The Act Of Killing

( Denmark, Norway, United Kingdom / 2012 )
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In a country where killers are celebrated as heroes, the filmmakers challenge unrepentant death squad leader Anwar Congo and his friends to dramatise their role in genocide. But their idea of being in a movie is not to provide testimony for a documentary: they want to be stars in their favourite film genres—gangster, western, musical. They write the scripts. They play themselves. And they play their victims. This is a cinematic fever dream, an unsettling journey deep into the imaginations of mass-murderers and the shockingly banal regime of corruption and impunity they inhabit.
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Formats: Digital Copy, DVD
Running Time: 159 min.
Theme: Asian Studies, Author's POV, Conflicts, Crime, Ethnography, Genocide, History, Hybrid see all »
Language(s): Indonesian
Subtitles: English
Director(s): Joshua Oppenheimer
Producer(s): Signe Byrge Sørensen, Joshua Oppenheimer, see all »
Cinematographer: Carlos Arango de see all »
Editor(s): Niels Pagh Andersen, see all »
Excluded regions: Canada, Australia, New see all »
The Act Of Killing


  • Press Kit
  • ★★★★★ "The most compelling thing you'll ever see"
    The Guardian
  • ★★★★★ "An utterly fascinating, chilling, but important film"
    Independent on Saturday
  • ★★★★★ "Shatteringly powerful"
    The Sunday Times
  • ★★★★★ "This might be the most important documentary ever"
    The Daily Mail
  • ★★★★★ "Simply the best film of the year"
    The Metro
  • ★★★★ "Like no movie seen before"
    The Financial Times
  • ★★★★★ "Unlike anything else out there"
    Little White Lies
  • ★★★★★ "Staggeringly original"
    Time Out
  • ★★★★★ "A devastating, surreal must-see"
    The Evening Standard
  • ★★★★★ "Shocking and surreal"
    The Skinny
  • ★★★★★ "A strange and startling documentary"
    The Arts Desk
  • ★★★★★ "Challenges the very limitations of what a documentary can be "
    Cine Vue
  • "THE ACT OF KILLING is the most powerful, politically important film about Indonesia that I have ever seen. The arrival of this film is itself a historical event almost without parallel. [It] witnesses the bloody destruction of a foundation of this nation at the hands of Indonesians themselves. On top of a mountain of corpses, our fellow countrymen rolled out a red carpet for the growth of gangster capitalism and political Islam. In documenting this, The Act of Killing exposes the hypocrisy at the heart of this country’s notions of ‘patriotism' and ‘justice.’ The film achieves all this thanks to the director’s genius and audacious choice of filmmaking method."
    Tempo Magazine (Indonesia's premier news magazine)
    Ariel Heryanto, Historian and Cultural Critic
  • ★★★★
    The Act of Killing / Review / / July 19, 2013
    by Stephen Boone

    Killing is not necessarily a cold business, and killers are not necessarily cold-blooded. "The Act of Killing" introduces us to several Indonesian mass murderers who could be movie stars. They jump at the chance offered by this documentary's maker, Joshua Oppenheimer, to make their own movie, a chronicle of their years carrying out an anti-Communist purge that claimed over a million lives in 1965-66. When the military recruited them as muscle, they became the most feared and sadistic of the liquidators. But they did it all in style: Notorious killer Anwar Congo points to a black-and-white photo of young man who looks like a sleek hybrid of Charles Bronson and Smokey Robinson: "That's me. I'm wearing a plaid shirt, camouflage pants, saddle shoes…" He advises the film's costumer not to dress him like that for the massacre scenes. "I wore jeans for killing. To look cool, I imitated movie stars."

    Still fit and spry in his sixties, Congo uses the film to confront facts long denied publicly and long sublimated personally. He and his pals believe that no court, from local authorities to the International Criminal Court, can prosecute them for their crimes 40 years after the fact. This gives them the confidence to deliver unguarded performances for their movie and offer astonishingly candid testimony for Oppenheimer's. Yet almost every night, Congo says, some of the hundreds of victims he killed with his own hands visit him in his dreams.

