Reenacting Genocide: The Act of Killing

Catherine Ellsberg ’16
Assistant Arts Editor

The opening shot of Joshua Oppenheimer’s heart-wrenching documentary The Act of Killing is, simply put, bizarre. The setting, though we know it to be Indonesia, has a paradisiacal quality that is sometimes familiar, but most often disorienting in its surreal treatment of naturalistic beauty. In the middle of a frame is a titanic metal fish with a procession of brightly costumed women coming out of its mouth. Cue Passion Pit. If you had no idea what this movie was about, you might think you’d wandered into one of Gwen Stefani’s astoundingly appropriative music videos from her 2004 album, or just decide the whole film will probably be confounding nonsense. In either case, these conclusions would be misguided.

Despite its initial focus on jarring beauty, the film does not invite audiences with its lush images so much as it uses them to foreshadow its core message – the danger of making beauty synonymous with paradise. The Act of Killing chronicles the Indonesian genocide that took place between 1965 and 1966, following its most violent perpetrators. It is disturbing beyond belief. It is also an immensely important piece of work.

As already mentioned, the visual landscape can be intimidating, and is intensified by the accounts of Anwar Congo, an executioner who reportedly killed several hundred – some say up to 1,000 – innocent civilians in an attempt to snuff out a possible communist uprising. The filmmaker calls for Congo and other men, now elderly and in positions of power in the Indonesian government, to reenact their crimes from over forty years ago. Some scenes are galling not only for their violence, but also because they seem out of place in such a picturesque environment.

Unlike the remaining Third Reich Nazis who frequently deny their crimes, or at least try to downplay them, Congo and his fellow killers believe their cruelty is something to marvel at. Oppenheimer doesn’t have to do any prodding – his “actors” don’t hesitate to admit their participation in murder, torture and rape. In one particularly excruciating scene, a few men sit in a circle and try to one-up each other’s rape stories. One man recalls how he told a 14-year-old girl it would be “hell” for her, but “heaven on earth” for him.

Though Oppenheimer could have stopped there, relying on the brute force of the accounts in and of themselves, he make the killers realize what they have done by making them reenact their crimes.  Even more ambitious – perhaps absurdly so – he tries to decode how they rationalized it.

The reenactments that Congo and his accomplices perform are both painfully realistic and dreamlike. Villagers are usually hired to play the victims, and the results are at times so unbearable that even the killers are now startled by their brutality. It is not that they feel guilty so much as that they are astonished by the sheer impact of their actions. The killers, now old, have reactions not unlike those of former athletes or movie stars admiring old pictures of themselves, one asking aloud, “Could that really have been me?”

Though this film has received successful reviews, it has also caused some head-shaking. A.O. Scott stated in the New York Times that “some queasiness may linger at the thought of a Western filmmaker indulging the creative whims of mass murderers” at the expense of the voiceless. While this is true to a large extent and should be recognized as problematic, The Act of Killing is not to be missed. It is one of few films in recent memory to explore the rewriting and interpretation of history, and attempts to answer the daunting question: How do we reconcile ourselves with a bloody past?

Leave a Comment