The Act of Killing



This is one of the greatest documentaries I have ever seen: a fiercely experimental artwork that pushes the boundaries of the form. The chilling documentary opens with a quote from Voltaire: “All murderers are punished, unless they kill in large numbers, and to the sound of trumpets.” These words get to the core of what the film is about: who controls history and the impact that that has on the way in which we remember. Through a series of encounters with some of the men involved, Oppenheimer exposes the horrifying mass executions of accused communists in Indonesia and those who are celebrated in their country for perpetrating the crime. ‘The Act of Killing’ documents the efforts of a group of small-time gangsters in Indonesia to re-enact, through cinematic genres, their roles as executioners in the 1965-66 government-sponsored killings of so-called Communists. The men boast about their involvement in the murders and seize the opportunity to re-create their violent pasts in all their graphic and (in their words) “sadistic” detail. Through these horrifying and bizarre re-enactments, the men begin to engage with the reality of what they have done beyond the celebratory rhetoric Perhaps the most emotionally intense scene of the film is when one of the men plays a purge victim in his movie, is fake-garrotted in the same manner he once giddily employed. Rattled, he softly orders that the scene come to a halt, and seemingly confronts the horror of what he did. Soon afterward, Congo returns to the Medan roof deck, this time in no mood to do the cha-cha. What follows is one of the most jarring wordless sequences ever committed to film, one that features no dialogue but which is far from silent—it contains bursts of terrible noise. In this scene, and in the movie, more broadly, Oppenheimer has captured something remarkable: the rupture between the stories Congo has always told himself and the counter-narrative he’s long held at bay. In ‘The Act of Killing’ the adage ‘the winners write history’ couldn’t be more true. In Indonesia, the winners did indeed write history and through this incredible, experimental piece of filmmaking they found themselves forced to interrogate and confront their memories and the horrific reality of their actions.

Natasha Perkin

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