    One of the more excruciating recurring motifs here is the sight of present-day civilians doing their best real-life acting whenever these gangsters are around. Indonesia may have returned to a semblance of democracy after strong man Suharto's resignation in 1998, but the murderers still control politicians and business leaders.

    And the people still fear them. Chinese shop keepers and market vendors who are old enough to have been around when their people were indiscriminately included in the purge are forced to smile wide while handing protection money over to Safit Pardede, arguably the vilest of the gangsters in the film. (Later on, while taking a break from filming a reenactment of a village massacre, he reminisces wistfully with his buddies about raping fourteen year-old girls. "I'd say, 'It's gonna be hell for you but heaven on earth for me!'") Such moments made me wonder whether I was watching yet another reenactment, since it seems pretty crazy for a thug to openly admit crimes on camera.

    It appears that longstanding corruption has solidified into a core Indonesian principle, like democracy or capitalism. We see politicians make speeches proudly declaring that they are gangsters, careful to remind the crowd that the term "gangster" in their society only means "free man." A leading newspaper publisher brags about how he manufactured evidence against suspected Communists, providing long lists for the death squads. This is the smiliest atrocity documentary I've ever seen.

    Between camera setups on the historical film, Congo's neighbor Suryono shares a story about watching the death squads abduct his communist stepfather. Quick to reassure the gangsters that "I'm not criticizing what we're doing," he describes finding his stepfather's body under an oil barrel the next day. At 12 years of age, he had to help bury his stepdad in a roadside ditch. Moments after this recollection, Oppenheimer keeps the documentary camera focused on Suryono, whose cavalier facade is crumbling by the second. He seems to implode as Congo's friend Adi Zulkadry, a flinty veteran executioner who reminds me of Ray Winstone, browbeats the others about sugarcoating their crimes: "Everything Anwar and I have always said is false. It's not the communists who were cruel. I'm absolutely aware that we were cruel."

    This seemingly odd compulsion to confess becomes the film's (and the film-within-the-film's) grandest special effect. We are witnessing nature's justice, a force of law more precise than the courts. It squeezes the truth out of these guys, who can't seem to shut up about what awful people they are and how incessant partying, self-medication and relatively prosperous family lives keep them from facing their crimes squarely. Denial comes as naturally as breath, in perpetual tandem with convulsive shame. When that doesn't do the trick, there's always relativism: Says Zulkadry, "When Bush was in power, Guantanamo was right. [Bush claimed] Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. That was right, according to Bush, but now it's wrong. The Geneva Conventions may be today's morality but tomorrow we'll have the Jakarta Conventions…"

    The historical film-within-a-film doesn't seem to have a lavish budget, but it does appear lovingly crafted by a discerning, resourceful crew. The reenactments strive for brutal accuracy while a few fantasy sequences give the impression of a comical telenovela co-directed by John Waters and Alejandro Jodorowsky. Congo's pal, the portly, vicious but hilarious paramilitary leader Herman Koto, even appears in outrageous beauty-queen drag, an Indonesian Divine.

    There's never been a shortage of dark, grim documentaries that catalog life's cruelty, horrors and banality of evil. Thanks to the documentary genre, I have watched hundreds of hours of war crimes, genocides and miscarriages of justice carried out by unremarkable men with dimly lit souls. "The Act of Killing" bids to outdo them all. I'm not sure even the film's powerhouse executive producers, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, have ever presented cognitive havoc so densely yet elegantly packed into one documentary.

    The visual and aural rhythms of this one feel as if Oppenheimer is slowly, carefully climbing a mountain of lament and shame, each footfall made with absolute certainty that there's solid, (if jagged and painful) rock underneath. When we arrive at the top, the view is majestic in its sadness. From this vantage point, the last half hour of "The Act of Killing" surveys a divinely art directed stretch of hell. It looks familiar, a place of law and order and malls and McDonalds. Doting grandfatherhood has brought out the gentleness in Congo, whose beautiful smile and gentle laugh lines make him resemble Nelson Mandela (rather than the dictator his friends say his dark skin evokes, Idi Amin).

