MIFF 2013: The Act of Killing

1 Aug

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2013)


By Patricia Tobin

The Act of Killing is not meant to be an enjoyable film. It defies any notion of the conventional good-versus-evil dichotomy and instead, director Joshua Oppenheimer poses a few questions: why does man commit acts of evil? What sort of repercussions are formed from such crimes?

In 1965, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military and anti-Communist resentment was on the rise. Gangsters Anwar Congo and his friends were employed by the army to execute suspected Chinese communists in North Sumatra. Today, Anwar is a rich and powerful man in his community. He is now a rather dapper aging man, often seen in bright, well-dressed suits. He has close ties to heavyweight political leaders and is seen as a role model for young paramilitaries. Anwar and his associates have not been punished for their crimes against humanity. They appear on glossy talk shows and are cheered on at political rallies; their community wholeheartedly celebrates their “victory” against communists.

As a response to their incessant boasting about their past murders, Oppenheimer gives Anwar and his friends an opportunity to reenact their experience of the killings. However, as with every good documentary, The Act of Killing neither sympathises with these killers, nor does it paint them in a bad light. These killers are seen as very human characters, yet their responses to their past deeds are shocking, gross and offensive. There is hardly any gory or graphic imagery shown on screen, but their cavalier stance towards their past crimes is appalling. When the group is reminiscing about the past, they discuss the best age to rape women ¡ªfourteen. “Sedap!” one member happily cries, meaning “delicious”. It is this sort of awfully sickening behaviour that is hard to digest, but the film’s uncompromising position forces the audience to make their own opinions about these mass murderers.

The retellings by Anwar and his friends present an attempt by The Act of Killing to understand their openness towards their acts of genocide. It gives a deeper insight into the minds of the killers, and in particular, Anwar’s own personal feelings towards his past deeds. From the gun-touting cowboy John Wayne to the slick dance moves of Elvis Presley, these killers are great admirers of Hollywood cinema. They recreate an interrogation scene by drawing from Al Pacino and mafia mobsters, and surreal dream sequences are akin to lavish musicals. The fictional scenes are interwoven with Anwar’s narrative and his reactions from watching the finished products. The deliberate blurring of the lines between fiction and reality micmic Anwar’s own failure in his endeavour to escape the past. The film gradually reveals his vulnerability, hypocrisy and eventually, his sheer inability to properly grasp the true dreadfulness of the crimes he has committed.

The Act of Killing occasionally presents a bleak sense of humour, giving the audience some breathing space between all the talk about devious and dreadful crimes. In one scene, a politician invites the camera crew into his home. Flaunting his wealth, he brags about his massive collection of crystals. “Limited edition…they are all very limited,” he says. His kitsch crystal collection, ranging from a Tinkerbell figurine to a model of a duck, is all hideously gaudy. His flamboyance becomes rather humorous, as he also gleefully shows off a latex bass singing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”.

Stretching at a hundred and sixty minutes, The Act of Killing‘s steady pace is not meant for an easy viewing. The documentary also unveils that the killers’ pride is a result of a much more complex problem that is deeply rooted in a corrupt society. Political leaders freely extort money from Chinese shopkeepers, editors of newspapers publish one-sided reports and votes for parliamentary election are all rigged. The North Sumatra community is so entrenched in immorality, and any unscrupulous behaviour appears to be the norm. The Act of Killing is a very powerful film, and presents the terrifying truth that murderers are mere products of a debased society.

Patricia Tobin is a full-time university student and a part-time marathon napper. She writes theatre reviews for ArtsHub and sub-edits for Lot’s Wife. She tweets at @havesomepatty, and writes about film at http://screenappeals.wordpress.com.


3 Responses to “MIFF 2013: The Act of Killing”


  1. The Act of Killing | filmstvandlife - August 10, 2013

    […] MIFF 2013: The Act of Killing (australianfilmreview.wordpress.com) […]

  2. MIFF times are good times | Screen Appeals - August 11, 2013

    […] The Act of Killing is a documentary about the Chinese communists’ massacre in 1960s Indonesia. It’s a really shocking doco – there aren’t any gory images, but just celebrated killers and a really terrible society that is knee deep in corruption, misogyny, racism and bigotry. The Act of Killing is a highly compelling and powerful film that features an astonishing amount of shockingly brutal authenticity. I was really shaken by this doco (mainly due to personal reasons, which I will delve into later), and I recently attended a session that featured some academics and director Joshua Oppenheimer via Skype. This session helped in shedding some light on my initial thoughts of the film, which can be read in full here. […]

  3. Film Review: The Act of Killing | Treating Filmophiliacs Since 2011 - August 28, 2013

    […] MIFF 2013: The Act of Killing […]

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