The Act of Killing – Indonesia’s Dark History

The Indonesian political climate has long been overshadowed by the corruption, threats and fear of the 1965 military coup as explore through Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2002 documentary ‘The Act of Killing’. The Oscar-nominated film follows death squad members, Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, in the present day as they relive their actions cinematically as anti-communist gangsters. In doing so, the director tried to show the ‘humanity’ of the killers and give insight into their somewhat misguided attempts at patriotism in 1965.

‘The Act of Killing’ Trailer

The Act of Killing, 2014.

Anwar Congo, a man who is sympathised in the film despite the fact he is ultimately a mass murder, is characterised by Oppenheimer as a soldier at war. He takes little responsibility for his actions during the coup, when an estimated 500,000 to 1 million “communists” were killed (Kwok, Y. 2015). To distance Anwar Congo from his actions, these victims are dehumanised in the film, and in his own consciousness, leading the killer to describe throwing bodies into the rivers “like parachutes” (Oppenheimer, J. 2002). He even goes so far as to claim “deep inside I was proud because I killed the communists” (Oppenheimer, J. 2002), highlighting his soldier mentality.

Oppenheimer also uses an unexpected mix of genres to create a disjunctive narrative form that keeps the audience unsettled. It “blurs the good vs evil narrative” of the film and of the lives these subjects are living (Bjerregaard, M. 2014). The director strives to create a sense of sympathy for the murderers who at this time in history were being “championed as national heroes” (Zelenko, M. 2015).  It is in this way that it becomes clear to the audience that there are two sides to this history and, while they were wildly mislead by their government during the military coup of 1965, Anwar Congo and his associates did not necessarily realise the full extent of their actions at the time. It is only towards the end of the film that these anti-heroes begin to feel some remorse stating that they are “sometimes haunted in their dreams” (Oppenheimer, J. 2002).

Joshua Oppenheimer, The Verge, 2015.

‘The Act of Killing’ was a highly controversial release and elicited mixed responses because, as described by Bob Mandello, Oppenheimer’s work was “a virtually unprecedented social document” (Zelenko, M. 2015). Personally, I align myself with one viewer who, when the film was released, expressed that “I hope Joshua goes all the way with this film… then the government of Indonesia may be forced to deal with human rights” (Bjerregaard, M. 2014). In addition, I think it is important that the country recognise their history in order for “younger generations [to] build a society with values far different” from the one expressed in the film (Bjerregaard, M. 2014).


The Act of Killing, 2014.




Bjerregaard, M. 2014, ‘What Indonesians really think about The Act of Killing’, The Guardian, March 6, viewed 15 February 2017, <;.

Kwok, Y. 2015, ‘The Memory of Savage Anticommunist Killings Still Haunts Indonesia, 50 Years On’, Time Magazine, September 30, viewed 15 February 2017, <;.

Oppenheimer, J. 2002, documentary, Final Cut for Real, Indonesia.

The Act of Killing. 2014, Film Poster, The Act of Killing, viewed 17 February 2017, <;.

Zelenko, M. 2015, ‘Talking to Joshua Oppenheimer about his devastating follow-up to The Act of Killing’, The Verge, July 15, viewed 15 February 2017, < >.

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