The Act of Killing


Release: Friday, July 19, 2013 (limited)


Abundant are the films that, post-viewing, make you grateful for the experience, even though they took you far outside your comfort zone. There are even those that you really wish you could un-see; those that haunt your mind like a recurring nightmare. And then there’s Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, a torturous two hours you should receive an award for enduring.

Before I take my ceremonial bow, the first person to receive a big pat on the back (or hug, I’m not sure which is more appropriate at this point) should be the Danish-based director who skillfully pieces together one of the most horrifying and revealing documentaries that will perhaps ever be crafted. It’s a little difficult, in this present moment at least, to fathom a film going to the places and lengths that this monstrosity does.

A camera crew takes to the dirty streets of Medan, Indonesia where they locate a number of death squad leaders responsible for the mass slaughter of millions of fellow countrymen between 1965 and 1966. The objective? To prompt these men to talk extensively and candidly about the events that took place during the military overthrow of the Indonesian government, while also allowing them to perform re-enactments of precisely what, who and how they killed.

The staged killings would become part of a film Anwar Congo and his ‘gangster’ friends (notables include Herman Koto and Adi Zulkadry) are making in an effort to publicly boast about how they were able to eliminate so-called communists, intellectuals, ethnic Chinese and any other individuals they deemed ‘undesirable’ and threats to the stability of their nation. (The concept of stability is somewhat ironic, considering a military coup d’état became necessary in restoring the perceived balance of power in this perpetually troubled nation.) A paramilitary organization known as Pemuda Pancasila evolved out of the death squads led by Congo and Zulkadry, and has been in place ever since. In the documentary, we are forced to confront this most intimidating of groups as they continue to harass Indonesians mere feet away from the camera crew. Frightening as this organization is, its really not the focus of Oppenheimer’s/Congo’s project.

Really this film has dual purposes. On the one hand, this is an opportunity for these truly vile men to express their nostalgia for the good ole days, when they raped, tortured and murdered those who they thought deserved it. On the other, Oppenheimer is giving these individuals all the tools they need to show their true colors. One might argue that they already have done that by performing the acts that they did in the ’60s, but one would only be 50% accurate in that assumption. What is said and revealed in this documentary surpass the murders themselves.

Watch the scenes in which the fat, disgusting blob of a human being named Herman Koto. . . you know what? There’s almost no point talking about this anymore. It is just crushing my heart. I literally have no words to describe the vast majority of the content, and at the risk of me sounding like I’m writing this film off, this review in itself was next-to-impossible to write, and is causing depression of the highest degree, so I no longer have desire to analyze this as a piece of creative expression. Mainly, because it’s not. This may very well be looked at as terrifyingly effective propaganda for the opposition. I have spent days trying to pin down my feelings on it. Such a task seems now fruitless, and I don’t feel comfortable diverting any more attention to this abomination. There is genius in the construction but the subject matter is too off-putting. It’s almost offensive considering the power that The Act of Killing may add to the anti-communist sentiment found in southeastern Asia.


0-5Recommendation: Don’t do this to yourselves. This is the cruelest thing you’ll ever watch; not to mention, it’s paced like a snail and the subject matter makes it feel even longer. The fact that a documentary was made on these people has scary implications — Oppenheimer just took a can of gasoline to a raging fire. Who knows what’s going to happen next in Indonesia. What a fool. And what a fool this reviewer is for thinking this was going to be anything other than ugly. Where’s my damn prize?

Rated: NR

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “‘War crimes’ are defined by the winners. I’m a winner.”

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37 thoughts on “The Act of Killing

  1. My pleasure. I am new to the blogsphere myself, and it’s always nice to meet another person with the same interest 🙂 cheers.


  2. Hi there. I have yet to see the movie for myself but after reading many reviews, I decided not too (for many reasons). But, to answer your question: “Who knows what’s going to happen next in Indonesia.”, I think I might be able to answer that as I was born and raised in the capital city, Jakarta. Nothing has changed since the movie released, sadly. There were some raging sparks when the movie came out, but that was it. The movie never entered the local cinema, but I am sure there are many pirated DVDs of this film out there in the city. No one cares, and that’s what terrifies me about watching the film. Great review!


  3. I just posted a review of it that is the exact opposite a few minutes ago, and then happened to stumble across yours. My outlook on it is simple. I feel that truths being revealed in a good thing. It is awful material, truly is, but still important for us to know what we, as humans, are capable of. Very uncomfortable, yet so revealing.