    Watching his finished film with his grandsons, he begins to understand something essential about himself and his victims. Oppenheimer seizes the moment, posing a question that knocks the wind right out of him. This masterpiece about propaganda, cinema and vanity as instruments of power and terror ends on an excruciatingly sustained, righteous money shot: a monster who could have been a good man suffocates on the truth.
    Stephen Boone
  • In the early hours of October 1, 1965, a group of junior officers in the Indonesian military assassinated six generals and threw their bodies down a well. Their coup attempt was crushed by nightfall, but the murders became the opening scene in the founding of present-day Indonesia. The senior surviving officer, General Suharto, accused Indonesia’s Communist Party of being behind the killings, and, in the words of historian John Roosa, an authority on these events, “orchestrated an extermination of persons affiliated with the party.” This was the height of the Cold War, and Indonesia had the largest communist party outside of a communist country, with affiliates ranging from labor unions to intellectuals to peasant farmers. In the name of saving Indonesia from the threat of Marxism, the army and its affiliated militias carried out one of the largest mass killings of the 20th century, executing 1.5 million suspected communists in less than a year.

    By March 1966, Suharto was running a military dictatorship that would last more than 30 years, and the story of the murdered generals was the pretext for his entire regime. “Under Suharto,” Roosa explains, “anti-communism became the state religion, complete with sacred sites, rituals, and dates.” Each year, Indonesian students were required to view a graphically violent, Hollywood-style dramatization of the murders. The executioners, many of them active gangsters, were celebrated as national heroes and rewarded with political power. Even after the Suharto regime ended in 1998, this power structure remained. There was no official apology or reconciliation, and the killers continued to live alongside their victims’ families. The extermination of communists became as much a part of Indonesia’s founding mythos as the extermination of Native Americans is a part of America’s—a bit of necessary unpleasantness.

    The Act of Killing, a global success on the film-festival circuit that had a brief theatrical run in the US this summer, tells the story of the massacre from the perspective of the men who perpetrated it. Joshua Oppenheimer, the film’s director, encouraged former executioners to re-enact their deeds any way they wished. He filmed the re-enactments and the creative process behind them, and blended the two into a documentary in which the killers serve as both subjects and artistic collaborators. The premise sounds offensive and deliberately provocative, like some outré work of post-colonial, art-house horror. But the idea emerged organically, over nearly a decade of filming in Indonesia, as a documentary and investigative technique well suited to tell the story of the massacre.

    When Oppenheimer first arrived in Indonesia in 2001, he began talking to surviving victims and their families. He and his co-director, Christine Cynn, lived for a year with a village of survivors in North Sumatra, working on an experimental film that became the forerunner to The Act of Killing. Filming was constantly disrupted by local police or military or thugs, and they worried for their subjects’ safety.

    The silence enforced on the victims’ families was particularly ironic when compared with the boastfulness of the killers themselves. And when Oppenheimer hit upon the idea of turning to these men for an explanation of the massacre, all obstruction ceased. He would simply ask a former executioner what he did for a living and, within minutes, be taken to a massacre sight and told horrific stories about beating people to death with bricks. In February 2004, an executioner took the film crew to a site near a river where he had helped kill 10,500 people in less than three months, then posed for pictures that look eerily like the ones that would emerge from Abu Ghraib just two months later, smiling and giving the thumbs up as the river into which he had dumped the bodies meandered through the background.
    Columbia Journalism Review
    Michael Meyer
  • Democracy Now! Interview with Joshua Oppenheimer
    Amy Goodman
  • Realscreen Article
    Kevin Ritchie
  • Wall Street Journal
    Daniel Ziv
  • On a traffic-choked street in Bali's capital, Denpasar, Edo walks through his family's shop to an empty back room. Only there does he feel safe enough to explain why he's afraid.

    "Well, it's because probably the killers are still out there," he says.

    The killers he refers to are those who Edo believes are responsible for the murder of his grandfather, one of between 500,000 and 1 million people estimated by human rights groups to have been killed by military death squads during anti-communist purges across Indonesia in 1965 and 1966.

    The mass killings were sparked by a failed coup on September 30, 1965 and the murder of a number of generals in the military. A major general in the army at the time, Suharto blamed the coup on communists, ousted President Sukarno -- the country's first post-independence leader -- and sanctioned the hunt for those responsible. After assuming the presidency in 1967, Suharto ruled Indonesia for 31 years until 1998.

