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The Act of Killing


Freedom is a cherished hope of many people living on the Earth. However, some need it to create and the others need it to kill. Self-justification is a natural defense reaction of any person and in the depth of one’s heart anyone always finds reasonable arguments to avoid feeling guilty. However, this ability can acquire a disgusting and unprecedented scale when some leaders treat killing of vulnerable opposing groups as the only way to power. The documentary film The Act of Killing depicts merciless massacres and human rights violations against former members of the communist party in Sumatra. The events took place in the 1965-66 and the stories in the film were told by real executioners, gangsters, and ancestors of the killed communists as if they were acting and starring for a new action film. The screening produced by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Zinn, and a collective of anonymous authors became the highlight of the XXIII International Film Festival ‘The Message to the Man’. The astounding effect of vision transformation in the main character Anwar Congo was implicitly revealed throughout the film production.  The elderly man had lived his life as a gangster or a “free man”, as he claimed. He was proud of his sinful bloody past and had an absolutely innocent faith in the rightness of his behavior. Awakening of consciousness through the participation in screening and the vomiting reaction of the old man’s organism opened the awe of the self-defraud perception. On the background of new humanitarian achievements, the events and stories in the film The Act of Killing show the grotesque injustice of life and become the shocking revelation to the civilized world in understanding democracy in the countries of the Third World.

The Set and Actors of the Film

The film starts with the scene that shows the serenity of the Sumatran landscape and the beautiful dancing group coming out from the throat of a huge fish into the greens near the waterfall. It introduces watchers into a joyful and peaceful life of Sumatra. On the whole, movements of girls are not professional and intensive make up of the fat transvestite mistress of the ballet hint that everything is far from being glorious and perfect. Moreover, the pompous calling of the central figure with his hands up to the heavens reminds a cheap theatrical action.

The scene can imply the sleeping consciousness and artificial nature of Eastern democracies. The surface picture is pleasant and bright, while the analysis of the history and stories of real participants open the depth of utopian beliefs that persist in the countries of the developing world.

Joshua Oppenheimer managed to intrigue and engage executors of the 1964-65 massacres into telling genuine facts of history by the proposition to take part in an action film. Real people became actors in the documentary. Joshua Oppenheimer advantaged from the criminals’ desire to show off. It was similar to the revenge for the ban on Western films in cinemas that motivated gangsters to become executors of communists in 1964-65.

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Three Phases of the Film

Starting the film, the producer did not have a scenario or distinct idea of composition. He offered the gangster Anwar Congo to become the producer of the film about the events he once took part in. The man gathered the group of his partners in crime and encouraged them to tell about their vision of their deeds. In the film, the producer and the killer became sincere communicants and this union led to an unusual result and some counter-effect.

The first time when Anwar took Joshua to the place of his executions, he told carelessly about the methods he had applied to kill communists. He described proudly how he had copied the wire method from films about gangsters. That way he managed to suffocate his victims with less blood running and thus decreased the unpleasant smell. The place of those murders was in the up floor of the current bags shop without any memorable table or any sign of the incredible loss of human lives there. There would be nothing special about the place if not for the Anwar’s story of merciless murders. That simple and non-decorated place that had witnessed sufferings and the last moments of so many people might become the pilgrimage destination for those who had lost their relatives in the massacres. However, that crime remains unpunished, as well as executors remain safe and free and even take part in political elections, competing for official positions and power. They have become the authorities and believe that they have lived the glorious life of winners.

While watching the scene about the description of his methods, Anwar comments that he should better had not put on white pants. That was the only change he suggested and all the rest he believed was cool and right (Oppenheimer, 2012, 12:24). During the production, the producer does not concentrate much on the lightning or set details, but consequently he builds the composition as a side glance of killers at themselves. Throughout the film, he puts rare questions from behind the cam. They sound like the voice of God or a long lost conscience of the killers. The production itself was not the professional film shooting. The actors did not understand the idea and the vision of the story by Joshua Oppenheimer until they saw the implied meaning in the full version. They turned to be puppets in the producer’s play the same way as they were puppets of political leaders in 1964-65.

In post production, the film turned out to be absolutely different than its creators expected. It reminds a profound research work without any thesis because the new discoveries, the depth of self-defraud, and the scope of the population affected by the propaganda are astounding.

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Elements of Story

Protagonist and antagonist coincide in the personality of Anwar Congo. On the one hand, he is a decent elderly man respected in his region and known as the freer from the false communistic ideology. He has wonderful grandsons whom he teaches to be merciful and careful with ducklings in the yard. The boys seem to be having a happy childhood and the loving granddad. On the other hand, the man and his crime companions reveal the stories of   real bloody executions, tortures, and awful examples that make sensible people loose their mind. In the final scene, when Anwar returns to the place of his executions, he vomits at the thought that he committed those awful murders and he feels bad at memorizing the sights of bloody breathless bodies he had to throw into the river without any decent funeral and the last honor.

