The Act of Killing – Movie Review by Alexandra Ferguson

The Act of Killing is the kind of film which is typically forgotten. After watching the film, I immediately asked my friends if they had seen it, and no one had even heard of it; despite its BAFTA (Best Documentary, 2014) win and OSCAR (Best Documentary, Features, 2014) nomination this year.

Production Company: Final Cut for Real, Piraya Film A/S (co-produced with), Novaya Zemlya (co-produced with), Spring Films (in association with)

Country: Denmark, Norwary, UK (filmed in Indonesia)
Year: 2012
Certificate: 15
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous (co-director), Christine Cynn
Cast: Anwar Congo – Himself , Executioner in 1965, Herman Koto – Himself , Gangster and Paramilitary Leader, Syamsul Arifin  – Himself , Governor of North Sumatra

The Act of Killing

On the other hand, The Act of Killing is the kind of film which becomes legend. In 20 years or so, people will be asking each other if they have seen this documentary, and will be scrawling through websites to confirm whether or not it could possibly be real.

The Act of Killing

This documentary is the result of filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s eight year stay in Indonesia. Here he met, and befriended, some of the most infamous and dangerous men to have walked the country’s soil.

Led by Anwar Congo, a group of self-proclaimed ‘gangsters’ became the notorious ‘death squad’ in 1960s Indonesia, and were

Death-Squad filming in The Act of Killing
Death-Squad filming in The Act of Killing

responsible for the torture and murder of more than 500,000 communists and ethnic Chinese; though these labels were simply a way to kill anyone who did not support the regime.

Oppenheimer’s documentary introduces Anwar and his men and asks them to recall their experiences as members of the ‘death squad’. As the men talk about their memories, it becomes clear that much of their excitement towards torture and murder comes from watching Hollywood movies; and their love of actors like Marlon Brando and Al Pacino. The men even remark about how they would watch an Elvis musical at the pictures, leave the building to sing and dance across the street, and as they reached the other side of the street, they would viciously attack and kill whoever happened to be standing there in that moment.

It’s this love of Hollywood cinema which gives Oppenheimer the idea to ask the men to re-enact their killings of the 60s as part of their own film. It may sound morbid and disrespectful, but when you see the reaction of the men and their enthusiasm to create their own movie, you can understand why Oppenheimer went ahead with the idea.

And that is the premise of the documentary. A group of torturers and murderers create their own Hollywood movie, on a tiny budget, and with their own murders as part of the film’s story.

Anwar in make-up for his film in The Act of Killing.
Anwar in make-up for his film in The Act of Killing.

It’s not surprising a large majority of people haven’t heard of the film. It is difficult enough to explain the premise, and once explained, it doesn’t sound like anything you would want to watch.

However, this is one of the greatest achievements I have ever seen in documentary filmmaking. The film is a true discovery for the audience, but even more so for the men who are the subject. It is painful to watch in a lot of places and completely astounding. You will find yourself laughing, and then suddenly remembering who these men are and what they have done.

It’s also an incredible insight into Indonesian culture, as all these men are still honoured today. People are still afraid of them and are told to fear the cult of the communists in order to destroy them at all costs.

If you’re still not sure, the fact that Werner Herzog is credited as an executive producer, and you can clearly feel his presence throughout the film, might give you more of an idea of what to expect from the film. Herzog must have been a great influence on Oppenheimer, and the film is a stunning success because of it.

The Act of Killing.3

The Act of Killing is one in a million. It is like nothing else. It is chilling and terrifying in the most real of senses, but it is also hilarious and bizarre; leaving you feeling entirely unnerved. The juxtaposition between watching the men talk to camera about the way they have savagely killed men, and then cutting to a shot of one of these men dressed in full drag costume is total genius, and total insanity.

The severity of Oppenheimer’s film is clear by the credits as so many people involved have been titled ‘Anonymous’. Attaching themselves to the film by name would be suicide.

The ending of the film is Oppenheimer’s greatest achievement. The last sequence with Anwar is a revelation and it is an incredible journey to go from such savage opening moments to such a powerful understanding and vulnerability.

If you do decide to watch The Act of Killing, I also recommend getting the DVD and then watching the features included with the disc, as interviews with Oppenheimer go a long way to explain how the film came together and will answer any questions you might be left asking.

If you think you’ve got the stomach for this, I can’t recommend it enough.