    Many contend those targeted during the purges were not communists but ethnic Chinese, or anyone with left-wing views.

    Edo describes how his grandfather had been kidnapped from his home late one night, targeted he believes because of his work with a government organization set up to integrate ethnic Chinese and local Balinese.

    "Everything broke down after that. The family business and their home was burned down, they lost everything and had to start from scratch," says Edo.
    "I am pretty sure one uncle of mine knows who did it. (The murderers) are still alive and around and I still have my fear."

    For thousands like Edo in Bali and across the rest of Indonesia, confronting that fear and addressing this brutal period in the country's history is something most have been unwilling or unable to do openly.

    Many worry that publicly dissenting from official versions of the events and coup -- ingrained through Suharto-era propaganda, like the 1984 film "Treachery of G30S/PKI" -- could lead to retribution from those connected to the killings. More often than not, killers and victims' families still live in the same communities.
    "It's like the Nazis winning and then they are still in the government," says Edo. "People live with fear, they are afraid to get involved."

    However things are slowly changing. That Edo is now facing his fears in part comes from the impact of "The Act ofKilling," a new documentary by American director Joshua Oppenheimer.

    While books and other films have told some of the survivors' stories, Oppenheimer's film recounts for the first time the violence from the perpetrators' perspective.

    Captivating, powerful and at times bizarre, it follows the boastful but ultimately conflicted Anwar Congo, a low-level gangster turned executioner, as he reenacts how he and others murdered hundreds of people. As well as the moral and personal journey taken by Congo, the film also shows the links between the murderers, paramilitary groups and government officials.

    "Rather than showing Indonesians something they don't already know, (the film) exposes something that they already know to be true and what they are afraid to address," says Oppenheimer, who spent around seven years making the film around the Sumatran city of Medan, with a largely local crew who had to be credited anonymously.

    "(The survivors told me) we need a film that comes to Indonesia like the child in "The Emperor's New Clothes" saying that the king is naked... everybody already knows it, but if it can be said so powerfully, so forcefully, so emotionally by the perpetrators themselves, then there will be no going back."

    At two secret screenings last December and February, Edo showed the film to members of a local film club. Some were too afraid to even watch it, while others thought it could stir up new trouble.

    "Some in the audience asked, 'Why are you opening up old wounds?' But the wounds are still open wide and people are still afraid," says Edo.

    Others, particularly the younger generation, have become emboldened by the film and the chance for greater openness, like Termana, a member of Komunitas Taman 65, a Bali-based group comprised of victims' family members.

    "The Act of Killing gave us an opportunity to talk about the events," he says at group meeting just a few hundred meters from one of Bali's most popular tourist beaches.

    "(The killings) happened here in Bali and show the dark side of the paradise island, but also the dark side of family life." Termana's grandfather disappeared one night in early 1966 and was never seen again.

    Through slow and at time painful discussions with family members more is being learned about the difficult period. Termana admits he didn't know until recently that a village in western Bali is called "Dark Field" because it was where up to 600 people are believed have been slaughtered.

    The perpetrator says Roro, a fellow Komunitas Taman 65 group member, is believed to be the head of another village, who is known more openly for his charisma and dancing skills. Like Anwar Congo in Oppenheimer's film, Roro says the village leader was not shy to boast of his murderous exploits, believing that he carried out his violent acts with impunity and for the right reasons.

    However, since the film and the growing groundswell of discussion about the events it relates to, he has become less inclined to boast about his exploits, says Roro.

    Monday, September 30 is the anniversary of the 1965 coup and the date Oppenheimer has chosen to make the film available to everyone in Indonesia to watch online. He decided not to try for a general cinema release for the film, fearing that if it was banned and people watched it, it could legitimize more violence.

    "Somehow I think that because Indonesia is moving on, the film is able to have its impact," he says.

    "Ten years ago maybe too many people were actually involved, complicit with the military dictatorship and too invested in its power structures ... but now younger Indonesians are saying 'I want my country to function.'"

    While welcomed by Komintas Taman 65, there are real fears widespread viewings of the film could stir anger and reprisals from younger members of survivors' families and a new conflict with paramilitary groups.

