The Act of Killing REVIEW


Written by Christopher D. Bruce.


Firstly, if you have had any inclination towards seeing this documentary, congratulations, your instincts are correct. Go see it.

 “The Act of Killing is about killers who have won, and the sort of society they have built.”

-Director; Joshua Oppenheimer

After the 1965 military coup in Indonesia it is estimated that within a year over a million people were killed for accusations of Communism. These massacres were acted out by paramilitary groups that were recruited largely from the ranks of gangsters or as they are known in Indonesia, ‘preman’. The Indonesian government has celebrated these mass murders as a patriotic struggle and have rewarded these paramilitary men and gangsters with power and privilege.

 “This is the true legacy of the dictatorship : the erasure of our ability to imagine anything other.”

-Co-Director; Anonymous

The Act of Killing

This amazing documentary mainly follows Anwar Congo, now an old man and grandfather, who was one of the most feared of the movie theatre gangsters in North Sumatra. Through getting to know him and his friends, the filmmakers learned that these gangsters were greatly influenced by the Hollywood movies they watched and as young men would emulate the actors they loved. James Dean, John Wayne, Victor Mature. Anwar reveals that after watching a “happy film like an Elvis Presley musical”, he would “kill in a happy way.” With this revelation the filmmakers encouraged these men to dramatise the killings of their past through the language of the films they loved and were inspired by.

 “We started to suspect that performance played a similar role during the killings themselves, making it possible for Anwar and his friends to absent themselves from the scene of their crimes, while they were committing them.”

-Director; Joshua Oppenheimer

We watch these men discuss a scene before shooting it, analysing themselves as well as each other as they try to shoot it and finally reacting to the end product that they have created. There is such a fascinating dynamic at play here, where we see that these men know what they have done is morally wrong, yet they have been praised and rewarded by their society. These same men openly state that they are the bad guys and the anti communist propaganda is all lies, yet they still seem to think that they can recreate these atrocities and paint themselves in a good way.


We see Anwar start to have a breakdown as he begins to grasp just how horrendous his past actions have been. We see this directly but we also see it within the genres their short films take. Starting with recreation via western and film noir, we eventually get to a musical, as far away from reality as Anwar can seem to get.

 “…In that sense, too, Anwar is the bravest and most honest character in The Act of Killing. He may or may not ‘like’ the result, but I have tried to honour his courage and his openness by presenting him as honestly, and with as much compassion, as I could, while still deferring to the unspeakable acts that he committed.”

-Director; Joshua Oppenheimer

This is an undeniably important and perfectly realised film. This is a film that could well act as a rallying cry for social change. If nothing else, it has been the catalyst of change for a few of the protagonists within it. I urge you to see this film. It may well be the most important film of this year.


– C.B.