The Act Of Killing - DVD Review

'That The Act Of Killing has been the recipient of near-universal praise is perhaps testament to Oppenheimer’s courageous choice of subject matter, rather than his film being a faultless example of documentary filmmaking'.

In choosing to make a documentary focused upon the perpetrators of the Indonesian Killings of 1965 and 1966, director Joshua Oppenheimer arguably bought himself an express ticket straight to critical attention, if not critical acclaim. That The Act Of Killing has been the recipient of near-universal praise - the pinnacle of which being a nomination for Best Documentary at this year’s Oscars - is perhaps testament to Oppenheimer’s courageous choice of subject matter, rather than his film being a faultless example of documentary filmmaking.

That’s not to say that Oppenheimer’s documentary is seriously flawed. Far from it, this is regularly a bold and resolute film presented in a simple but powerful fashion. Framing his documentary through inviting his subjects to make their own film, telling the story of their roles in the Killings in whatever way they choose, feels at times like a somewhat artificial set-up; but thanks to Oppenheimer’s limited input in guiding where this initial premise takes the participants, for the most part it works to good effect. Oppenheimer also offers no voiceover, the only guidance from him provided through infrequent captions placed over the action. The director instead allows the subjects of his film and the testimonies they give to speak for themselves.

It’s a choice which bears mixed results. When it works, it works brilliantly; the “gangsters” (as they are frequently referred to, and also label themselves at several points) of Indonesia are for the most part unsettlingly matter-of-fact when describing the atrocities they have all played various key roles within. A car journey shows Adi Zukaldry, one of the Indonesian New Order’s former executioners, nonchalantly recounting his role in a “Crush The Chinese” campaign in which he casually slaughtered several Chinese people whilst walking down the street. It’s chilling moments such as these when The Act Of Killing is at its most effective.

If The Act Of Killing has a primary subject, then it is arguably Anwar Congo, another former executioner personally responsible for the deaths of at least a thousand people during the Killings. Congo is instantly a fascinating presence on camera, his reactions to recalling the events of the Killings slowly but undeniably changing over the course of the documentary being made. The final scene - a reshoot of a sequence appearing early on in the film in which Congo visits the place where he killed a great many of his victims - is one of the film’s most poignant and uncomfortable, as you struggle with both taking in what you’re seeing and how you should react to it.

There are times, however, where Oppenheimer is a little too loose with his style and focus. The director tries to fit in too much, creating a sense he may have been better served focusing his attentions more acutely on Congo. The terrifying Pancasila Youth paramilitary organisation is touched upon here and there when they almost certainly provide enough material for a documentary of their own. A diversion around halfway through onto the political aspirations of Congo’s right-hand man Herman Koto also feels surplus to requirements. The director’s cut of The Act Of Killing adds another forty-five minutes of footage onto the two-hour theatrical cut (the version reviewed here), something which I can now only imagine making Oppenheimer’s wandering focus even more problematic.

The Act Of Killing therefore arguably doesn’t deserve quite such vehement praise as it has received, with many perhaps becoming blinkered to the film’s relative shortcomings thanks to its undeniably captivating participants and subject matter. But choosing to make a film on a historical event which clearly still has very real resonance (the large number of roles credited to anonymous participants, fearful of any repercussions for their involvement, speaks volumes), and doing so with originality of execution and audacity of vision, makes Oppenheimer’s film almost certainly a required watch.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.


  1. One of the most shocking documentaries I've seen in a while. I had never heard to the killings and it was just weird to see that the people responsible are in power. I thought it was good to show the influence of paramilitary today as it indicates that something like that could happen again.

    1. I agree that the subject matter is dumbfounding no matter how you look at it. I too had almost no knowledge of the Killings before watching this, so as a revelatory piece it's incredibly important. I agree that the paramilitary needed to be included, but for me Oppenheimer gave them more screen time than just a passing mention to show who they are, but didn't do enough with them to make me feel like I really understood what they were about. Like I say in the review, a feature length documentary on the Pancasila Youth could work, and would make a fascinating companion piece to this.