The Act of Killing

I was wary of The Act of Killing. The documentary investigates a group of men who, in the late 1960s, killed thousands of men, women, and children in Indonesia during an anti-communist purge that doubled as a full military coup. The military won and has remained in power to this day. These men, all self-proclaimed gangsters and paramilitary leaders, are regarded as heroes in their country, and they talk about their killing spree openly. In The Act of Killing, they even reenact and mythologize* it.

On first glance, people boastful of atrocity seem odd. As director Joshua Oppenheimer states in a letter written to audiences, “Perpetrators in film normally deny their atrocities (or else apologize for them), because by the time filmmakers reach them, they have been removed from power and their actions have been condemned. Here, I was filming perpetrators of genocide who won, who built a regime of terror founded on the celebration of genocide, and who remain in power. They have not been forced to admit what they did was wrong.”

There is some truth in that. The shock of The Act of Killing is in the graphic openness with which these men discuss the ways they killed, raped, and extorted (and still extort) the weaker members of Indonesian society. The Act of Killing is primarily explicit anecdotally – the men talk about what they did. This lessens the affect of the acts somewhat, but the film’s focus on telling also makes their pride all the more striking. The telling is the point. This film attempts to expose the ways we glorify societally in mass murder “for the common good.”

We are not supposed to despise Anwar Congo and the other gangsters interviewed in the film. We are supposed to identify with them, to see ourselves in them, to reflect on all the ways we too glory in genocide. We are not meant to hate them. We are meant to empathize with them. As Oppenheimer states, “In The Act of Killing, I ask you to see a part of yourself in Anwar, a man who has killed perhaps 1,000 people… The moment you identify, however fleetingly, with Anwar, you will feel, viscerally, that the world is not divided into good guys and bad guys—and, more troublingly, that we are all much closer to perpetrators than we like to believe.”

The real horror of the film isn’t that these men did such terrible things. It’s that they genuinely justify those acts and that we do the same thing all the time. Every group of people in power on the planet is in power because at some point in the past they dominated and decimated another group. We institute holidays and host parades to commemorate these acts.

But that’s not all we do. Occasionally, people still in power are convicted of their past sins, are truly apologetic, and seek to make restitution. It is a messy process. The cords of sin are difficult to untangle, but there is evidence that the Spirit of Redemption is more at work in the world than the spirit of destruction.

Oppenheimer also believes that the celebration of killing itself is evidence of humanity. He writes, “Because [the gangsters] don’t believe their own justification, they become more strident, and justification slips into desperate celebration; not because they lack humanity, but rather because they know what they did was wrong. The celebration of mass murder may then be a sign of humanity. That’s probably the central paradox in The Act of Killing.”

The gangsters celebrate to drown out their guilt. The furor of their celebration discloses their disbelief in its appropriateness.

I don’t necessarily believe that is true. The gangsters, at least early in the film, seem to truly believe the murders were justified. Their celebrations are genuine.

I do believe that once they begin to reenact them though, they are confronted with the terribleness of what they have done. Reenacting the killings confronts them with their sin and sparks conviction. At that point, they make a choice between covering up what they did (as some of the paramilitary leaders do) or sitting with it and beginning to empathize with their victims (as Anwar does).

To Oppenheimer’s great credit, he treats these mass murders kindly. His kindness makes room for gentle conviction, which makes true repentance possible. Christians who wrestle with how to treat those among us “living in sin” could learn a lot from his process. He is always kind. Conviction and repentance, agents of a reality greater than the one we easily see, are eager to do their work. Love prepares the way for all good things.

The Act of Killing is a difficult film to watch. It confronts us with great evil and asks us to see it also at work in ourselves. That, and that it does this skillfully, would be enough to earn my recommendation. That it also goes a step further and challenges me to love these sinners with a patient, kind, transformative love, also earns my respect. If you are willing to watch it and reflect on it, it is worth your time.

*At the showing I attended, I had the great fortuitous pleasure to sit near Dr. Roger Paget, a scholar who has studied Indonesian culture for over 60 years. He was there at both the 1945 and 1965 revolutions. He was the personal translator for President Sukarno. He has continued to live and work in Indonesia ever since.

He explained to me that oral storytelling and heavily stylized, dramatic presentations are commonplace in Indonesian society. Men frequently play women and vice versa, and historical events are given mythological scope. He also graciously provided me with much needed historical context for this film. I encourage you to read up on Indonesian history (particularly the time of the anti-communist revolution in the 1960s) before seeing The Act of Killing.