grapple with the cognitive dissonance of having committed mass atrocities, crimes against humanity, and living a relatively normal, harmonious, even peaceful old age. And then to see the fissures emerge and blow wide open. It is not a simple story.

As director, Oppenheimer does not remain completely neutral or aloof. I appreciate that. His interference is both evident and necessary. Sometimes viewers can hear his voice asking questions in Bahasa Indonesia. Congo and his friends constantly address him by name, “Joshua this, Joshua that.” For some reason they keep thinking he’s from London, though he’s really an American living in Denmark.

I don’t know what else to say. If you watch this film, it might blow your mind. It certainly blew mine.

(And after you watch it, check out his interview on The Daily Show, and read his absorbing conversation with’s Allan Macinnis.)

Note: For those interested in Joshua Oppenheimer’s other work, there isn’t much else to be found (so far). Nonetheless, one of the documentary projects he works on appears to be available for free online. I think it’s the one he refers to in the interview when he talks about how he began The Act of Killing.