Film Review: The Act of Killing

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It is the moral duty of everyone who would be human, who would live a fully realized, considered life to watch The Act of Killing. Set in Indonesia, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary follows the story of former executioner and self-described ‘gangster’ Anwar Congo as he is made to reflect for the first time on the atrocities he committed and gloried in during the anti-Communist purge of 1965. One of the first scenes contains footage of the gaunt, white-haired but still flashily-dressed Anwar demonstrating his mastery of murder by piano wire (a technique he borrowed from 1950s American gangster films) on a willing but visibly terrified ‘communist’ stand-in. Reviewing the recorded episode later from the comfort of a flower-covered throne-like chair in his home Anwar states, ‘I would never have worn white. I would have chosen a dark colour to hide all the blood. Those trousers make me look like I am going to a picnic.’ He smiles as his white-suited double dances the Cha-cha on a rooftop, a loop of silver wire glittering around his neck.

The cast of characters (who we must never forget are all living people, functioning in another section of our world) are varied and incredibly grotesque. Herman, Anwar’s obese, long-haired henchman, is an evil, living Falstaff. He was an actor as a youth, for a brutal paramilitary association that is still committing horrors in the name of profit, his talent as an actor is real, one must admire it. Over the course of the film we see him dress as a woman, play the part of Anwar (strangling the old man, who is playing the part of the accused/condemned victim), we see him giving acting lessons to his obviously beloved 7 year old daughter, and we watch gape-mouthed as he shakes down a market full of obviously terrified ethnic Chinese taking thousands of dollars from their tills in sanctioned shake-downs.

My husband said, rather tellingly, that Herman reminded him of television’s Tony Soprano. I have never seen that show, but Matthew assured me that the Herman shares the lead characters ability to summon in the viewer a mixture of likeability and horrified disgust. Tony Soprano does not exist. Herman is reality. We like him as a fiction, but the mind reels to remember that such a being exists in life.

We meet a current member of the Indonesian parliament who rose to power on a tide of blood. An avid golfer, we see him ask a female caddy if she has a mole on her vagina. She nervously laughs and trundles after him, lugging his bags. Later, he boasts that he was a rapist.

He is a man who has donated acres of land to serve as a bird sanctuary, who collects Swarovski crystal figurines (he is proud of his ‘very expensive’ Tinkerbell), who brags about shooting one of the worlds last black rhinos (he had it stuffed and mounted) and who repeatedly stated that the slaughters must continue in order for his party to remain in power. He freely admits that the majority of the ‘communists’ killed (an estimated 500,000-2,500,000 people) either had something that they wanted (money, a gold watch), had committed the crime of living while ethnically Chinese, or were merely inconvenient.

We meet Adi, Anwar’s co-killer, a man who has been completely, visibly hollowed out by his own evil actions. He fishes, he shops, his eyes are totally dead. He admits what he did, and the wrongness of it, but he will not apologize or ask forgiveness from anyone.

The most chilling thing about this film was witnessing the banality of the evil in it. Anyone could become a murderer. I could do it. Once you have seen a kind-looking old killer sincerely make his grandson apologize to a duck for twisting its leg, causing it pain, the world makes much less sense. The boundaries blur between the saved and the damned, the guilt we share each in our own way, blossoms. This is not a ‘foreign’ illness.

Anwar became a killer because he wanted to live in one of the gangster movies he loved as a child. He played the role of killer. He killed. He loved his work, was joyful in it. He washed himself in blood. Anwar justified the murder of countless ‘inconvenient’ people as an appropriate reaction to the communists attempt to ban American films. He throws himself into these reenactments of his stories with the joy and flair of the born showman.

His own life has never been real to him, it takes a length of wire around his neck, his own friend tightening it, for him to ask, ‘Is this what they felt? Have I sinned?’ There are confused tears in his eyes. He stands slowly. Vomits.

My gut ached for him. I should hate Anwar; I do not, cannot. I am afraid of becoming like him. We all should fear that. He lives in our world.

Go see this film.

More information, including film times, are available here:


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