There’s so much to say about The Act of Killing and its availability, now on DVD, is a great opportunity to bring up a discussion that is seldom had in the west or within Indonesia.
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and an anonymous Indonesian, The Act of Killing appeared in cinemas in 2012. It won the 2013 European Film Award for Best Documentary, the Asia Pacific Screen Award, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th Academy Awards. It also won best documentary at the 2014 BAFTA awards.
In basic terms, the film discusses killing – with people who have actually carried out killings. On its own the film is very powerful and unique amongst documentaries.
An advantage to watching movies on DVD or Blu-ray is the special features that accompany them.
This DVD package includes an interview with the director Joshua Oppenheimer who describes what he set out to achieve. He explains the film as if one could imagine a world where the Germans had won World War II and then spoke to the people who carried out the killings of the Holocaust.
The murder of alleged communists in Indonesia in 1965 to 1966 is relatively unknown in the west. In fact, there is an entire generation of young Indonesians who know little of it.
This historic event is what the film focuses on and we learn more about what happened as the film progresses.
When contrasted to the Killing Fields in Cambodia the concept of worthy and unworthy victims becomes apparent.
This is what the great intellectual and US dissident Noam Chomsky describes when explaining that atrocities committed by western powers or their allies, as was the case in Indonesia, are much less known in the west compared to atrocities committed by enemies of the west, as was the case in Cambodia.
However, The Act of Killing goes much deeper than pointing out this concept.
The film introduces the killers, who carried out these murders, as people.
They calmly boast of what they did and demonstrate the most efficient and ‘clean’ ways they murdered, interrogated and tortured victims.
The film-maker actually convinces them to dress as gangsters and re-enact their interrogations and murders. They do this quite willingly.
The audience begins to see what happens when people who murder hundreds or thousands of people are praised for it, rewarded for it and encouraged to brag about it.
Anwar Congo, one of the many killers interviewed for the film, becomes the focal point.
He is said to have personally killed more than 1000 people, often strangling them with wire.
The film-makers become friendly with him and over time he brings in other people who also killed during this time.
A surrealist element enters the film as the killers not only re-enact their atrocities, in the form of cheesy Western and gangster films, but produce a grand musical number complete with cross-dressing and dancing.
The Act of Killing is the most interesting documentary I’ve ever seen. It is certainly unique in its subject matter and in the way it tells the story.
Looking through the eyes of a westerner is particularly challenging, as extortion and corruption that are part of everyday life in Indonesia are thrown wide open.
Much has been written about this documentary. While I would highly recommend it, the unsettling nature of this film means it is not for everyone.
A sequel to the film, The Look of Silence, is set to be released this year.
This is a rare piece of film making. It is more than a documentary and more than journalism. It will hopefully set the standard for future projects which is greatly needed in a world where our thoughts are shaped and framed by those who prefer we adopt a clear-cut good and bad view of the world.