The Act Of Killing

Joshua Oppenheimer

Denmark/Norway/UK, 115 min

In The Act of Killing American documentarist Joshua Oppenheimer lets former Indonesian death squad members reenact their mass killings of communists in the mid-60s. By coincidence, the director became aware of the murderers’ boastful attitude towards their own misdeeds, and decided to make this the focal point in his investigation of genocide. The film plays like a surreal, behind-the-scenes story, which gradually leads to a deeper insight into the mentality of these murderers.

At first, the setting seems like something out of a bizarre and colorful nightmare; exotic dancers appear from the mouth of a giant metal fish, while a roaring waterfall functions as the backdrop for an obese cross-dressing character who stands together with an elderly man clad in a flowing black gown. They wave their hands, like they are worshiping some unknown god and off-camera a manic director-voice screams: “Don’t let the camera catch you looking bad! Smile! 1, 2, 3, 4!”

Shortly afterwards, it is revealed that this strange scenario is part of the many unsettling reenactments which comprise most of American documentarist Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. The film is a relentless investigation of the mentality of mass murderers and what makes it stand out is that the murderers themselves act as the eager storytellers.

Oppenheimer conceived the idea for his film while doing research in Indonesia for another documentary called The Globalisation Tapes (Indonesia 2003) in 2001. After learning that relatives of the victims of the 1965-66 anti-communist purges lived practically next door to the killers, he approached one of these perpetrators and was quickly invited in as a guest. What Oppenheimer experienced was a surprising openness and confidence, since many of these people still consider Americans their allies because of the US support of the Indonesian military during President Suharto’s regime – a historical fact that puts further critical weight on the film’s main investigation.

A scene from Joshua Oppenheimer’s Act of Killing documentary

Before long, the young filmmaker is watching in astonishment as his host enthusiastically reenacts the horrible deeds in front of his ten- year-old granddaughter. The immediate willingness to acknowledge these atrocities sparked Oppenheimer’s interest in telling the story of the massacre from a highly surprising and otherwise unattainable perspective. He used this first contact to gain the confidence of other perpetrators placed higher in the hierarchy, and before long the idea for The Act of Killing was born.

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