    "I do worry that there may be a new conflict," says Tka, at the Komunitas Taman 65 meeting. "After Suharto's 'New Order' collapsed we thought (the perpetrators) would be found guilty."

    So far, official attempts to revisit the events of 1965 and 1966 have failed. While Indonesia's National Commission on Human Rights published a report last year stating the anti-communist purge was a gross violation of human rights, it was not taken any further by the country's Attorney General. A draft bill for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission also failed in 2006.

    "How do you establish the truth after all this time? asks Roro. "Truth is hard."
    Dean Irvine
  • Former death squad members Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry in full make-up as they prepare for one of the re-enactment sequences in the documentary "The Act of Killing," about mass killings in Indonesia in 1965-66.

    “The Act of Killing” is a powerful and often horrifying inquiry into mass killings in Indonesia. Director Joshua Oppenheimer interviewed former leaders of the death squads that executed hundreds of thousands of alleged communists between 1965 and 1966. Many of the perpetrators of these mass murders are in positions of influence today, and their political heirs form the backbone of the Indonesian establishment. None have been prosecuted for their crimes.

    This extraordinary film features elaborate re-enactments of the massacres, as staged and acted by the killers themselves. Oppenheimer’s central subject is the death squad leader Anwar Congo, who recounts killing as many as 1,000 men, garroting his victims with wire. One of the founding fathers of the paramilitary organization Pancasila Youth, Anwar is celebrated as a national hero by many in Indonesia.

    Earlier this month the film’s production company, Drafthouse Films, announced that “The Act of Killing” would be made available as a free digital download in Indonesia starting Sept. 30, the anniversary of the start of the 1965-66 genocide.
    Anwar Congo is an extraordinary figure, in part because he seems like a man who is trying to confirm his guilt in a society that keeps insisting on his innocence. How did you come to him, and was he typical of the other perpetrators you interviewed?

    He was the 41st perpetrator I filmed. I started this project in collaboration with a community of survivors, and every time we got together the military would stop the filming. They would basically not allow the survivors to speak. But the survivors would send me to film their neighbors in the plantation village where they were living — neighbors who they knew had been involved in the killings — in the hopes that I would be able to find out how their loved ones had died.

    I would go and meet these people, and I would introduce myself as just the foreigner living in the village, hoping they would be curious and invite me in, and they were. I would try very gently to ask about the past, very innocuous questions like “What did you do for a living?” And I was immediately assailed by these answers which were boastful, grotesque, horrific stories of killing, often delivered in front of their grandchildren, their children, their wives.

    The contrast between the survivors, who were bullied into silence, and the perpetrators, who were boasting about what they had done, shook me. I felt as though I had walked into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust and the Nazis were still in power. And I knew from that point that this would demand of me however much of my life it would take.

    The first time I meet Anwar, he dances the cha-cha-cha in the spot where he has killed hundreds of people.

    So I filmed perpetrator after perpetrator after perpetrator. I filmed every perpetrator I could find, working my way across the region. They offered to take me to places where they had killed within minutes of meeting me. I would accept these invitations, and as soon as we could arrange such a trip we would go. And they would launch into these spontaneous demonstrations of how they had killed, complain that they hadn’t thought to bring weapons along as props, or friends along to play victims.

    That scene in the beginning of the film, when Anwar shows how he killed with wire — that was the very first time I filmed him. Two things were more extreme in Anwar than in the others. One was the boasting. The first time I meet him, he dances the cha-cha-cha in the spot where he has killed hundreds of people. Other perpetrators had approached that degree of grotesque absurdity, but this was one step beyond.

    But more importantly, and I think directly related to the stridency of his boasting, was the sense that his pain was close to the surface. I intuited then that his boasting is a desperate attempt to deny what he knows — namely, that he has done something terrible — and convince himself, and everybody around him, that it was right. That is, the boasting turns out to be a sign not of pride, but the opposite. And it is defensive.

    It seems clear that Anwar is suffering from some form of PTSD. And it’s interesting that all the perpetrators took you to the site of these brutal killings. Do you think there’s something about re-enactment that allows people to access an old trauma, something that’s not been fully processed? And were you conscious of that when you started using it in your film?

