SXSW 2013: ‘The Act of Killing’ is a surreal documentary on war criminals


The Act of Killing
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous, Christine Cynn
Denmark/Norway/UK, 2013
The documentary film opens with a pertinent and incredibly insightful quote by Voltaire followed by a surreal dance sequence of killers in drag set against a waterfall. After 1965 where the military overtook the Indonesian government, a martial rule was in place and all those deemed “Communists” (farmers, intellectuals, dissenters, ethnic Chinese) were murdered en masse. To carry out these killings, the government enlisted the aid of paramilitary groups such as the Pancasila Youth draped in orange camouflage as well as common gangsters. They carried out heinous war crimes, killing millions over the next decades.

The Act of Killing follows these men after forty years, approaching Anwar Congo, former killer, to create a film reenacting these killings. Along the way, Congo and many others face their heinous crime in a variety of ways from remorse to unadulterated pride and joy.

As the band of geriatric killers travel around Indonesia to reenact their heinous crimes, the film reveals how each of them deal with their crimes. From demented nostalgia to a confused remorse, their reactions create incredible insight into the minds of monsters. Through these reenactments, the line between film and fiction, past and present, are incredibly blurred.


The documentary does not focus too much on the politics besides what the subjects themselves reveal. There is a great scene discussing involving the Geneva Conventions and one killer’s opinion on it that raises many questions from political philosophies to simple human morals. Rather than some vindictive documentary bent on revealing the truth in politics, the film is rather a meditation on these men and the personal morals (or lack of) we build as a result.

The Act of Killing is a look into the minds of killers and their different perspectives; it is surreal, dark, at times comical, and incredibly insightful.


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