  4. Hi Tom, I respect your opinion but I have to admit I’m quite dismayed by your reaction, especially the part when you called the director a fool. If you don’t mind I’d like to share a bit of background about this film. As I’m from Indonesia this is quite a personal film for me, having grown up being brainwashed by Indonesian government that PKI (Communist Party) is so truly evil that we must obliterate everyone and everything that has anything to do with communism. They did all they could to justify the gruesome mass murder that they’ve done. Over the years I learned that it wasn’t the truth, though there was never a formal apology from the perpetrators or anything close to it. So when this film came out, I couldn’t thank Joshua Oppenheimer enough that he took it upon himself to devote 5+ years to show the world what’s ever been exposed before, straight from the men who did them. I had the chance to chat with him for an interview last year and he told me he originally wanted to film this from the victims’ point of view, but they didn’t dare to say anything for fear that their lives would be in danger, so it’s the victims themselves who told him to go to the perpetrators. This is what Joshua said from the interview:

    “What the perpetrators were boasting and telling things that was far more incriminating than anything the survivors could’ve said …

    I felt like I’ve wandered into Germany, forty years after the Holocaust and somehow the Nazi’s still in power. And yet I recognize it’s a horrible situation, an important situation, but it’s not an unusual situation.”

    It is tough to watch and I have to admit I had to shield my eyes from the REALLY harrowing part, but in no way did Oppenheimer glorify these men nor what they did.

    Btw, in case you’re curious, this film was very well-received in my country, there were massive underground screenings as it wasn’t publicly shown in theaters.

    Pardon the long comment Tom, but I felt that I have to offer a response to this. I hope people who read this will still check it out and make up their own mind.


    • Hey Ruth, I really really appreciate your insight here!! 🙂 I probably do need some correcting. This review is far more reactive than a neutral stance — something I always am trying to do with the films I watch. In this case, I think i was just so disgusted with what I was seeing I couldn’t hold my tongue. It rattled me to the core. Oppenheimer did his work there, that’s for sure.

      I don’t mean to imply that he’s necessarily glorifying the men. I don’t think that at all. What I meant to infer is that this is now yet another piece of evidence that these men can/might use in their ongoing cause to keep the country free and clear of communism. That’s slightly different than glorifying them (in my mind, at least.)

      I really had no intention of offending anyone with this review. I’m really glad that it has received praise and wide-spread attention not just in Indonesia but throughout the world. Though my review may not express it clearly, this documentary is the most powerful thing I”ve ever watched. (I guess at the time I equated ‘powerful’ to ‘sickening.’)

      Additionally I’d like to express my sincerest condolences for you having to grwo up in such conditions, it’s truly heartbreaking to learn of this. It’s really quite frightening who we have to share this planet with. . .Again, thanks for your comment and considerations and hopefully people will go to see it still despite my unwillingness to endorse it.


      • I think that was Oppenheimer’s intention to *rattle us to the core* because what Anwar & co. did were utterly disgusting and heinous. Yes it IS sickening, and that’s the reason people should know that it happened. It’s not at all dissimilar to what the Nazi party did in WWII but much, much less well-known to the public. I think I was a bit aghast in regards to your reaction towards the person making the film, as obviously Oppenheimer was completely against all the atrocities, and he was just as shaken/angry/horrified (if not more) by the subjects in his film. As the film was in my native language, I could hear him talking back and challenging the men as he was filming it, which was pretty brave to do being the minority in the area.

        Thanks for being such a good sport in your response to my comment. I’m glad you took a chance on the film and if anything, now you at least know that these events happened.

        Cheers Tom!


      • Of course, I love being able to generate discussions. . .and it seems this one certainly has a tendency to do that! Haha. In some ways this is one of my favorite posts because it teaches me that one needs to be prepared to defend controversial reviews (I think a lot of people out there are still fuming at me for giving There Will Be Blood a 4/8 haha).

        I do apologize for coming off a bit harsh by calling out Oppenheimer. He clearly was effective here. I didn’t sleep well after this. Not that I was meant to.


  5. I’ll give you a prize…

    This sounds immensely rough, and not the alright-you-can-deal-with-it rough, either. I don’t know, this never caught my attention and so many people wrote about it but this confirms that I in no which way want to watch it.


