Documentary Review: THE ACT OF KILLING (directed by Joshua Oppenheimer; co-directed by Anonymous & Christine Cynn)

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by Kevin Bowen on August 7, 2013

in Film


If there were a subtitle to Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, it could be “A Re-enactment by Fun-Loving War Criminals.” In this unsettling documentary, a cadre of aging Indonesian gangsters relives their part in a pogrom against communists in the 1960s. In the political chaos of that time, the Indonesian army staged a coup in order to pre-empt a suspected communist takeover of the government (a coup which saved the characters played by Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver for those familiar with The Year of Living Dangerously). In the following years, the government hired bands of street thugs to murder their political opponents and conduct a reign of terror.

Among the most infamous killers was a man named Anwar Congo. A loving grandfather and a charismatic personality with a taste for movies and dancing, he shows no sadness at the sadistic deaths of 1,000 men. The film tracks Congo and several of his fellow killers, relating the stories of their murderous duties. But rather than do a conventional interview documentary about the time, Oppenheimer instead asks the killers to re-enact their acts of killing. Having little shame about their heinous deeds, the men agree.

To call this extraordinary film “bizarre” is an understatement, yet the film succeeds within its weirdness: Consider a corpulent cross-dresser, a musical sequence and conversations that no sane person should be having. When it isn’t squeezing cream from the irony tube, the documentary paints a sharp-eyed critique of Indonesia, which appears to be run by a Nazi-like “paramilitary” organization ruled by oppression and kleptocracy. The parallels to the SA are chilling.

The Act of Killing counts among its producers two famous documentarians, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog. Morris docs like to let their subject hang themselves, and that is evident in the design here, but the film more greatly resembles Herzog’s sense for the ecstatic truth: This is not a strictly factual documentary, but one that uses storytelling elements to get to the heart of the matter.

The Act of Killing touches on any number of things. There is the inevitable look into the heart of darkness that is pretty much unavoidable for such a film. There is also the disturbing connection between Hollywood films and the violence the men perpetrate (they took inspiration from hard-boiled gangster films of the era.) The film does a capable job of capturing what’s there and what’s always going to be there in documentaries about political oppression, but I’m less certain about the success of its flights into surrealism. You are being pitched a very direct story in this film. Nonetheless, expect to be struck by its curveball approach.

The Act of Killing
Final Cut for Real Productions, Drafthouse films
Denmark, Norway, UK / unrated / 116 mins
in limited release July 19, 2013
for more info and screenings, visit

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