BIFF Film Review: The Act of Killing (Denmark, Norway, UK, 2012)


Viewers going in to see this documentary were warned that it was going to be grizzly. But none were prepared for the disturbing images this film produced. Most of which were re-enactments and fantasies, but they were all horrific and true.

The Act of Killing focuses on a group of retired gangsters in Indonesia. In 1965, the Indonesian Government was overthrown by a military dictatorship. A murderous purge ensued that eventually took more than a million lives. Still living in Indonesia and without fear of persecution, mass murderer Anwar Congo and his gang are the subjects of this chillingly brilliant documentary.

But what is most terrifying is how much they enjoy re-enacting their crimes. In preparation for their own feature film to commemorate the purge they consider a victory, these strange soul-damaged men re-enact scenes of killing, playing themselves fifty years ago as well as the victims. But as the film progresses it gets harder and harder for many of them to keep saying “I’m not guilty.”

Joshua Oppenheimer is the brave director who befriended these men to the point where he could beg the gang leader not to show such graphic scenes to his grandchildren. The man neglected Joshua’s requests and played the scene nonetheless. The same man later cried in front of Joshua.

This strange parallel between history, violence and pride from the era in which it happened and today, when the men can only gloat and shape the truth to their liking is produced by history documentarian heroes such as Errol Morris.

There are light-hearted moments, because as much as these men want you to fear them in the end they are just that – men. They are not Gods, they are not movie stars, and they are not blessed or superior. No matter what they keep saying over and over again it doesn’t hide the fact that the gang leader, Anwar, has nightmares at night of his victims coming to get him. It doesn’t change the fact that he thinks of the thousands he personally killed with cold urgency or torturous brute force, and has to wipe away tears.

The film does get very arduous towards the end. You see and hear so many cruel things; things like mothers trying to offer their own children as sex slaves to save their lives, or men raping women especially if they’re underage because that’s when they’re most “delicious”. But after two hours you get squeamish and tired. It is draining to hear of so much sadness. The sadness of this film literally sucks the life from you, slowly and surely. You will leave the theatre disgusted and empty. But perhaps that is exactly what Joshua Oppenheimer wanted you to feel.


The Act of Killing screened at – and was reviewed during – the Brisbane International Film Festival


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