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Cinephil

The Act of Killing

Documentary

Issue: "Reaping a whirlwind," Aug. 24, 2013

Self-deception has too often been a gateway to committing and living with atrocities. Rarely has a truth been as painfully documented as in director Joshua Oppenheimer’s chilling account of an elderly mass murderer pleasantly relating and re-enacting his killings from nearly 50 years ago.  

In late 1965, Anwar Congo lived in an Indonesia that had just survived an attempted coup by factions of the military and elements of the Indonesian Communist party. Indonesia’s neighbor to the north, South Vietnam, was embroiled in a violent war with Communists within its own country and with Communist North Vietnam.

The fear and anxiety many Indonesians felt over Communist influence led to exaggerated tales of atrocities Communists had perpetrated in the coup attempt and a subsequent dehumanization of their Communist neighbors. Gangs enlisted men like Anwar, with the government’s approval, to round up and kill suspected Communists, leading to a roughly six-month slaughter of somewhere between 300,000 and 1 million people.

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Oppenheimer takes an innovative and extraordinarily effective approach to this material by asking Anwar to re-enact, with actors and some of his comrades, the killings they perpetrated. Anwar happily demonstrates such techniques as stringing wire around a victim’s neck, which was, as he describes, less messy than other forms of killing. Another killer involved in the re-enactments unironically wears a black T-shirt with “apathetic” emblazoned on the front.

One particularly jarring sequence plays like a Saturday Night Live sketch with poor taste (a low bar, to be sure). The victims actually thank their killers for dispatching them as they stand in front of an idyllic waterfall scene while the swelling chords of “Born Free” soar above the watery mist.

Even more incredible than these bizarre scenes is the effect all this playacting has on Anwar, draining the Novocaine from his soul and compelling him to face, for the first time in nearly 50 years, his horrific actions.

Michael Leaser
Michael Leaser

Michael is editor of FilmGrace and an associate of The Clapham Group.

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