The Act of Killing

New documentary throws down a gauntlet to a tired genre.

Chris Hale | Published in

A scene from The Act of KillingThe Act of Killing is the most compelling account of mass murder since Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.

Imagine that former members of the German Einzatzgruppe murder squads offered to re-enact on camera the methods used to murder hundreds of thousands of Jews in the occupied Soviet Union after June, 1941. This counterfactual speculation brings out what is so remarkable about The Act of Killing, its punning title referring to both killing itself and its ‘acting out’.

It deals with the events that engulfed Indonesia in 1965, when the country’s first president, Sukarno, was overthrown by the right-wing General Suharto. In the aftermath of the coup government-sponsored paramilitaries murdered at least half a million Indonesians: union members, Communists and ethnic Chinese, a slaughter carried out with the connivance of US and British intelligence agencies. Oppenheimer’s documentary is not a simple record of Indonesia’s time of darkness. Instead of the usual talking heads and archive clips we experience a sequence of emotionally battering scenes as the notorious death squad leaders Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry boast about and then re-enact the killings they perpetrated in 1965-66. 

Oppenheimer completely eschews archive film, stills and voiceover narration. History is remade on the screen. It is not a comfortable experience.

Chris Hale is a filmmaker based in Singapore.

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