Documentary Analysis: Joshua Oppenheimer & Anonymous’ The Act of Killing (2012)

Spoiler Alert (For Real Life)

This is not a review, but a spoiler-filled discussion of Joshua Oppenheimer and Anonymous‘ (no relation to Occupy Wall Street I’m sure) 2012 documentary feature The Act of Killing. If you haven’t seen this documentary I suggest you watch it first before reading this, to fully appreciate it and be able to weigh-in with your take on it and your ideas. If you don’t care about spoilers or have seen the film: Read on, leave a comment and thank you. 

Introduction: A Little Back Story
Directly lifted from the film:

In 1965, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military.
Anybody opposed to the military dictatorship could be accused of being a communist: union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and the ethnic Chinese.
In less than a year, and with the direct aid of western governments, over one million “communists” were murdered.
The army used paramilitaries and gangsters to carry out the killings. These men have been in power – and have prosecuted their opponents – ever since.
When we met the killers they proudly told us stories about what they did. To understand why, we asked them to create scenes of the killings in whatever ways they wished. This film follows that process, and documents its consequences.

In this essay I will mainly focus on three aspects of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. Firstly, I will explain how this documentary uses film to not merely comment on filmmaking, but also as a tool to get insights on human nature. Secondly, I will try to dissect and understand how this documentary portrays the people involved in the killings and quite possibly humanity in general. Lastly, I will discuss the documentary’s artistic and historical merits and what I thought of it purely from a filmmaking point of view.

Much More Than Just a Film About Film
One of the most fascinating things for any film lover are movies about movies. Cinema is easily the most self-referential of all the art forms. From Federico Fellini’s 8½ to David Lynch’s Inland Empire, there have been many films commenting on the art of filmmaking itself. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing takes it a step further, by adding the documentary dimension to it. Not that he is the first to make a documentary about film, but it is quite interesting to see how many layers there are to film in this film.

The most effective way to show this is a list, so I will list all the different way in which film is used and discussed as much more than a storytelling technique. First we’re going to see how the gangsters used and view films. Next we’re going to analyze how the filmmakers perceive and employ it and lastly we’ll be attempting to establish if there are common grounds, to see where both can come together or in other words: Where gangsters and documentarians have the same view of film.

The Gangster’s Point of View: 

  • Film to help you forget. The gangsters in The Act of Killing mention how they used movies as escapism, the most basic and intrinsic function of cinema, probably why it’s still so successful today. The killers used to go to the cinema to see “happy” movies. To get their minds off of the horrible things they had done and it worked for a moment.
  • Film as a tool for the government. Indonesian youths were indoctrinated to believe that communists were a threat and evil and had to be killed. To do so violent propaganda films were shown to kids, who after repeat viewings started to believe the lies those fictional stories told.
  • Film as a justification. Anwar Congo, one of the original executioners, explicitly mentions the propaganda films as something that help him feel better and feel justified, in a way. So the films here serve to help an ex-post rationalization process and put the killer’s conscience at ease, to hopefully heal.
  • Film as inspiration. Some of the gangsters mention how they quite literally imitated American gangster films (life imitates art). More than that, it is implied that many also aspired to the Western lifestyle, the money and the clothes.
  • Film as a source of income. Coincidentally, the gangsters exploited cinema to make money. They bought tickets to sold out showings and sold them at higher prices (illegally of course).

The Filmmakers Point of View:

  • Films as a device get them talking. Since both gangsters and filmmakers (obviously) share a passion for cinema, what better device to get to know them, establish a connection and building a relationship? A lot of the times while watching this documentary I had the impression that if they weren’t trying to make a movie or involved in this project the gangsters wouldn’t have talked so freely or been so open.
  • Film as a mirror. This is a psychological “trick”. When we see someone smiling, we are automatically inclined to smile back. It’s called mirroring effect. In this film the gangsters are mirroring the horrible acts they have committed, by way of role-playing, putting themselves in the victim’s shoes. This helps them remember what they did and even feel some of the same emotions as their victims.
  • Films to get to the truth. A documentarian’s chief aim should be to portray reality in the most objective way possible. Here this is achieved by talking to the people who were involved in the killings first hand and going with them on the locations where the killings took place and making them reenact the horrible things they did.