    The survivors and the human rights community in Indonesia at the beginning of this journey said, “We need a film that comes to Indonesia like the child in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ and exposes for Indonesians what they already know” — both this traumatic history, but above all the way this traumatic history underpins a regime of fear and corruption in the present. In that sense, I used re-enactment in the film because it was a way of exposing impunity. Every time a perpetrator would take me to the place where he had killed and cavalierly show me how he had done it, it was material for exposing the nature of this regime.

    But I think what motivates the perpetrators to re-enact is also an attempt, paradoxically, to deal with their pain. The way I can explain this seeming paradox — how can they be trying on the one hand to celebrate what they’ve done, and on the other hand be trying to deal with their pain — is this: You cannot go to the place where you killed and with a smile show how you did it if you are not somehow insisting that it was great, or right, or worthy. In that sense each re-enactment is a denial of the moral meaning of what they did. So I think they’re unconsciously drawn to the trauma. But at the same time, once they’re there, rather than have the courage to say, “This is wrong, look what we did,” and be utterly devastated by that — rather than that, they celebrate, justify and boast, in order to reassure themselves that what they did was right, and to protect themselves from the traumatic force of the very memories they are drawn to explore.

    By the end of the film, when Anwar returns to the site where he’s committed these murders, he has a very different reaction from the first time you filmed him at the site. Instead of dancing, he’s doubled over in pain. On some level, the film has allowed him to confront what he has done.

    It’s interesting to look at the end of the film. We would never shoot more than one re-enactment at a time or plan more than one fiction scene at a time. Anwar would plan it, we would shoot it and he would watch it, and in reaction to that he would propose the next scene. So the method is like a man painting his own portrait — he paints, he steps back, he paints a little more.

    So in this one re-enactment, Anwar plays the victim being strangled, and he feels traumatized by it. Then he proposes this scene at the waterfall — where he imagines the victims waiting to give him a medal to thank him for sending them to heaven. And of course that scene is a direct response to the previous scene, an attempt to wash the pain away.

    That scene at the waterfall elicits weeping from Indonesian viewers, but laughter at the same time — because there is for Indonesian viewers the cathartic joy of seeing the whole regime unmasked. The scene is almost a punch line for the entire regime: This is a society that was founded on mass murder, where the perpetrators are in power, where the victims should be thanking them for sending them to heaven. So you can see this tension between my project, which is to expose a regime of impunity, and Anwar’s project, which is to somehow deal with his pain.

    And in that sense, we never really were friends. We care about each other a lot; I spoke to him today. But both of us were trying to work out much bigger projects than the relationship. He’s trying to deal with decades of pain, from killing hundreds and hundreds of people; I’m trying to expose a regime on behalf of survivors and the human rights community. Maybe that tension animates the whole film — the tension between empathy for Anwar as he struggles with his past and repulsion of seeing what this whole regime is about.
    Was it his idea to act the role of the victim?

    It was his idea; it was something he was doing from the very beginning. At the outset of the film, he has a length of wire around his neck showing me how he killed. He says, “Now I must show you how the victim died.”

    The memory of watching victim after victim being strangled to death may be more traumatic than anything else for him. And yet he’s drawn to it. Perhaps by re-enacting it he tames it, makes it safe — builds up a kind of protective scar tissue around the wound. Maybe the film gave him a space to feel guilty.

    Fiction allows us to both evade truth and to approach it — or rather, it’s fiction that allows us to 'construct' our world. You use movies and the language of fiction in the context of a documentary. What is the film saying about the relationship between fiction and truth?

    The film is about how we create our world through storytelling. We are constantly — in order to cope with painful realities — shuffling through third-rate, half-remembered fantasies taken from movies, from TV, from people we admire. We do this individually, we do it collectively — we tell stories to escape our most painful truths.

