Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing, a unique documentary I saw this weekend at South by Southwest, exposes the gangsters and paramilitary organizations used by the Indonesian government to kill perhaps a million supposed opponents of the regime after the country's military coup in 1965. There has been some democratization in Indonesia since that time, but the people who carried out these actions are still protected by the government, and brag about these actions with impunity. The film gives these killers the opportunity to do just that, a point of view the filmmakers were almost forced to adopt when they discovered that the victims' families for the most part are still afraid to tell their stories. Somebody suggested that they instead tell the story from the killers' point of view, and were somewhat surprised to find that they were quite willing to cooperate.

One thing that makes the documentary unique is that its "stars," in addition to talking about their actions, were asked to re-enact them for the camera, as if they were making a movie depicting their methods of killing and torture. Some of these scenes are almost comical; others are harrowing. For the most part, the perpetrators  are not embarrassed to give matter-of-fact descriptions of torture and killing they committed.

What makes the film even more unique is that it does not allow the audience the easy escape of simply condemning the killers as evil. Instead it treats them with empathy. The film's point of view moves beyond typical depictions of such events as battles between good and evil, and instead forces us to recognize the essential humanity even of people who carried out despicable and horrible crimes. We need to understand that these crimes were committed by people, not by some sort of demons.

The film focuses in particular on one character, a gangster named Anwar Congo. Like others, Congo at first expresses no remorse for his actions. Since the killings were sanctioned by the government, and no one is being punished for them, he can make the argument that he has done nothing wrong. As the movie goes on, however, it becomes clear that at a deeper level, he realizes that what he has done is wrong, and becomes revolted by his own actions.

Taking the point of view of people who committed horrific crimes in no way justifies these actions. Allowing these criminals to tell their own story, as well as re-enacting scenes that helped the killers empathize with their victims, instead causes at least some of them to condemn themselves. A powerful film, that deserves to be widely seen.


  1. Unspeakable horror and utterly mundane madness are thrown together in the existential equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider - fact and fiction meeting head on with quietly earth-shattering results.

  2. This is perhaps one of the few films ever made where one is required a kind of courage, not a kind of superficial courage like what it takes to watch a really scary horror movie but a kind of moral courage to see and even greater courage to make.

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