Where Gangsters and Documentarians Come Together (In Their Own Ways):

  • Films as idealized versions of the world and the self. Movies are dream worlds, idealized versions of reality. Both gangsters and filmmakers are aware of this and both use it to give off a certain image of themselves.
  • Film as art. It may sound surprising, but even a man who has killed 1,000 people may have some artistic sensibility. It was fascinating to see how both the filmmakers and the gangsters wanted to create a film with artistic merits and an interesting aesthetic.
  • Films to remember history. Both want to show the world their version of the truth. The gangsters realize that they’re the bad guys, but somehow they want to still be remembered and thought of as the good guys, that did what they had to do. It breaks my heart that it took this documentary for me to hear about this atrocity. I guess that if it’s a part of the world we (“Westerners”) don’t care about it ends up forgotten. Though these crimes are just as inexcusable as the holocaust.
  • Film as therapy. I don’t know how willingly the filmmakers thought of this or even considered it, but it is clear that for some of the gangsters the shooting of the film serves as therapy. A way to exorcise their own personal demons. It is interesting to note here that director Joshua Oppenheimer’s family were victims of the holocaust, so I’m sure that the subject is something that touches him personally as well and that he is trying to understand human nature, just like Claude Lanzmann in Shoah (1985).
  • Film as redemption. In one scene Congo says that he can feel what the victims felt. In a way he wants the filmmakers to believe that he has now redeemed himself, I think. What about the filmmakers though? If film is partly responsible for the killings (with the propaganda film), this documentary right here, could be seen as a way to make things right. I know that sounds weird, but look at all the films condemning smoking today: I often feel that it’s as if they’re trying to apologize for all the golden age pictures that made cigarettes look cool.

To summarize things briefly: Film is used and commented on in a variety of different ways. It’s incredible for me to see how the same medium can be viewed and exploited for some many different purposes. Just like human nature it is never just black or white and that’s what the next chapter is a about, by the way.

A Realist and Unbiased View of Humanity
Usually, I check out documentaries based on whether I’m interested in the subject or not, or if it’s Werner Herzog. In this case I had heard great things about The Act of Killing, but I felt that the subject matter didn’t really spoke to me. Then I heard Herzog (executive producer, by the way) talk about it and so I was more keen on checking it out. Why do I bring up Herzog? I am a big fan of how he portrays people in his documentaries, they’re very entertaining and his warm voice (and German accent) are a pleasure to listen to.

However I often also think that he has some preconceived notions about human nature. He seems to think that everyone’s crazy and he might be right. What I loved about this documentary though, is that it the filmmakers go in with seemingly no expectations of what the end results might be. Yes, they want to find out how an atrocity like killing millions of people can even happen, but they don’t seem biased in any way, surprisingly. It’s quite rare to see such an attitude in a filmmaker and it’s definitely honorable and worth praising in a documentarian.

What Oppenheimer and his crew discover is that these gangsters consider themselves free men. This phrase is repeated throughout the film, and even the song the gangsters choose for their end sequence is Born Free by John Barry. Freedom certainly is the keyword in many Western democracies, but what cost are we willing to pay to be “free”? The executioners make up a number of excuses to make themselves feel better about what they did, but in the end most of them will admit that what they did was wrong. Some don’t admit it on camera (or are still in denial), but most of them have guilt written all over their faces.

More than anything else, what this film teaches us is that human nature is the same everywhere and during any historical period. Nazi Germany, the killing of the American Indians, the Iraq war: Humans don’t seem to ever learn. “We learn from history, that we don’t learn from history”. Some of the killers don’t seem to have learned anything from participating in this film. Is it pride? Is it fear? I don’t know. People will find the most absurd excuses to make themselves feel better. Just blame it on someone else.

Another key insight of the film is how corruption is everywhere, especially in the government. I’m not talking specifically Indonesia here, being Italian a lot of things could be easily said for my country (and possibly any country in the world). Some of the corruption is actually shown on-screen, as it unfolds and the gangsters go collect money in exchange for protection (the so-called pizzo in mafia terms). I was stunned by that scene, but also how the government in still protecting the paramilitary organizations that committed those horrible crimes.

I was especially floored by some of the statements by Pancasilla Youth Leader, Yapto Soerjosoemarno. It was quite jarring how they effortlessly relativized morality and moral standards, but only that but the Geneva Convention itself. These people know they’ve committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, but some of them are even proud about it and love the attention. Don’t they have a conscience? And here’s where the film really gets intriguing, because as horrible these people might be most of them can still be sympathetic.

These people have done terrible deeds, but when you see them brush their teeth, talk to their daughters, go shopping, play with their grandchildren, talk about wearing Christian Dior cologne or picking out hats for costumes to wear in the film, they become human. You forget everything else. They are people after all. They have feelings, they might have had different lives once, a long time ago. It’s precisely here that lies the documentary’s greatness, in showing the complexity of the human soul.