  6. Oh man, I can see this really didn’t work for you. I just posted my review of it and had a different reaction. I really thought this was a sharp indictment of these people made all the more damning by coming from their own mouths. I was appalled and ashamed that I didn’t know about this.

    That said your perspective is really intriguing. I never thought about how it would be perceived among others in that region. I tend to still believe exposing them reveals their guilt and their crimes. But the different reactions are unknown.


    • Thanks Keith, appreciate that.

      It’s an indictment, sure. But I am of the thought that these aren’t the kinds of people who would even feel bad for the way in which this movie portrays them. I really don’t think that’s going to happen. The rest of us more civilized, more normal people understand what The Act of Killing is trying to do. But it’s going to bounce off others like water off a duck. Maybe thats not what matters, though.


    • I may need to clarify: the people in this film are what make it atrocious. Oppenheimer’s idea deserves a lot of credit, but I still can’t shake the feeling that there is potential for this film to do damage as much as it can do good. Thanks for reading Misty, this wasn’t an easy one!!


  7. Jeepers. Wasn’t expecting only one slice. Well argued review Tom with plenty of food for thought. I still have yet to catch this but will have you review in mind when I do.


    • I know, this unfortunately had to receive the lowest of low marks from me. The intro I wrote might not speak to everyone’s experience, but I couldn’t believe I managed to make it all the way through this film. There has never been a bigger two-hour challenge in my life. This thing was an utter misery, I hope you fare a bit better with it. As a piece of art, it’s well-made but man, . . .it’s hard to overlook the implications of its existence (for me at least.)


    • You probably won’t fully understand my position until you put yourself through this. I mean, this is a well-made film but at the same time it’s a very, very bad idea. I do not endorse it at all. hahah


  8. Good review Tom. It’s a hard movie to get through because it actually makes you think of these guys as humans, but I found that challenge to be what made it the most interesting to stick by. That said, it’s definitely not a pleasurable experience for anybody out there.


    • thanks man, but I shall disagree with anyone who found this interesting until the end of time. This thing fucking sucked.


  9. I, like you, struggled with my thoughts about this film but what I ultimately came away with was this (from my review):

    “…this shines a light on a pernicious evil that has gone unaddressed for far too long. It refuses to look away and while providing a voice for the murderers, it indirectly provides a voice for the incredible number of people whose lives were ended.”


    • yeah Mark it’s a shame I didn’t end up appreciating it on any level. As you might recall when i read your review I was pretty skeptical about seeing it, so i think that played a big part in my analysis (or lack thereof) of this. haha


  10. Well. I guess we found the one on which we cannot disagree more. 🙂

    Sorry my review was part of the reason you opted to put yourself through an experience you regret. But I think you aren’t giving this its just due, really. In my opinion, it has so many thematic elements going on, and never once glorifies any of its subjects.

    But you know all of that already, from reading my review, and you don’t want to discuss this film anymore. So I’ll stop. 🙂


  11. *Jaw drops to the floor* Wow man. I thought this was a truly eye opening piece of cinema, I had no idea any of this went on. And it’s presented in such a shocking way it had me reeling for days. It’s a difficult watch but I’ve not seen anything like it before.


    • See now this is the thing. I may be doing the film an injustice because I feel my harsh grading and ultimate opinion is in regards to what these people did and how they present themselves. Such is the point of Oppenheimer’s work. The film is a brilliant construction. But I feel that this film is going to galvanize the paramilitary efforts in oppressing their nation even further. I don’t know man, this was a real head-scratcher and stomach-turner. That said, I probably won’t balk at this film receiving an Oscar for documentary. I’m just concerned of the backlash as well.


      • And to your point as well, I have never ever seen anything like this before, either. That’s worth something, I suppose.


      • I had similar feelings that it was almost giving these people a soapbox upon which to spread their message, but hopefully such atrocities won’t be repeated. I’d like to think that we’re past all of that shite now. They got paid for it as well, which irked me slightly. However, I felt this was a story that needed telling and it was an immensely powerful way of doing so.


      • Can’t disagree with you there at all Chris. Kudos to Oppenheimer for assuming such a responsibility. There were so many times here where I thought how awfully uncomfortable it must have been to be a part of that camera crew.


    • hahaha no worries! It’s a tough watch, no doubt. One that I don’t recommend since it seems to do more harm than good. . .


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