Documentary Corner: The Act of Killing

For this weeks documentary corner Carl Smith Valdez reviews The Act of Killing

Carl Smith Valdez
26th February 2019
Image: Flickr, Craig Duffy

The Act of Killing is a 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary made by Joshua Oppenheimer. It focuses on the 1965 purges in Sumatra, Indonesia, whereby more than a million civilians who were considered ‘communists’ by the government were sentenced to death.  

The documentary centralises around Anwar Congo and his associates, who are some of the involved perpetrators honoured by the government. A typical contemporary documentary reveals a truth concealed from deception and ignorance. The Act of Killing unearths a deeper and surreal truth; it confronts the executioners for their crimes and forces them to face the moral responsibility for their actions. 

Oppenheimer’s approach to filming is daring, yet remarkably rewarding. He intersperses reportage, re-enactments, and kitsch fantasy. Murders are re-enacted with gruesome props, augmented sets, and livers are fed to decapitated heads. Interviews are occasionally contrasted with choreographed musical numbers from the mass murderers. His bold approach pays off to captivating the ironic way the perpetrators face the distressing consequences of their wrongdoings.   

The Act of Killing is a raw, thrilling, eye-opening documentary.

The documentary bears disturbing resonance to Hollywood gangster movies to that of Marlon Brando, John Wayne and Al Pacino. This truly captures the demented fantasies of the perpetrators. The merging of fact and fiction leaves one to question whether the subjects are performing or are in fact displaying their true emotions. Nevertheless, Oppenheimer undoubtedly reveals the unresolved traumatic past that continues to haunt the perpetrators until now. 

A standout moment is when Congo plays the role of one of his tortured victims in an interrogation room. Congo seems emotionally drained from such moments, that he nearly collapses. The role reversal is almost empathetic; it welcomes the killers to ‘experience’ their own actions.  

Oppenheimer interestingly utilises a television screen in order to playback Congo’s re-enacted scenes in front of him. The result is a disturbing and compelling film. These segments invite Congo to reflect and see his disturbing actions right before his eyes. 

The Act of Killing is a raw, thrilling, eye-opening documentary. Its experimental approach offers a new tool to documentary filmmaking and demonstrates that even fiction can reveal another truth. 


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