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Denmark 2012
Directed by
Joshua Oppenheimer
115 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Andrew Lee
4.5 stars

The Act Of Killing

Synopsis: In 1965, the so-called Communist Uprising led to the overthrow of Indonesian President Sukarno. The attempted coup failed and in the following year, hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people were murdered by army-backed death squads on the suspicion that they were Communist sympathisers. This is the story of some of the murderers.

There are almost no photos of my parents’ wedding. The reason for this is that my grandparents had fled Indonesia and were terrified someone would discover they were living in Australia and forcibly take them back. I remember hearing about how upset my Mum was, how their paranoia seemed to her completely excessive. It wasn’t until my Grandma’s funeral that we learned a bit about how they’d left their home. She’d forced my Grandpa to sell up quietly and chance applying for asylum after coming here on a tourist visa. We’d always known parts of the story, like how they’d almost been sent back until one of my uncle’s university lecturers wrote to the immigration minister on their behalf and he intervened and granted them asylum (such things were possible in those days) . But the one thing we never really understood was why they’d been prepared to risk so much coming here. It was never talked about. I’m so thankful that this film exists, because now I know the horror of what they left behind.

The Act Of Killing is a remarkable film in so many ways. But the most obvious one is that it’s taking a group of mass murderers and with no judgment applied giving them the resources to tell their own story. They’re proud of what they did and people still either venerate or fear them. So the perpetrators have no compunction in filming re-enactments of their acts and taking the starring the roles. It’s uncomfortable viewing especially in one scene where the son of a man they murdered is roped into playing the role of a victim. The fear on his face as he half challenges their actions while still abasing himself to them is awful to experience but tells you so much about the society in which they live. Director Joshua Oppenheimer has tellingly described the experience as like walking into Germany some years after the Nazis had won the war.

But just as remarkable is that although never detracting from the overall effect the film is at times outlandishly funny. These people aren’t unlikeable. They’re charismatic, good-humoured, love their families and so on. The way they film some scenes is both surreal and bizarrely jocular. Which is, of course, even more unsettling.

If The Act Of Killing were just about mass murderers filming a celebration of their crimes it would be unpleasant and repugnant but informative viewing. But fortunately there’s more. As they cast themselves as both perpetrators and victims and play out scenes of sadistic horror, doubt creeps in about the righteousness of what they did. And one in particular, Anwar Congo, comes to a slow and uncomfortable realisation that he inflicted terror upon people. It’s not contrition, but a pained empathy slowly working its way into him, bringing to light the nightmares that have haunted him for decades.

The only criticism I have of the film is that very little context is given to the violence. Those unfamiliar with Indonesian history will get a lot out of the personal stories, but will be left bewildered by how such a thing catalysed in the first place. Even so it’s one of the most powerful documentaries you’re ever likely to see.

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