The Act of Killing (Denmark, Norway, UK 2012)

act of kill

This is a documentary directed by Joshua Oppenheimer that presents events in Indonesia in 1965 through the eyes and memories of active participants in large-scale killings. The film was released in 2012 and is currently available in two versions. A theatrical digital release that runs for a 122 minutes and a Blu-ray release of a director’s cut which runs for 159 minutes [and apparently there is also a version that runs for nearly three hours]. The film has garnered favourable reviews though these also warn that this is a disturbing film. The sense of disturbance stems from the director’s decision to ask the protagonist to restage the brutal massacres in which they were involved. During the documentary we se interviews with these men [women are all subordinate characters]: we see them preparing and filming restagings of the events of 1965: and we see and hear comments by them after the filming. After the screening the audience members I spoke too were impressed but also disturbed. How to judge an approach which is clearly critical but also seems in some ways to condone the killings. One point was at a couple of pints the re-enactment footage is screened for the children of the family of one participant!

The film’s title, which includes the definite article, clearly sets out the agenda of the filmmakers. We are invited to watch certain historical events, but these are treated as an exemplar of what can be described as war crimes, brutal almost psychotic violence, and even genocidal policies. “a new form of documentary that combines re-enactment with its preparation as a way of showing what these events mean to you and your society; a kind of documentary of the imagination rather than a documentary of everyday life.” [Oppenheimer quoted in Sight & Sound July 2012].

In a Sight & Sound review Tony Rayns took the film to task. “The near-total absence of context, either about the historical facts or about the production process itself, definitely doesn’t help us understand what we’re seeing or how we’re seeing it.” The accompanying synopsis completely oversimplifies that history. Indonesia had achieved independence from Dutch colonialism in 1950. In 1957 Achmad Sukarno became President and inaugurated a left-leaning government. His policies and the influence of the Indonesian Communist Party [PKI, the third largest Communist Party in the world] alarmed the imperialist powers, especially the USA and Britain. Both were involved in nefarious activities and in 1959 there was a CIA-inspired army rebellion.

The events of 1965 commenced with a coup by left-leaning army officers; and there is strong evidence that the coup was designed to prevent a planned anti-Sukarno coup. The bulk of the military, led by General Suharto, prevented the coup. They then blamed the coup on the PKI and instigated a large-scale repression. In this they were aided by conservative religious and ethnic forces. Possibly more than a million people died, and as many were imprisoned and frequently tortured. The massacres bear some resemblance to the more recent events in Rwanda. Whilst many victims were members of the PKI, many were not. Religious, ethic and economic motives led to people being identified as victims: there were particular attacks on the ethnic Chinese population. Whilst the records are murky or secret there is no doubt that the UK and US administrations had some involvement in what can seriously be identified as a holocaust.

Much of this history does not appear in the film. It does present the extreme violence and the particular violence perpetrated against civilians, including Chinese citizens. But this is entirely based on the recall of the perpetrators and victors. Suharto was President until 1998, and [like Franco’s Spain’] the victors’ account was entirely dominant. Even now over a decade on the events have not been addressed in Indonesia. At one point in the film we see the protagonists interviewed on an Indonesian Television channel, in what seems to be a quite jovial and uncritical manner. Internationally the events have received minimal attention. One interesting example is the film The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) set in Indonesia in 1965. The actual events are as little explained in that film as in the new documentary, but even so the film was banned in Indonesia until 1999. An Indonesian production from the 1980s seems to perpetuate the notion of a ‘communist conspiracy’.

Rayns also notes that “the emotionally manipulative use of some of the material … raises all kinds of questions about veracity.” I wondered during the screening exactly how the footage that we se participants watching on video compared with the completed film circulated here. Is there an Indonesian cut? The end credits are filled with ‘anonymous’: indicative of how a repression till controls this subject in Indonesia. Both Tony Rayns and Nick Bradshaw (Build My Gallows High, also in Sight and Sound refer to other films including one by Rithy Panh featuring member of the Khmer Rouge] which have parallels with The Act of Killing. These however are easily assessable in the UK. Oppenheimer himself refers to cinéma vérité. However to take to key examples from this movement, Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un Été, 1961) and Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai (The Merry Month of May, 1962 – now restored in a new 35mm version), both films have a sharp and developed sense of the context, which includes the French colonial wars in North Africa. And both films have a reflexive approach: despite the vérité approach in The Act of Killing the film does not seem reflexive. In fact, I found it more like the British fly-on-the-wall approach.

Act Kill

One context that does affect Oppenheimer’s film is cinema and Hollywood. Several of the participants refer to their love of Hollywood films. One especially grisly method of execution is apparently copied from some film: [I thought they referred to The Godfather Part II but that is some ten years later, 1974]. When you watch these re-enactments and also their celebratory musical extravangza which ends the film these seem distinctively Indonesian. Oppenheimer suggests that “our use of stories to escape from the reality of our lives.” I find this a somewhat debatable notion. But what is do think is that making these the central imagery in his films does allow the film, and the audience to the degree that it buys into the film, to escape the historic reality that was Indonesia 1965.



  1. Jake Baldwinson

    I guess when talking about lack of context, maybe Werner Herzog is a good comparison here. In Lektionen in Finsternis (Lessons of Darkness), Herzog deliberately avoided giving his images political or historical context, even going as far as creating a fictional narrative with his voice over. Although this is a completely different kind of film (considering how little we have contact with human beings in …Finsternis), I think there is a similar approach to giving the subject it’s own personal perspective than a wider one.

  2. keith1942

    The comparison with Herzog is interesting. I have a similar problems with his films after his early work in Germany. There is a lack of political context, as with The Act of Killing.
    I think a model film for this sort of topic is Resnais’s Night and Fog: it has context, it is reflexive and it is intensely cinematic.

  3. Rona

    Interestingly, the film opens by stating it is presented by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, establishing its connection with challenging but socially-engaged documentary. I agree that this is a film that has to justify itself at every point, because of the material it uses and, more importantly, generates. Oppenheimer (from the evidence of some of the response of his interviewees) has obviously used his status as British with them to encourage participation. (I would’ve liked to have known more about how he set up the interviews here). The film walks an odd line between observational and quite self-reflexive documentary techniques at times. That alone should make any of us deeply uncomfortable. I think you are right, Keith, that an audience needed to understand the historical context and the context of the film-maker because there was a contract of trust going on. I think the comparison with Herzog’s earlier film is a great one. I want to go back to that and compare it with how he interposes himself (to create a commentary) in recent films but can maintain a certain ambivalence in his presence. But once Oppenheimer allowed these brutal men – who freely admitted to murder and rape without a sense of personal impunity – to run the show (the fact that it is they who call cut on sequences – not the documentary director – is evidence of this) he had a great responsibility about how to cut and show that material.

    I think it’s an important film. Oppenheimer clearly cares passionately about getting the story of this corruption and brutality out there. One fascinating sequence shows an appalling ‘celebrity’ interview with these men on mainstream TV intercut with a commentary from the technical gallery (which reveals that everyone is quite wearily used to these men as untouchable for their crimes). In another place, one of the perpetrators shows complete awareness of how their appearance will be received, but is still willing to take part (and makes some uncomfortable comparisons with the moral position of the ‘war on terror’). A real moral question for me was – if I supported these killings, would this film disturb my frame of reference? I’m not sure it would.

    Perhaps the longer versions have more time for some of these questions? I thought about how we, in the UK, used to have programmes such as ‘World in Action’ to do its kind of job for mass audiences on TV. Depressing times, when political documentary-making has gone off the TV news agenda.

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