    Cinema is of course the great storytelling medium of modernity. And it just so happened that these particular killers had this love of American movies; they were [in fact originally] recruited from the ranks of movie theater gangsters. So, organically, film genre became the medium for exploring and expressing its own implication in the performance and remembrance of violence. I don’t think the film is saying that violent movies cause violent behavior. The example Anwar gives of a movie that directly participated in the killings is an Elvis Presley musical. He says that he walked out of the cinema and danced across the street and killed happily. Well, Elvis Presley musicals are not violent. The issue, rather, is storytelling as a means of escape and denial.

    It feels also that the film is saying that the structure of fiction allows us to access a truth that is perhaps not as easy to get to in a factual way.

    Yes, that too. Fiction allows us to both evade truth and to approach it — or rather, it’s fiction that allows us to “construct” our world. It’s haunted by the unimaginable and the unspeakable. It’s like Anwar is trying to chase his shadow through the making of the fiction.

    What is the life of the film in Indonesia? I know you’ve been doing private screenings. Will you be submitting the film to the censorship board?

    As of April, there had been 500 screenings in 95 cities, averaging in size of about 200 people. So although underground, a lot of them are big — some of them have been 700 people.

    The official response to the film being as hostile as it has been — not the public response, the public response has been wonderful — but with the government giving no indication of even considering the National Human Rights Commission’s demands for a presidential apology or truth commission, and with nasty remarks about the film from leading high-ranking army generals, we don’t want to take the risk of submitting it to the censorship board. Because if we do, and they ban it, then it’s a crime to screen the film at all. That becomes an excuse in Indonesia for the army or paramilitary groups to physically attack screenings. We don’t want that to happen.

    Do you think a truth and reconciliation process is possible in Indonesia?

    I think it is. I’m so impressed by the younger generation of Indonesians and their desire to articulate their country’s past, and then to articulate what they already know but have been too afraid to articulate about their country’s present — about the use of gangsters, the corruption, and the chilling effect of fear on Indonesian democracy. The hunger for Indonesians to talk about these problems is really encouraging.

    Can you go back to Indonesia?

    I think I could get in, but I’m not sure I could get out again. Today Anwar, who misses me, said maybe we could meet in Kuala Lumpur.
    Does the film actually contain any information that was not already known in Indonesia, or was it the framing of it that made it so shocking for Indonesian audiences?

    I think it’s the framing of it. Indonesians might not have known the details of the killings — they know that something awful happened and that they don’t talk about it. But I think fundamentally, what’s really powerful about the film is what it shows about Indonesia’s present, and about our common humanity when we build our present-day reality on terror and on lies.
    Al-Jazeera America
    Katie Kitamura
  • AlJazeera English
    Joseph Nevins
  • Time World
    Yenni Kwok
    Wall Street Journal
    Daniel Ziv

    Extended versions:
    The Daily Show
  • Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar-nominated documentary centers on Indonesia’s violent campaign against Communists and other “undesirables,” begun in the 1960s, and still being waged by powerful paramilitary groups. Recommended.
    Video Librarian