While working at the film scenes, Anwar wanted to show the fury and the fearless faith of gangsters in the harm of communists. He decided to shoot a scene of the burning to earth of the whole village of communists by engaging the legal military organization Pancasila. They invite the current leader and the most popular activists to take part in the recording with native women and kids. When the Pancasila soldier rehearsed their fury before the assault, the minister disapproved of it. He noted that they looked too violent and non-attractive. However, he agreed that fury and fear were the right way to submit anyone. By this consent, the leader agreed that  the principles of his organization remained unchanged since 1964-65. After shooting the scene, Anwar saw distracted and crying faces of women and kids. He put the question about their future and had no answer. He suggested that they could only hate and curse the raiders. He seemed to be sympathetic with their tragedy, but the doubt only started entering his consciousness.

While recording the scene, one of the crime partners of Anwar Congo told members of the shooting group about his experience of the real riot in the village. He witnessed the rape of young girls, especially he liked those of fourteen-year olds. Then, they killed and burned them. All those facts he revealed jokingly as a pleasant memory of his youth without any hint of repentance (Oppenheimer, 2012, 2:41:11).

The special achievement of Joshua Oppenheimer consists in detecting and recording stories of true people about the real deed of that bloody past. One more scene that Anwar paid no attention to, but that was recorded by Joshua was the story of a man about his step father. At night, a group of raiders came to their house and they found the body of the man the next day under the bowel in the yard. Anwar told that it was a minor insignificant episode, one of the thousand, and it was not worth attention. The man himself agreed that his stepfather was evil by joining the communist party and the only right way was to kill his step father, but at the same time it was a story of a living creature who worked, developed, lived, and whose human right for life was indisputably violated.

The conflict of the film shows itself in the antagonism between the imagined and real truth. The producer includes the elements of a talk show where Anwar is a welcome guest who openly admits killing of more than a thousand communists. The bright and happy studio of a popular talk show announces and broadcasts that murder of human beings is a norm because “The God is against communists” (Oppenheimer, 2012,1:48:08 ). While the auditorium applauses the man, Joshua Oppenheimer shows the dialogue of operators behind the screen, whispering the words of disapproval. However, the scope of silent fear and common non-critical approval of the official vision of the good and the evil becomes evident.

Climax shows itself in the comment of the repeated episode where Anwar dances with girls near the waterfall and ghosts of communists come to thank him and praise him with a medal for their salvation achieved by killing and sending them to the heavens. Joshua Oppenheimer records the reaction of the former executor who says that he is very proud of himself and that the film is the greatest invention of his life. Then, he asks to show again the scene where he is strangled with a wire himself. He says that he could feel the same as people he was killing. However, Joshua objects that those people felt far worse than Anwar because they knew they were sentenced to death.

The resolution is in the catharsis of the Anwar’s vision and attitude to killing. He deliberately goes to the place of his executions and the painful convulsion of his body revealed in vomiting shows the psychosomatic reaction of suffering and repentance. He seems to be feeling the depth of the sufferings he had caused for the first time in his life and he is grateful to Joshua.

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Components of Cinematography

The producer of the film applies a simple camera recording of the life process. In his work, he focuses on the transformation of the killers’ feelings and their attitude to committed crimes, i.e. the change in the perception. Engagement of real people instead of actors and the non-judgmental attitude to their experience have given Joshua Oppenheimer access to a sincere and genuine opinion of those who came to power through killing. Adi Zulkadry claims that winners write history and are not subject to any condemnation. They are strong enough to turn history to their advantage. The current official of Indonesia says that neither human rights court in The Hague nor any other court will make him change his opinion (Oppenheimer, 2012, 1:10: 08).

When Anwar complains of nightmares, his friend states the necessity of visiting a psychoanalyst. Adi Zulkadry leads a happy family life and Joshua Oppenheimer shows scenes of luxurious time passing, staying in expensive hotels, and visiting fashionable boutiques with his daughter and wife. Such elements silently add to the impression that the man has no doubts about his past crimes. He feels respected and protected in the country where so many families have suffered from his cruel hand.

Camera movements are scare and it mainly remains static. The author does not resort to special types of cuts or other special effects. The camera sometimes appears in the shot when there is the completion of the scene by Anwar and his team. The producer focuses more on the content and moments of real facts revelations. All the sounds are real and the music appears only in the scenes with the dancing girls near the waterfall. Joshua Oppenheimer interviews Anwar throughout the film. He records the old man’s comments after the scenes he had shot and consequently reveals the transformation of the gangster’s vision. He asks about the meaning of karma for the old man and logically shows the reason of his nightmares.

The scenes of tortures shot by the Anwar’s team are made in the tradition of old gangster films with lots of artificial make up and violence episodes. They have the context of the fear benefit in the defense of personal and national interests. However, the scene where Anwar is strangled himself makes him stop and doubt the rightness of his convictions.


The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer and his group is an unusual example of catharsis through cinematography. By shooting scenes of violence, uneducated, cruel, and senseless Anwar Congo starts feeling guilty, maybe, for the first time in his life. The film shows that the stories of human cruelty, injustice, and genocide do not necessarily end with the justified punishment of abusers. Many of them enter official political circles and continue their fearless and free life, enjoying all the benefits of the civilized world.  At the same time, democracy is just a word without the acceptance and protection of every citizen’s rights. The film shows the outcomes of a non-critical and blind following of the national propaganda and the possibility of a simple producer to change the vision of a great number of people and help them in saying “No” to the regime. It teaches that the truth is not on the surface, but between the lines.