Review: The Act of Killing

How do you make a documentary of a massacre, a genocide, when there are no living survivors willing to speak about it? When the massacre itself is still celebrated and its perpetrators are deemed ‘heroes? The answer is as simple as brilliant; you make the documentary about these ‘national heroes’, the ones who proudly talk about how they killed over 1 million people in the Indonesian Killings of 1965-1966.

Indonesia 1965, the world was going through one of the most tense moments of the Cold War and there had just been an attempted coup by communists. The government saw communists everywhere and wanted to take care of this ‘red danger’. At first it were army units that started arresting and killing members of the communist party, yet soon this was outsourced to juvenile gangs, which became brutal, uncontrolled killing machines. Especially the minority of ethnic Chinese, living in Indonesia for over centuries, became the target of discrimination, extortion and murder by these death squads. Estimates of the total amount of deaths differ between 1 and 3 million people.

The director shows the killers of the 1960s and how they interpret the happenings.

Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Act of Killing, makes a portrait of one of the most famous killers, Anwar, who solely killed over one thousand people. Anwar and his former compatriots are invited to shoot their own movie on the events, in genres of their own liking. This results in scenes in  Musical, Western, Mafia or other styles the men like, telling their story of the massacre. At times this leads to funny scenes, like when a heavily overweighed man is dressing up as a lady in pink and starts to sing. Other times the scenes are bizarre or surreal, to highly interesting, to shocking, giving the viewer an ice-cold chill.

The strength of Oppenheimer’s approach is that the men play both killer and killed. Throughout the movie, it is especially Anwar who increasingly struggles with this. At first he seems confident it was ‘the right thing to do’ and tells proudly of it, yet by playing the victim’s role, he gradually becomes more and more insecure about his past acting. After a Mafia-styled torture scene, where Anwar plays the tortured, he finally collapses and refused to continue shooting the scene. In tears Anwar asks Oppenheimer whether the people he tortured would have gone through the same thing as he did playing their part, upon which the until then neutral Oppenheimer replies they were a whole lot worse off since their torture was not played and their lives really were at stake. The following silence tells more than a hundred words could have.

In between the shooting of the scenes the movie gives an insight in the nowadays ongoing discrimination and extortion of ethnic Chinese, the frighteningly high popularity of the paramilitary organizations that grew from the death squads and corruption in Indonesia. This, together with Oppenheimer’s brilliant storytelling approach, makes The Act of Killing very worth seeing. The movie is dazzling, shocking, beautiful and will definitively leave you with an uncomfortable feeling. Then again, I suppose an uncomfortable feeling is quite appropriate after watching a genocide.

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