September 18th, 2019


The Act of Killing ***1/2

Nominated for Best Documentary



Very few Americans get away with murder.


The vast majority of killers are promptly arrested and serve time. The handful who are not caught probably can’t rest easy. They have to spend the rest of their lives sleeping with one eye open, fearful that the blond lady from “Cold Case” is tracking them down.


So what does it feel like to kill people and get off completely scot free? Brave documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer travelled to Indonesia to find out.


In 1965, a military coup swept a new regime into power. Indonesia’s new leadership viewed Communists as a mortal threat to their government. So they killed them all.


The government couldn’t identify every single Communist in the vast island nation. So Jakarta enlisted the aid of paramilitary groups and gangsters to help with the slaughter. Nobody knows how many 100,000s of people were killed in that one terrible year, but by the end there were virtually no Communists left in Indonesia. Most Chinese immigrants, left-wingers, and intellectuals were eliminated, too.


Unfortunately, plenty of countries had periods of political and ethnic cleansing during the 20th Century. The difference with Indonesia is that the country and the perpetrators are basically proud of what they’ve done.


“The Act of Killing” introduces us to a few of the self-proclaimed gangsters who took part in the 1965 purge. To them, Gangster is a proud profession. They define Gangster as “free man” – a person who is above the law. A person who does what needs to be done for the country when the government can’t.


One of the 1965 killers that Oppenheimer interviews is blissfully unaffected by guilt. His family leads a normal, upper-class life and he has a thoughtful defense for every accusation Oppenheimer throws at him.


When told that the Geneva Convention considers his actions war crimes, the gangster quickly fires back: “definitions of war crimes change. And what right do westerners have to define the rules for Indonesia?”


The real star of the movie is Anwar Congo: an unusually energetic and jovial mass murderer. He takes us to the roof where he did most of his killing and shows us the methods that he developed to kill most efficiently without spilling too much messy blood. He is beaming with pride about his accomplishments.


However, Congo also admits that he doesn’t sleep very well at night. He regularly has nightmares in which he is haunted by the ghosts of the men he killed.


It sounds pretty depressing. But “The Act of Killing” becomes an interesting and unique documentary when Joshua Oppenheimer gives the Indonesian gangsters a professional video camera and a small budget and urges them to write and produce a movie: a Hollywood-style movie about their 1965 killing spree.


The gangsters are all film-buffs, and they are delighted to participate. The results are macabre, upsetting, and weird. And also really funny if you have a dark sense of humor like me.


“The Act of Killing” is a vivid reminder that morality, justice, and human decency are not universal concepts; they are cultural and situational and often ignored. Murder has been a popular vice since Cain and Abel, and it isn’t going away any time soon.

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