The student-led movement to end mass atrocities.

On “The Act of Killing”

The Act of Killing

Danny Hirschel-Burns is STAND’s Policy Coordinator. He is currently a senior at Swarthmore College studying Peace and Conflict Studies and spent the past summer interning for The Sentinel Project. To learn more about The Act of Killing visit here. You can contact Danny at

I saw Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing over this last summer. The documentary follows several men that participated in the Indonesian mass killings of suspected communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals following an attempted coup in 1965. Like Jean Hetzfeld’s Machete Season, Oppenheimer’s film provides an intimate portrait of mass killers. Slate’s Dana Stevens describes the result:

The Act of Killing is among the most profound, formally complex, and emotionally overpowering documentaries I’ve ever seen. It’s also, by turns and sometimes at once, luridly seductive and darkly comic and physically revolting—a movie that makes you want to laugh and cry and retch and run out of the theater, both to escape the awful things the film is showing you and to tell everyone you know that they need to see it, too.

Unlike many other portrayals of mass killing, the film does not show any footage of the massacres or speak to victims. Rather it allows the perpetrators to act out the atrocities 45 years later in whatever film genre they wish, creating a disturbing yet meaningful detachment from the actual atrocities. The killers, instead of bloodthirsty monsters, are often immature and pathetic. Sure, they praise and rationalize their own actions, but they are not beyond showing unease at the past. Instead of reviewing the film, I’d like to focus on a couple of key issues that are relevant for studying violence and politics.

Oppenheimer’s documentary does little to provide context, and everything has to be gleaned from prior viewer knowledge or tangential remarks by the film’s subjects and therefore there are some truly puzzling parts of the killers’ stories. The three main characters, Anwar, Herman, and Adi were once petty gangsters that made their livings scalping movie tickets. However, communists banned American films, seriously reducing their income. This seems to have been the first step on the path to becoming mass killers. Interpersonal conflicts also seem to have played a role. Adi, for example, tells Anwar how he stabbed his girlfriend’s hated father because he was Chinese.

Beyond these petty economic and personal motivations, a fairly basic ideology also is used by the killers to rationalize their actions. All of the characters share an aversion to communists (and ethnic Chinese to a lesser degree), but it’s unclear why. No one ever gets past the surface-level “Communists were a threat to the nation.” Why were they a threat to the nation? It’s doubtful the subjects could answer the question. In fact, a character begins to describe the communists’ actions, but is interrupted by another for painting Communists in too good a light. There’s no “well, think about all the terrible things the Communists did” or “well, the Communists wanted to kill us.” It’s simply left at describing the Communists positively is wrong. In the context of the movie, the most convincing explanation would seem to be the subjects’ desire to demonstrate their masculinity and power.

Because the film doesn’t examine the structural factors involved in initiating the mass killings, it’s impossible to draw a firm conclusion on the killers’ motivations from the movie alone. Deeper societal cleavages likely played a role in elevating the subjects into the role of mass murderers, and so personal grievances, a flimsy ideology, and psychological essentialization don’t explain the events in full. Even without a complete understanding, mass atrocity scholars (including myself; I’m trying to answer this question in my undergraduate thesis) can draw an important, if anecdotal, lesson from The Act of Killing. As Christopher Browning concluded in Ordinary Men, in violent and chaotic settings, ordinary individuals experiencing fairly weak influences pulling them toward violence can in fact commit genocide.

The remembrance and celebration of violence is a central theme in the film, but it comes across as quite foreign to Western audiences. In the US, we celebrate violence regularly. Soldiers are presented as national heroes for undergoing hardship and danger to protect the rest of the nation. The killing itself escapes the public lens. Drone operators, for example, aren’t heroes to the American public because they themselves were never in danger. The film’s portrayal of Indonesia paints a very different picture. Anwar and his fellow executioners are indeed public heroes. When interviewed on public television, the host praises Anwar and Herman for developing more humane way to eliminate Communists. Anwar and his cronies weren’t in danger themselves, but they nonetheless are the subjects of public adoration without having to hide the exact nature of their past actions.

On a similar theme, the film reflects very poorly on the current state of Indonesian politics. Politicians are both publicly and privately supportive of mass murderers and their ideological inheritors, in this case the paramilitary organization Pancasila. The film includes a speech by Indonesian Vice President Yusuf Kalla at a Pancasila rally in which he says the country needs more “gangsters” (which is consistently and bizarrely translated proudly as “free men” by Anwar and the other executioners) to “get things done.” The film also includes numerous examples of political corruption. Herman runs for office, but rather than examine how he’ll do the job, he ponders how much money he can make through bribery and threats. Along the campaign trail, citizens care little about his platform and instead ask if he comes bearing “gifts”. The film also portrays some good-ol’ extortion of Chinese businessman by the former mass murderers. Oppenheimer implies that these actions are taken with the full knowledge and cooperation of big time politicians. All of these examples point to the existence of a mafia state in Indonesia, where murderers, gangsters, and other unsavory characters collude with the highest levels of power to enrich themselves without worrying about public accountability.

The film is an unsettling masterpiece with veteran filmmaker Werner Herzog saying, “I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade… it is unprecedented in the history of cinema.” Along the way, it presents several insights on the nature of mass atrocities, and I highly recommend The Act of Killing.


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