Documentary filmmakers often set themselves to the task of exploring the events of the past. What Joshua Oppenheimer and his filmmaking team do in The Act of Killing, on the other hand, is something singularly remarkable: They bend the act of exploring those events into the chance to redeem a human soul.
The background is the 1965 military coup in Indonesia, which led to the purging and execution of more than a million people, most of them accused of being Communists. The subjects are several of the men tasked with carrying out those executions, focusing on Anwar Congo and Herman Koto. They seem to feel no remorse for their actions; indeed, they see Oppenheimer’s film project as a chance to celebrate their deeds, which the director gives them a chance to re-create in any manner they choose.
The results are jaw-dropping—not just for the arresting images, including a musical number staged at the location of a giant fish sculpture, but for the matter-of-fact way in which we see Congo and his compatriots describe their techniques for torturing people or carrying out killings while minimizing the messiness. One man bluntly decries the futility of trying to bring so-called war criminals to justice; history is written by the victors, yes, but it’s a potentially endless cycle of violence attempting to rewrite that history.
Yet most gripping of all is the way The Act of Killing shows the willful suppression of guilt as a pure survival instinct. Repeatedly, Oppenheimer captures men who claim no knowledge of certain crimes, or find themselves startled at their emotional response to re-creating the crimes they committed. By the time Anwar Congo’s arc of self-discovery is complete—bookending one of his earliest scenes with a powerful return to the same location—The Act of Killing has become one of the most haunting films you’ll ever see about facing the reality of something you’ve built an entire identity around not facing.
THE ACT OF KILLING