Academic Notes

  • Lúcia Nagib, Professor of Film and Director of the Centre for Film Aesthetics and Cultures, University of Reading.
    Since its release in 2012, The Act of Killing has amassed a great number of fervent admirers and detractors worldwide. Both sides would however agree that the film opens up uncharted territory on which to recast the tenets of documentary, world cinema and filmmaking in general. Indeed, a recent poll conducted by Sight and Sound magazine with critics and filmmakers has enshrined The Act of Killing among the most important documentaries ever made. For film scholars like me, the film offers the additional attraction of injecting fresh political meaning and universal relevance into some key concepts in film studies, most prominently: genre, authorship and spectatorship......
  • Robb Moss, Filmmaker, Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies, Harvard University
    Josh Oppenheimer’s visionary film, “The Act of Killing” is one of the most provocative, disturbing and penetrating films about genocide I have ever seen. The film effortlessly moves back and forth between the real and the imagined in ways that not only blur the boundaries between non-fiction and fiction, but also suggest that there might be whole other approaches to cinema that interrogate the political and social world that have yet to be tried. Much like Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” Josh wants nothing less than to re-work our relationship to history, memory and the power of storytelling. In more than 20 years of teaching, I have never seen my students so taken with a film--or a filmmaker--then they were with Josh’s work and visit. After his screenings and classroom stints, my students went back to their own projects with a sense of abandon and ambition that was extraordinary to witness.
  • John Roosa, Department of History, University of British Columbia
    This is a perfect film for provoking classroom discussions about the history of the 1965-66 massacres and, just as importantly, the history of the erasing, euphemizing, and evading the memories of those massacres. The Act of Killing registers the horror of a past event by documenting its aftereffects upon the perpetrators. It reveals how they have benefited from the violence, enjoyed absolute impunity, and wrestled with their consciences. Based upon years of patient labor and careful thought, it presents powerful, unforgettable scenes that raise endless questions for students about our ability to understand the past and interpret the performances of the people attempting to represent it.
  • Jamie Meltzer, Assistant Professor, Stanford University
    The Act of Killing is the most formally daring and challenging documentary of recent times. A great discussion tool around documentary aesthetics and ethics, it provokes students to consider the role of the documentary in society and to confront issues of representation and ethics. The Act of Killing is not only a vital and important film, it's an incredibly useful tool in the classroom.
  • Film Review: The Act of Killing, Genocide Studies and Prevention
    Three years after the release of Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing (2012), which explores the
    1965-1966 massacres from the perspective of the killers, I review the impact of the documentary on
    national and international audiences. I argue that the victims themselves, and the pervasive forms of
    sexualized forms of violence during the massacres, are felt through their absence in the film.
    By Annie E. Pohlman, University of Queensland
  • Discussion Guide - Public Broadcasting Service
  • Lesson Plan - Public Broadcasting Service
  • Reading List - Public Broadcasting Service

Quotes & Tweets

  • “I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade."
    Werner Herzog
  • "An extraordinary portrayal of genocide. To the inevitable question: what were they thinking, Joshua Oppenheimer provides an answer. It starts as a dreamscape, an attempt to allow the perpetrators to reenact what they did, and then something truly amazing happens. The dream dissolves into nightmare and then into bitter reality. An amazing and impressive film."
    Errol Morris
  • "An absolute and unique masterpiece."
    Dusan Makavejev
  • "If we are to transform Indonesia into the democracy it claims to be, citizens must recognize the terror and repression on which our contemporary history has been built. No film, or any other work of art for that matter, has done this more effectively than THE ACT OF KILLING. [It] is essential viewing for us all."
    National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia

awards & accolades

  • British Film Institute - Best Film
  • European Film Awards - Best Documentary
  • Asia Pacific Screen Awards - Best Documentary
  • National Society of Film Critics - Best Documentary
  • Cinema Eye Honors - Best Feature Film; Best Production
  • Berlinale Panorama - Audience Award; Ecumenical Jury Prize
  • Danish Academy Awards - Best Documentary
  • Sheffield Doc Fest - Grand Prize; Audience Award
  • Burma Human Rights Human Dignity Film Festival - Aung San Suu Kyi Award for Best Film
  • Documenta Madrid - Grand Prize; Audience Award
  • DocsBarcelona - Grand Prize
  • Traverse City Film Festival - Stanley Kubrick Award
  • Istanbul Independent Film Festival - Critics Prize
  • Yamagata Film Festival - Mayor's Prize
  • CPH:DOX - Grand Prize

Festival participation

  • British Film Institute 2013
    BFI Sight and Sound Poll
  • European Film Awards 2013
  • Asia Pacific Screen Awards 2013
  • National Society of Film Critics 2013
  • Cinema Eye Honors 2013
  • Berlinale Panorama 2013
  • Danish Academy Awards 2013
  • Sheffield Doc Fest 2013
  • Burma Human Rights Human Dignity Film Festival 2013
  • Documenta Madrid 2013
  • DocsBarcelona 2013
  • Traverse City Film Festival 2013
  • Istanbul Independent Film Festival 2013
  • Yamagata Film Festival 2013
  • CPH:DOX 2013

viewers comments

Additional Info
Co-Director: Christine Cynn, Anonymous
Executive Producers: Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, André Singer, Joram ten Brink
Co-produced with ZDF/Arte

Production Company: Final Cut for Real Aps, Piraya Film AS, Novaya Zemlya ltd, Spring Films ltd
Distribution Company: Cinephil—World Sales

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