There’s always different layers and facets to people, you can’t boil them down to one or two characteristics. These people can be funny, critical, sentimental and romantic, happy, sad, brutal, sweet, regretful, hopeful, digesting and vulgar, excited, artsy, honest, lying, idealistic, realistic, loud, quiet… Basically, at the end of the day they’re just humans and in all of us there’s good and bad. It’s a constant struggle, sometimes the evil side may win, but I think that it’s all important on how you go out. If you can make amends and make peace with your past. Some people do, others don’t.

To summarize this chapter briefly: We’ve seen how people are the same everywhere, regardless of country or historical time period. We all have same needs and wants and we all do what it takes in order to get them satisfied. In the next chapter we’ll observe the film from a filmmaking standpoint and see on what note the filmmakers decide to go out on.

The Act of Killing From a Filmmaking Standpoint
Now for a little more lighthearted topic, let’s see how the film performed from a purely artistic point of view. First of all I’d like to mention some of the beautiful shots and colors that are clearly meant to contrast the dirty streets where these people live in. I’m also a big fan of the hand-held camera shots, I think they work perfectly here to get you right in the middle of the action and create sort of a more immersive experience. The way the scenes are edited make the story flow at a decent pace, so that even with a runtime of 160 minutes the film is never boring.

Like master Herzog, Oppenheimer (and his anonymous co-director) make great use of silence. When an interviewee isn’t saying anything they just keep the camera rolling and pointed at his face. Especially towards the end the silence speaks volumes and says things that couldn’t be put into words or would ruin the scene. The filmmakers cleverly choose to go out on a note that makes them look as if they “moved” something in the hearts of these executioners, namely focussing on Anwar Congo. The scenes where he (almost) pukes at the end are definitely some powerful filmmaking.

What I think the documentary could have done better is to create a connection to the killings and the current situation of the country. How is the story being told relevant today? I mean of course it’s relevant, because of all the reasons I’ve mentioned before, but how will this affect the future of the country? What could be possible implications? I think the film could have been a little bit more timely, I guess is what I’m saying

Did they do it all to copy our lifestyle? Is our pop-culture partly responsible in motivating (or inspiring) those killings (even if implicitly)? Is globalization to blame? The filmmakers never answer these questions and don’t even seem to call much attention to them, but it’s all there if you look closely enough, and it’s continuous throughout the film. I am not big on this explanation, because it seems like an over-simplification, but of course it’s a valid argument. I just don’t like how they sneak it in, almost subconsciously, which is almost just as bad as being all preachy about it.

Like in Shoah Let’s end on a high note however. I love how this film loves movies. In one scene it looks like Herman Koto (Gangster and Paramilitary Leader) is wearing make up reminiscent of Divine, one of John Waters’ favorite actresses. There’s also a lot of symbolism going on, which I’m sure was lost on me (Hey, I can’t cover everything here).

To summarize briefly: An excellent documentary, both as a work of art and as a historical document; not a flawless one certainly, but then again what movie is? Next up: Conclusions, we’re going to wrap this up.

Even if it’s hard to watch sometimes, The Act of Killing is an extremely important reminder to how terrible mankind can be. At the same time the film is also able to show how complex and multi-faceted a human being is. By using film as a storytelling device and tool to get its interviewees talking, the filmmakers are able to come one step closer to the truth and what lies at the core of the human soul. Some scenes are incredibly powerful and will remain indelible in the mind of the viewer, hopefully.

Though history keeps repeating itself, I, like the filmmakers, believe that it’s worth trying to remember the horrors of the past and try to learn from it. If nothing else, I hope that a film like this will be seen by the families of the victims. Making peace with the past and acceptance is what it’s all about in the end. The film itself is also a beautiful artistic statement and a brilliant piece of art that stands on its own, regardless of its political and social message.

That is all my friends. I hope this essay didn’t depress you too much.
From the university library (where I should be studying instead of writing this):
I am your Professor Davide Perretta.
Signing off – Goodbye!


  1. literaryvittles

    Fantastic review! Splitting it into 3 parts was very helpful. I haven’t seen the documentary, and to be honest I don’t really want to watch it, but if it manages to portray human nature as complexly as you’ve described here, then I might have to give it a go. Good luck studying!

    • davideperretta

      Thanks 😀 I wasn’t very interested in it myself, but then like I said when you have Herzog attached to your film, you have my attention.
      I’m always surprised how my lengthy essays are the most read. I always think people prefer short reviews, but these essays are the most popular articles on my blog.
      Thank you for your feedback I really appreciate it!

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